WE ARE – A Nation of Immigrants
Portraits and Essay by Joe Standart / Images Copyright Joe Standart
You may ask,what is Portrait of America? My answer is a simple one: It’s a celebration of my love for the beauty and dignity of those around me. Of the Common Man, of the grocer,or the editor,or the immigrant striving to be his best self. It’s love of a small town struggling to realize an elusive promise; of a pond glistening with the early morning rays of sunshine. Through photography,I have found a wonderful vehicle that allows me to do that personally;and now I have found that I can do that in a very public way and have a meaningful impact. I call the organization Portrait of America™ and produce my projects under that name.
I had always thought public art was a statue in a square. It certainly wasn’t photography. Photographs don’t do well in the rain. So when I set out taking my New London portraits 10 years ago, I wasn’t thinking about an extensive installation or how it might actually have an impact on a city, its people, or the region.
There is some debate about the American Dream. Is it a fantasy, a thing of the past, or alive and well? For many of us who grew up in America, we take our freedoms and opportunities for granted, and the American Dream remains in the textbooks. But for those who grew up in other cultures, the land of opportunity is still a strong beacon. For some it is the classic dream story: they left a land in turmoil with nothing and came to seek their fortune, or to provide for their kids’ education, or feed the family left behind. Others come who are well endowed with talent and feel they can better utilize their skills here. Others seek advanced degrees to accelerate their careers either here or back home. But one thing most of these immigrants share is that they do not take the opportunities offered through our constitution for granted. Their arrival seems to galvanize their drive to succeed in whatever path they choose, be it art, industry, the tech world, or the auto repair shop. This saga has been repeated again and again since the first immigrants arrived in America. Their industry and drive has been the engine that has propelled our country ahead, and it continues to do so. So while most immigrants don’t take our freedoms for granted, neither should we take their struggles and contributions for granted.
Given the fractured, anti-immigrant atmosphere of today, and given the generally open, supportive, and welcoming attitude in New London, I wanted to celebrate our democracy, our heritage, and our future with the public installation WE ARE – A Nation of Immigrants, whose 28 murals measuring up to 25 feet can now be seen on 16 different buildings on State and Bank Streets in New London. In the photographs I focus in on the eyes of my immigrant subjects. If in fact the eyes are the windows to the soul, I hope these extremely close-in portraits featuring eyes will encourage a reflective moment for the viewer. For dreams and hopes, loves, and disappointments are something we all share. They are part of our common human experience and dignity,and they are shared in the photos in this installation. But the vast disparities in life experiences, indigenous traditions, and cultural mores, are something we too often turn away from simply because they are unfamiliar or unknown. I hope the show will encourage people to embrace this difference-this otherness-and benefit from an expanded world view.
I discovered the power of Public Art totally by accident. After a successful 30 year career as an advertising photographer, I wanted a new challenge. So I started exploring ways of using photography to impact how people relate to their communities and themselves. I had come to know New London is a city with great promise, but with a poor self-attitude. I wondered what would happen if I took a dignified portrait of someone, how would that impact their self-view? If a corporate president can mold an image of himself through a portrait, wouldn’t the same apply to a parking attendant?
After taking hundreds of portraits of people I encountered on the streets of New London during the summer of 2005, I exhibited over 200 works back to the city on its walls, sidewalks, and gallery walls – some measuring 30 feet tall – as kind of a mirror to the city. The dignified portraits were how I saw the people, and they loved seeing themselves in that way. I was then able to answer the question,“Can art make a difference-can it change the way we relate to the world?” With a resounding “yes!” I am re-photographing many of the subjects of the 2006 New London Project for a 10 year anniversary celebration called Anniversary Portraits, opening at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum on September 9th.
This kind of artwork is layered like an onion. At the center is the artist with an idea. For the current WE ARE project the idea was to take an extreme close up of immigrants and link it to an issue. With the myriad of details involved, you need a team of passionate believers in your mission, willing to pitch in. I was very lucky to have a great team. Then there is the relationship with the subject, and the impact on the subject, his friends, or her family. Then you need supporters, the city, the mayor, the police commissioner – you do need permits. Venue owners have to consent, and you need a grant writer. It can be expensive. Support from the business community is key, for they are the unwitting beneficiaries. If you do everything right and people come to see the show, they will also buy something, and… ka-ching,!… you have just helped the economy of your city. On average, every out of town visitor spends $29.00 on gas, food, drink. 2,000 people came to my first opening; and that totals… well, you get the idea.
I am thrilled to see people debating the merits of my work…how it fits in or not, inspires or not. I have sponsored town hall style meetings and invited students to respond to some component of the project. I especially love to see strangers sharing ideas, because that is the foundation of our democracy – the free and open exchange of ideas. How do you feel about all this? A quiet city has become an up and coming arts center. It has a new identity, a reason to celebrate. Art makes a difference.
This brings me back to Badu from Sudan, the passionate auto mechanic, and Jaam from the Netherlands whose portrait of Nelson Mandela hangs in the UN, and the 38 other immigrants who so graciously consented to allow their portraits to be taken to be a part of WE ARE, A Nation of Immigrants. Their portraits would all be just abstract ideas without the in-the-trenches support of Alejandro Menendez Cooper, founder of the Hispanic Alliance of Southeastern Connecticut; Migdalia Salas of MS17 Art Project; Barbara Neff of Neff Productions; and the Lyman Allyn Art Museum. And I really must highlight the organization that backed the project with funds and support, City Center District, led by Charlotte Hennegan, whose unceasing drive to make the city better saw my project as another opportunity and went for it.
New London Project Anniversary Portraits opening event is:Sept. 9, 5:00PM, Lyman Allyn Art Museum