Katy Carlson describes her photos now on exhibit at Church of the Resurrection. See “Belongings” on display across from the first floor restrooms.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint the first time that I learned of the refugee crisis around the world. The summer of 2010 I began volunteering with a ‘Girls’ Club’ at an apartment community that is about 50% refugees. I had previously thought that only a few refugees from Sudan were resettled in the area by a group of do-gooder missionaries. That summer I began to learn that refugees come to from nearly every continent of the world and the US resettles around 80,000 every year. In Dupage County alone around 300 refugees are resettled every year. As I began to build more relationships with refugees I learned more about the organization that resettles them in the area, World Relief Dupage. The summer of 2012 I interviewed and was accepted to participate in their internship program as a medical caseworker intern. As an intern I learned about the process of resettlement as well as all of the medical ins and outs of refugee care. My day-to-day tasks generally included driving large groups of refugees to their initial health screenings, arranging for and providing transportation to follow-up appointments and helping them with registration, following up on positive TB tests and showing refugees how to fill prescriptions at the pharmacy. I also had the opportunity to pick up arriving refugees at the airport and provide initial home orientations. I was able to visit some of the ESL classes and provide nutrition information to refugees who are not accustomed to American food. Through all of these experiences I had the incredible opportunity to interact with and talk to refugees from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Burundi, Bhutan and Burma, to name a few. Many of them had very little English ability but I was still able to communicate with them through gestures and kindness. I tried to understand how daunting the experience of moving to a completely different culture was for these individuals. I made it my goal everyday to be a positive part of each refugee’s day in the hopes that I could brighten their view of America and their outlook for the future.
One of my most memorable experiences occurred on one of the first days at the internship. I picked up and drove a family from Iran to the community clinic to have their daughter’s TB skin test read. When we pulled up to their apartment their family of four walked down to the car. A mother, father, five-year-old Gita* and a baby girl. Gita held her dad’s hand while her mom carried the baby. In that moment I was struck by the importance of their family bond in the face of all the changes going on in their lives. I drove them to several other appointments in the following months and the amount of care they showed to each other in the midst of a brand new culture and health system astounded me. Later, as I was doing airport pickups, I realized how very little the refugees actually bring over to the US with them. Both times I asked the refugees if they had any bags we would need to get from the baggage claim. They looked at me confused and showed me that they were carrying all that they had. For those that were lucky enough to come with family members, or be reunited with them after arriving, this concept of family was nearly all that they had.
After my my internship ended I became interested in how I could stay connected with refugees while I was at school in Michigan. I did some research and discovered that over 400 refugees are resettled in the West Michigan area every year. Several organizations work directly with refugees in the Grand Rapids area. Additionally, two organizations in the area provide services and support to refugees after they have already been resettled. As a photographer I have had the desire to take family portraits for refugee families ever since I met Gita’s family. For this project I connected with one of the refugee resettlement organizations, Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, to provide family portraits to several families. To further convey my belief that family is one of the most valuable possessions that a refugee brings to their country of resettlement, I photographed the entirety of the possessions that these refugees bring with them. These possessions are laid out on the ground and photographed from above. The resulting exhibition is comprised of a series of photographs arranged in pairs. Each pair contains a photo of the family and a photo of their belongings. Each image is printed to 16” x 22.5” and framed with a 1” black frame.
Several photography series have inspired me in creating the concept for this project. In 2012 photographer Brian Sokol worked with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to create a series titled “The Most Important Thing” where he traveled to refugee camps in Syria and Sudan and photographed refugees with their most important object. Refugees held objects such as a diploma, an ax and a mobile phone. One person chose to pose with their wife however. Another inspiring photo series is that of Peter Menzel’s “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats” where he photographed average families in 30 places around the world with their groceries for a week. I liked how this series told more about the family than just what their faces looked like. Lastly, Jiang Jian’s series “Archives on Orphans” struck me when I ran across it last spring. In this series Jian exhibits full body photographs of Chinese orphan children juxtaposed next to a color photograph of their files. By showcasing them in this way each file is given a face to it and vice versa. The viewer recognizes that they are looking at both an individual and one of many.