Westmoreland Museum exhibit explores 'Emigration-Immigration-Migration'
Pittsburgh photographer Annie O'Neill says finding subjects to pair for photographs in the upcoming exhibit "Emigration-Immigration-Migration: Five Photographic Perspectives" at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art was not difficult.
"It's actually not hard to find people. I've gotten an education, too. There are tons of immigrants contributing vastly to the Pittsburgh area," says O'Neill, 51.
Programming and exhibits for the event, which features 116 submissions from five Pittsburgh photographers, will engage viewers through the experiences of multiple generations of immigrants and their descendants.
It will run Jan. 20 through April 22.
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Visual storytelling submissions from Brian Cohen, Scott Goldsmith, Nate Guidry, Lynn Johnson and O'Neill explore the central role immigration plays in forming America's identity, in sustaining its economy, and in enriching its cultural diversity.
The effort to create what a release describes as space "for civil, constructive conversation about belonging and cultural heritage today" is being mounted as the nation is undergoing a sometimes divisive discussion regarding who may enter and/or reside in America.
What began as a larger project of Pittsburgh-based The Documentary Works, a group of professional photographers documenting social and environmental issues, led to the planned exhibition.
It explores leaving one's homeland (emigration), coming to a new country (immigration), and the process of moving (migration), and how each adds to the nation's story.
O'Neill has participated in other The Documentary Works projects with founder Cohen, who is both a co-curator and contributor for the exhibit.
"I love portraiture. I came up with the idea that I wanted to photograph someone who has been here a long time and somebody new. ... They have different perspectives on emigrating to the U.S.," the North Side resident says.
"They all have something in common. I felt, let's give them something to talk about," O'Neill says.
Many of the people she photographed speak at least some English. Others speak in their native tongue and one will translate for her, she says.
Among her subjects are a woman who has been in the country for 25 years and her mother, who just arrived.
"(Emigration) is much harder than people think. People do it for different reasons — for education, better opportunities. Lots of times it's for love," she says.
One young man from Syria, Fayz Gramh, is paired with Saleem Ghubril, who is Lebanese and head of the Pittsburgh Promise.
In America for only one year, Gramh is supporting four family members, working two jobs, has learned to drive and is speaking English, O'Neill says.
"He told me, 'My dream is to free the world.' ... He's only 21 or 22," she says.
One of her recent matches was a young woman who arrived in Pittsburgh decades ago from Pakistan and a woman newly in Pittsburgh from Japan.
"The Pakistani woman has an incredible story. She had an arranged marriage. Her husband was a physician," O'Neill says.
Soon after his wife's arrival, he went to work and left her alone in their apartment. A neighbor heard her crying and knocked on her door, befriending her.
"She told me, 'She pretty much became my Pittsburgh mother,' " O'Neill says.
The woman shared that story with the woman from Japan, whose husband was in a master's program. She had left behind her job, but he had a built-in community of friends.
"The Japanese woman said, 'I feel like I found my Pittsburgh mother,' " O'Neill says.
Making the unfamiliar home
"It's a collaborative project. ... It's gathering together a group of photographers, writers, curators who are interested in the topic and who would like to have something to say about that subject," Cohen says of the exhibit.
His own contributions highlight buildings that served new arrivals as groceries, houses of worship or social clubs.
Many of the photographs Cohen, 57, of Squirrel Hill shot are of buildings in towns and valleys throughout Western Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Aliquippa and New Kensington.
"Each one in its own way represents a little piece of that community," he says.
"After a while, the buildings seem to take on personalities of their own. They do speak in all sorts of ways," Cohen says.
Many buildings going back three or four generations were built by and for people who made the decision to leave their home countries. Cohen sees in those structures reminders of challenges and difficulties not unlike those many new arrivals find, he says.
Still visible names sometimes include both a nod to a homeland and to America, Cohen says, depicting the desire to both hold on to "being from somewhere else" while demonstrating one's "right to be here."
"Little things like that can be so informative," he says.
Cohen says the intention is for the exhibit to move on to other cities, with each hosting institution determining appropriate accompanying programming.
Community partners include the American Jewish Museum, City of Asylum, Repair the World and the Union Project.
Coming to America
Judith H. O'Toole, the Richard M. Scaife Director at The Westmoreland, had met Cohen and was aware of some of The Documentary Works' earlier projects, says Barbara Jones, museum chief curator.
"We thought (the immigration project) was a timely subject and an important subject for us to take on," she says.
The contemporary photography fit well with her plan to focus on contemporary art work annually in the museum's new cantilever area.
"(Cohen) came out and met with me. I saw the beautiful photographs from previous projects. He had the five photographers lined up. ... We knew who they were but we didn't know what the end product would be," she says.
The exhibit includes a large map representing where the featured subjects came from and how they converged on Pittsburgh, along with a video from Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab that focuses on the causes of international migration, Jones says.
Joan McGarry, The Westmoreland's director of education and visitor services, worked with Cohen on related programming.
Jones says she hopes that visitors take away an appreciation for the photographers' work, a positive impression of what immigration has done for this region, and a sense of what "those three words — emigration, immigration and migration" mean.
"This has been our mantra — we all come from somewhere," says co-curator Laura Domencic. "Looking at individual stories helps deconstruct abstract ideas and bring in some clarity.
"(The exhibit) is very celebratory. What I love about the project is it does give a larger context and larger sense of history. ... People have been moving forever. It's part of what we do. ... I think there is a certain universality in some of these experiences," Domencic says.
She believes one of the most important elements of the show is the essays in a companion book by WESA-FM journalists Erika Beras and Reid Frazier.
Beras' interviews are with African-American Pittsburgh residents who found their way to the city during the Great Migration more than 50 years ago, while Frazier looks at the experiences of immigrants who find their welcome tempered by fears and prejudices they encounter.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or email@example.com or via Twitter @MaryPickels.