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Photos by Buffalo's Refugee Community at the Historical Society

A photo by Mein Thein at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

The Bicultural Lens

Buffalo: Through Their Eyes is an exhibit of photos by and about current refugee newcomers to this city. The photographers came here from Thailand, Burma, Bhutan, and the Republic of Congo. The exhibit is at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

These are not spectacular photos. What one would more likely characterize as ordinary. But ordinary in a way that seems to warrant the reality of the depicted subject matter. That attests to the factuality of the glimpse we are privileged to be given into the lives of these ordinary but remarkable people. Who came here from halfway around the world, fleeing whatever troubles and oppression, to start a new life.

The ultimate subject matter is the hopes and aspirations of the subjects. Of those who made the decision to start over, for themselves, but more significantly, for their children. For the next generation.

Several of the photos depict children immersed in school homework. In one, a slightly anxious-looking mother sits by and watches over, to help, if possible, but probably more to encourage diligence on the part of her youngster (who looks pretty diligent in his own right, actually).

In another, two boys not much more than toddlers work intently on homework on numbers (specifically on telling time, a workbook page with columns and rows of clock faces filled in or to be filled in) and artwork (an outline drawing of an imposing-looking beast of uncertain type in what looks like a traditional, ritualistic Southeast Asian representational style—what you could imagine seeing in a relief sculpture on a Thai or Burmese temple—and a number of Spiderman drawings).

Several photos are of meal scenes, again often focused on the children, often helping themselves, not always daintily, to generous portions of white rice and sometimes a little meat or vegetables to go with it. Several photos depict food preparation, including by one of the men, on the job, at a Tim Horton’s.

Domestic food preparation, like domestic food consumption, is not on tables but on the floor—on carpets and throws—in accord with native-land protocols.

These are people between two worlds, consciously and unconsciously clinging to as much as possible of the old, while venturing bravely into the new.

Several of the photos are basically portraits, some posed, some candid, many featuring exotic native-land dress, occasionally in combination with jeans.

Some of the portraits are superb. One of an African-American man and likely his young daughter, against a plain brick wall background, she squinting into the sun, he with a purposeful look of simple determination—almost to the point of defiance, but not defiant, just resolute—in the face of whatever, for him and for her. A look of magnificent dignity.

Another of pure princess, about six years old, in elegant native costume, pink and white, against some unkempt greenery, looking unconcernedly off to the side, away from the camera.

Among the numerous old-world recollection photos, a few show just the refugees’ present world. Harsh landscape in old urban areas, industrial ruins, and the refugees’ basic-needs housing solutions. Some interiors and some exteriors.

The photographic project was the result of a collaboration between CEPA and Journey’s End Refugee Services, Inc. CEPA provided basic photographic training and the refugees were provided with disposable cameras.

A few of the photos display photographic art formal values—abstract forms, geometry in nature, plays on perspective. One photo looks down the breakwall walkway between the river and the canal to a vanishing point right where the Peace Bridge cuts the perspective line at a right angle, turning the direction of visual interest 90 degrees to the right, heading across the river. But art photographic values are not the main point or the main feature of this body of work, which is about something much more interesting—real lives, real people, real struggle to make life better. The show continues through June 26.

jack foran

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