Your first visual memory may be blurry. Early visual memories may be just a color, or a snatch of a decontextualized moment—the swelling of your first scraped knee, the folds of your mother’s skirt, or the patterns of bathroom tiles. For people who are starting life afresh in a new place, the process of collecting visual memory starts from a blank page, to be peopled by the scenes of one’s new surroundings, gathered with hunger and fear.
At Project Luz, a Queens-based arts and education program, immigrants have turned memory-making in a new land into an art form, literally. They walk through their neighborhoods with cameras, and train their lens on the scenes unfolding around them, they see the familiar with different eyes, and what was once unfamiliar, and eventually grew mundane, gets a fresh look.
The project, founded by Argentinian artist Sol Aramendi, isn’t pure art, nor straight journalism, nor just a hobby. It’s photography of the everyday, but it locates art in the lost spaces we take for granted. Participant Luisa Simbaña, originally from Ecuador, has been transported by her camera. Featured in a documentary by Dominique Lemoine, Luisa uses the lens, along with the skills she learned at Project Luz, to gain perspective on her environment but also to zoom in on details she might otherwise have missed in a city where images are so abundant, nothing sticks out.
Luisa recalls a question that intrigued her when she first encountered Sol: “Why are you always dreaming about going back and [you] don’t live in the present?” Does taking a photo of something let you live in the present, or does it allow you to capture the present for posterity? Or does it let us bring the past into the present?
Photography, as an artistic genre and a form of media production, is about as old as the country’s modern history of immigration. The early photographers of the immigrant experience approached migrants as curiosities and anthropological subjects, or occasionally, as miscreants and medical outcasts, to be imprisoned or quarantined. Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant who made a career out of documenting images of horrific poverty and deprivation in New York’s slums, captured a kind of immigrant that unnerved and shamed the bourgeois viewers, but the voyueristic angles and the granular scrutiny of the city’s “Other Half” also shed light on the humanity that still lurked in the darkest ghettoes and shadiest tenements. Despite the exploitative sentiment driving them, the images still grip us with a visceral magnetism.
But by the latter half of the twentieth century, immigrant communities were seizing the camera for themselves, whether as photojournalists for local ethnic press, or capturing the history of a social movement as it happened in real time. Cesar Garza’s photography provided an enduring chronicle of the Chicano movement and everyday life in the Mexican American communities that were growing toward a sharper political and cultural identity.
Corky Lee’s photographs of the Asian American movement of the 1970s put a similar spotlight on an immigrant community’s coming of age in postwar America, covering the rough and tumble of New York’s Chinatown, from the protests to the Spring Festival parade.
Such images, captured by an intimately familiar eye for a broader viewership, became a visual interpreter between two cultural idioms. The photographer helps splice communities together by showing that whatever scene they capture, however alien or foreign the subject, the very act of watching, of reading a face, can be an form of dialogue.
Today, photographers of immigrant diasporas are delving into more obscure corners of the migrant world: Joseph Rodriguez has examined Latino youth gangs and tobacco farmworkers. Pete Pin peers into the tense dynamics between generations of a Cambodian refugee family under one roof . And grassroots artistic initiatives like Project Luz are giving an even more unfiltered lens to immigrant communities by putting more eyes on the street with a mission.
“I had a vision that I wanted this project to be a nomadic social space for collaborative self expression and dialogical thinking for immigrants,” says Aramendi. The Project’s programs have ranged from technical workshops to a tent installation that operates as an urban camera obscura, designed as a community education space. By translating their stories into concrete art forms that they construct themselves, the participants become “social architects of a more equitable future for themselves.”
Simply by putting cameras in immigrants’ hands, the project has provided both technical skills and equipment to communities that typically have limited access to media resources. And they’re free to create visual narratives for themselves and for an outside world to which they’ve long been invisible.
The photography doesn’t seek necessarily to delve into politics or expose social hardship. New photographers like Luz might simply seek to situate themselves in the present. The camera anchors them in the setting where they’ve resettled. There’s a tree on a quiet street to which Luisa says “hello” when she passes by. There’s that skyline or neighborhood park that people walked past without noticing on their way to work; it becomes a landscape when ringed by the four corners of a hand-held camera, a visual idyll with its own unique depth of field.
On film, Luisa narrates her life before and after her artistic transition: before she barely ever noticed her surroundings, preoccupied with working all day and shuttling to and from work. These days, she’s stopped working and devoted her life to looking. Though she quit her job, somehow, she remarks, “I’m not starving. Now my dream isn’t to pursue money, but life.”
It seems like a luxury surely few working-class immigrants can afford. But while the life of a wandering artist seems an unimaginable prospect to many in this city, how many of us really ever stop to imagine what could be, if we just tried to create it?