How Did We Get Here? (Stories of Dignity)

At the end of 2018, I spent a night writing out my creative dreams for the upcoming year. As I look over those pages, I find phrases like “My heart is to listen,” but also “What does this look like?

I scribbled down ideas for how to use portrait photography in a way that is dignifying and uplifting to those pictured. All too often, I heard negative speech about immigrants in the United States.

I felt compelled not to speak for them, but to listen to them. 

My hope was to create a portrait series in which these quieted and maligned voices could be amplified and valued. I wanted to practice listening to others with open eyes and ears. I also wanted to teach others how to listen well and love people.

The stories of my international friends -- all of whom faced different struggles as they began a new life in a foreign country -- carry weight as I form my understanding of our world and country. They will be the first to tell you that America is not the key to happiness, though it does offer some freedoms that are denied in other countries. These friends help me see the world more clearly, and I wanted their voices to be heard and respected by our community. I have watched some of them endure agonizing waits to obtain a visa or citizenship, only to be denied.

Their stories were the beginning of the photo project, “How Did We Get Here?"

Because I believe God created all humans equally in his image, I also hold the conviction that no one is invaluable in his eyes, even the typically ignored and disenfranchised. We see Jesus speak directly to socially vulnerable people time and time again in the gospels. He sees them and honors their presence by acknowledging them and even going so far as to touch those who were considered “unclean.” God doesn’t judge us based on who we are, where we are from, or what we have to offer. I must match my value of humanity to his value.

My distaste for the hateful language used in reference to immigrants and their countries counts for nothing if I won’t actively pursue loving them like he loved.

This isn’t a new conviction, but I definitely felt a hypothetical “kick in the pants” last summer when I returned from a two-week trip to Zimbabwe with a myriad of questions.

Why do we denounce the stealing of land on some days and celebrate it on others?

How can one selectively decide who to help and who to ignore with a clear conscience? 

I had never dealt with issues of social justice regarding land ownership face-to-face, but the people I met on this short trip shook me out of my comfort. I realized that I had prioritized injustices against my own people, and had diminished the egregious injustices against indigenous people who were murdered on their own land, or forcibly removed and then blocked from returning.

(This is something with which I am still grappling as far as action goes, and searching out resources written by indigenous people for ways to sustainably support their communities.)

Immigration is so intertwined with our country’s history of ownership, both of land and people. It is arguably the most significant factor that formed the United States of America. And yet, when it doesn’t benefit the majority group, it is deemed illegal. This brought up several questions for me to explore.

The final prompting to pursue this project came as I listened to an episode from Krista Tippett’s “On Being” podcast. In it, artist Titus Kaphar and historian Annette Gordon-Reed discussed the true but often hidden histories of our country’s forefathers.

Kaphar shared that his paintings have been inspired by the fact that our first U.S. President, George Washington, made public statements against slavery, yet he owned slaves. Washington’s cheap words, acknowledging the evil of a system while still knowingly operating within it, revealed that he wasn’t willing to sacrifice the growth of our nation to stand for justice. Over the summer, as the humanitarian crisis at our southern border escalated with overcrowded detention centers, I knew I couldn’t simply acknowledge the wrongs done to my brown brothers and sisters being held in cages without also being motivated by love to aid in restoring their dignity.

So, What Did I Do?

A portrait can draw its viewer deep into a person’s lived experience. We can all likely think of a famous image or two that has transported us to another’s jarring reality. The joy or pain conveyed in a person’s expressions is a powerful thing; but words offer the unique power of telling one’s story with nuance and detail. I hoped that in recording these stories and capturing portraits, I could amplify their stories and honor the complexities of their experience.
I loved the creative process of soaking in people’s words and expressions, and then giving them something valuable in return.

The most difficult portion of presenting this series was audio editing and tech issues. I’m a photographer -- not an audio engineer -- and yet, with audio being a crucial part of the project, I had to figure it out quickly. I worked really hard to edit the stories into a concise and audible clip without lessening the authenticity of the storyteller’s cadence and personality. As a perfectionist, it was challenging and humbling; but I decided that I was willing to improve along the way, instead of waiting for everything to be perfect.
In my mind, the conversation at hand required this urgency. It makes every late night editing session worth it when I see and hear the responses of my friends as they take in their story. They have proudly shown their portraits amongst friends and family members, and that truly means the most to me.

I have had two opportunities to share portraits and immigration stories with the Knoxville community. The first art show was a small sampling of stories, but the next show featured a total of 14 stories that I have recorded thus far. For this most recent display, I was so grateful to be in a space with steady foot traffic.

As I hung the show, I couldn’t help but imagine downtown apartment dwellers and aimless travelers entering the hallway-turned-gallery space and finding themselves caught up in a conversation with voices from around the world. On the night of the show, I watched as the colorful portraits and written story transcripts beckoned many to pick up a pair of headphones and listen. One can’t help but be drawn to the faces of my friends, highlighted against a solid black backdrop.

There are no distractions around them -- no place or thing to which you might assign value. Instead, you must encounter this person solely through their shared story, their eyes and expression, and their voice. The room was filled with immeasurable joy and warmth, some tears, but most of all community. Those featured in the gallery enjoyed a night of local fame as onlookers recognized them and began to engage in conversation.

Many kind comments were made in response to the show, but the one that stuck with me most was from an elderly white woman.

She identified with the stories because her grandfather immigrated from Europe in the early 1900s. She knew his life hadn’t been easy, even in America. She connected through her own family’s history of immigration, but she also communicated her appreciation for learning about other experiences.

If we could all learn to value the experience of another as well as our own, imagine the respect and community that would be built! My hope is that as other people discover the series, they will also consider how they got to the United States.

Was it by choice or by force
Were their ancestors seeking opportunity or safety? 
What right can they claim to this land? 

The title “How Did We Get Here?” warrants a truly introspective look at our history. When honestly answered, it shows that most of us are immigrants living on stolen land. As we unearth the history that we often suppress, I hope we can move forward toward racial reconciliation and deeper connectedness as image bearers of God.

Portrait photography has a special power to instill confidence and affirm one’s God-given worth. It can change someone’s outlook from feeling ignored and unheard to being seen and known. My goal from the beginning was not only to educate others in listening well, but to uplift and dignify everyone who bravely shared their story. I will continue to pursue that goal no matter who I photograph.

Jalynn Baker
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