Their Eyes, Their Vision - "My Community: The World Through My Eyes" at the Art Museum of Western Virginia
A group of teenagers gathered around a table, gazing at a row of photographs. The teens weren't looking for the funniest photos of their friends or searching for images to decorate the walls of their rooms. Instead, they were deciding which of their photos would best portray the lives of refugee families living in the Roanoke Valley.
The photos were compiled for an exhibit that will open Saturday at the Art Museum of Western Virginia in Center in the Square. Called "My Community: The World Through My Eyes," the photography exhibit is the culmination of a project sponsored by Family Service of Roanoke Valley and Refugee and Immigration Services.
Twenty-eight teens spent a month documenting the lives of 13 refugee families.
"I liked hearing stories about who they are and where they came from," said Jean Hartman, a junior at Patrick Henry High School who photographed an Iranian family.
"These families really bring the world right to Roanoke," said Cheri Hartman, Jean's mother and director of youth development at Family Service. "They give teens a view of what life is like for them."
Hartman was one of 11 adult mentor for the project who accompanied teens into the homes of refugee families and eased communication between them. She worked with the Abrar family from Iran and the Caballero family from Cuba.
Though she admitted that she was a bit apprehensive about talking to the families and overcoming the language barrier, Hartman said she found everyone to be welcoming and appreciative that she was taking an interest in their lives.
"Everyone has amazing stories," she said, noting that the project gave teenagers a chance to interact with people with whom they might not normally associate.
The teens and families got to know one another through activities such as cooking and dancing or taking a trip to a playground or the Mill Mountain Star. The teens then brought cameras along to document various facets of the families' lives.
Laura Boutwell - a Family Service intern who also coordinates the agency's United With Youth leadership development program for adolescents - won a $4,000 mini-grant for the photography project from the International Rescue Committee in September. The IRC is a nonprofit organization which provides assistance to refugees.
Boutwell said she came up with an idea that involved refugee youth and creative expression because "I wanted to do something that allowed them to show us their vision."
Boutwell, 30, a graduate student at Radford University, said she hopes the photography project has allowed teens to connect with refugees while exposing them to different life perspectives.
Though the teens met with the families just a few times, Boutwell emphasized the importance of the teens establishing lasting relationships with the families and hopes the teens will continue to see family members on an informal basis.
"The pictures are great," she said, "but what we really wanted to develop are the relationships."
Molly Barnett, a senior at Cave Spring High School, said it would be difficult for her not to keep in touch with the people she met through the project. She worked with the Joffei family from Somalia and said she has already made plans to visit with the family again, possibly going to a movie or inviting them to her house.
Molly said connecting with a refugee family "takes someone who wants to be their friend." She said she has enjoyed the opportunity to meet other people while learning more about the refugee population in Roanoke.
Molly and the other teenagers discussed which photos to include in the exhibit during a Nov. 17 photo editing session.
"What do you think this photo says about the experience of these people?" asked Chris Nail, volunteer coordinator at the West End Center, who helped teenagers select photos.
Nail, 28, who studied photography and has a bachelor of fine arts degree from the College of Santa Fe, was able to give teens tips on how to approach their subjects and what to look for when choosing a photo.
"Essentially the kids are learning a new language," he said.
The teens also wrote narratives - which will accompany their photographs in the exhibit - about the experience of interacting with the families. The narratives will be in English, Boutwell said. She had planned for the display to include the families' native languages but will not be able to for space reasons.
"It was cool," Soima Caballero, a freshman at Patrick Henry High, said of her experience. "We had a great time."
Soima, who worked with the Berisa family from Albania, said she especially enjoyed watching the children dance and play the keyboard at a Nov. 16 meeting. She and project partner, Shaun Henderson, a first-year student at Virginia Western Community College, took turns photographing the family members.
"I believe everyone should have the chance to learn about another culture and see the way other people live," Henderson said.
Two other teens also photographed Caballero's family, who moved to Roanoke from Cuba almost two years ago.
After the photos have been on exhibit at the art museum, Boutwell has arranged for some of them to be in Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea shops in Southwest Roanoke County, Salem and Daleville. She also would like to display the photos in Roanoke area high schools.
"Laura has done a great job putting all this together," said Barbara Smith, regional director of Refugee and Immigration Services. "She's fantastic with the kids."
Smith said she is especially excited about the photography exhibit because the project has allowed teenagers to see and experience what life is like for people whose backgrounds are different from their own. They learned not only about photography, she said, but also how to communicate with and better understand others.
"It's especially important in a time of suspicion and distrust to point out the similarities among people," she said.
An opening reception for the "My Community: The World Through My Eyes" photography exhibit will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday in the Art Museum of Western Virginia, Center in the Square, downtown Roanoke. The exhibit will remain on display at the museum through Jan. 11, then will appear in other locations. The exhibit's finale will be at National Youth Service Day on April 17 in Roanoke. For more information, call 563-5316.