Showcasing the refugee experience
Photographer Angie Smith aimed to showcase more than just her photos during an exhibit opening last week. She wanted to share stories and experiences — experiences like Abala Kim's.
Kim, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, landed in Portland in 2011. Since then, he has experienced more of America than he had ever imagined and wanted to share that with Smith, he said.
"Refugees experience so much in coming to America," Kim says. "Our experiences need to be shared."
Smith has been capturing pieces of refugee lives like Kim's since 2015, when she began her "Stronger Shines the Light Inside" exhibition. Now, after more than 60 interviews with refugees from various states, hundreds of shared stories and countless photographs, Smith brings her work to Portland at a showcase collaboration with Wieden+Kennedy.
The "Stronger Shines the Light Inside" exhibition will show at Wieden+Kennedy through June 30.
Just as the European migrant crisis unfolded, the LA-based photographer unexpectedly noticed an upswing of refugees settling in an unlikely place: Boise, Idaho.
"At the time, I had felt like many refugees were very isolated and I wanted to create something that would bring the populations together," Smith says. "I thought it would be something that would make a beautiful, impactful project."
From there, Smith set out to document the stories of people coming to America through photo and video. It began with a few friends in the area, but often she would contact resettlement agencies for help or find subjects willing to share their story at a community gathering.
"From that sort of thing, the people you meet just sort of blossom and expand," Smith says.
Smith received a grant from the city of Boise to create a public installation and her work with refugees has only grown since then.
"One person leads you to five other people," Smith says. "You never know who you'll end up meeting."
Just after Smith's work showed in Boise, Kim caught sight of the project and felt an instant connection. Several years later and some time spent planning, Smith got the chance to hear Kim's story of coming to Portland.
"It felt good sharing my memories," Kim says. "The night I landed in America is an exciting moment to not forget."
After rebel forces took over the Congo in 1997, Kim and his family fled the country. The family of 14 spent years in a Zambian refugee camp and waited three years for their resettlement options to process before they were finally scheduled to leave for Oregon. Kim now works with Wieden+Kennedy.
"I didn't even know Oregon existed in America," Kim says. "Looking at the beauty of Portland, I feel like this is the perfect spot."
The latest statistics show 1,780 refugees settled in Oregon in 2016, the majority in the greater Portland area, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services.
"The Stronger Shines the Light Inside" showcase made its debut in Portland with several photos of refugees from the area. Smith has also photographed refugees in Salt Lake City, LA and New York.
Her colorful work hung against the backdrop of stark, white walls. Bright pinks, yellows and reds radiated from the refugees' culture-specific wear and the bold graphics that showcased quotes from Smith's subjects, some refugees and many people of color.
One photo read: "If you walked one day in my shoes, you would know how difficult it is to be black, Muslim and a woman in a predominately white city."
Another photo read: "Freedom is everything. Freedom is being you."
Some of the refugees' portraits were shot in a church, while others were shot on the street. Smith said she wanted to portray her subjects in their element.
Every interview session, she said, takes its own course. Smith says she asks questions about her subject's identity, their past, their emotions and their experiences adjusting to a new culture.
When it comes to telling the stories of refugees through photo, Smith says there are many different versions of a story. She hopes her photographs will help refugees see they are represented within their communities, she says.
"I want people to learn the stories behind why people risk everything to come here," Smith says. "I hope this breeds a full-pictured understanding that once people get here, it's the beginning of a whole new life and struggle."
Marni Beardsley, the collaboration coordinator, said Smith, who has been working with the advertising agency for nearly three weeks, put her heart into the opening night's showcase June 7.
"She does this while at a time when it seems the country isn't very welcoming," Beardsley says. "She does this because she is what is welcoming in this country."
Kim says Smith's photos, for many, show a new side of life, one refugees can be proud to show others.
"It's giving someone a new life — you are putting life in somebody," Kim says. "That experience deserves to be shared, and now is the important time to do that."
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