Originally published by The NY Times
After tackling controversial subjects like fracking and air pollution, Brian Cohen was looking for a similarly urgent project for his loose collective of photographers based in Pittsburgh. Given the intense debate over borders, walls and fear of outsiders, the topic was obvious: human migration. It was a prescient choice, as in 2018 alone, President Trump reportedly dismissed Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “s-hole” countries, while James Comey, the F.B.I. director he fired, took to Twitter to invoke the idealistic lines from Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” that grace the Statue of Liberty.
Mr. Cohen again enlisted the National Geographic photojournalist Lynn Johnson, and the photographers Annie O’Neill and Scott Goldsmith, along with a newcomer, Nate Guidry, to make a photographic series about some aspect of the immigration issue in Pittsburgh. The resulting images and interviews formed “Out of Many: Stories of Migration,” which was recently exhibited at the city’s American Jewish Museum and opened at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, in nearby Greensburg, on Jan. 20.
“We seem to hear the same echoes and accusations,” said Mr. Cohen, who is also an art historian. “The same name-calling and fear that we have of the stranger, of someone who’s coming with different traditions, different foods and different languages. I guess we’re hoping for this project to at least enable people to remember that they too, and their ancestors, came from somewhere else.”
Mr. Cohen was interested in the issue of migration — which he noted differs from immigration, given the history of slavery — not only because it was relevant, but also because he’s an immigrant from North London. The topic resonated with his team, which was concerned about the negative rhetoric that has developed in the wake of Brexit, and Trumpism.
Mr. Cohen’s contribution includes some sharp, well-composed cultural landscape photos, featuring buildings central to Pittsburgh’s various immigrant communities. Ms. Johnson photographed swearing-in ceremonies for newly minted American citizens in black and white, and then asked some if she could photograph them with their families in their homes, in color.
“A photograph can inspire someone to keep it in their consciousness, and realize the way you treat the person who is bagging your groceries, or who is your doctor, can impact people at every level, and that’s an essential choice: to treat everyone with dignity,” she said.
Mr. Goldsmith photographed newly-arrived Bhutanese immigrants at the airport; Mr. Guidry focused his attention on a Mexican single father raising two young girls; while Ms. O’Neill paired immigrants with something in common, recorded their conversations and then photographed them. She feels that a certain neighborliness, as well as an openness toward strangers, is common in Pittsburgh, which might account for the city’s large number of immigrant communities.
“It’s a beautiful city,” she said. “It’s a manageable city, and affordable. I have five of my neighbors’ keys. We have these great things called ‘Stoop Sits.’ You’re just walking down the street, and your neighbor will be sitting on their stoop, having a wine or soda. And next thing you know, there are five other neighbors joining you. It’s very spontaneous.”
The collective’s previous efforts have traveled out of the Pittsburgh area, and they hope this exhibition will too. In addition to the show, there is also an exhibition catalog in the works, and they’re developing an applike digital component as well, which will allow for audience participation.
Together, the members believe they can move the needle on the cultural dialogue, even if it’s only a little bit. Hatred and fear-mongering always rely on stereotyping and sweeping cultural generalizations, and Ms. Johnson, who studied hate crimes in graduate school, believes that only one-on-one interactions can force people to confront, and then transcend, their biases.
“You cannot move forward if you hold prejudice, and we all do, in your heart,” she said. “It will never change unless you meet someone to challenge it on an intimate, individual and personal level.”
During the course of her project, she met immigrants from Nepal, India, Russia, Iraq, Iran, China, Pakistan, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Biafra, Syria and Poland. It was such a powerful experience, she suggested President Trump could benefit from a similar encounter.
“He should come to the Westmoreland Museum and meet the people who will be standing there, looking at pictures of themselves, knowing what they gave up to be here,” Ms. Johnson said. “It makes you wonder whether he has ever stepped outside of his luxury, distorted bubble. It’s not possible to say that if you truly know people.”