Here + There (CWS)

Collaborators

  • Rebecca Sprague, Youth & Employment Program Coordinator at Church World Service Harrisonburg Immigration & Refugee Services
  • Daniel Robinson, Director of The Institute for Creative Inquiry at JMU
  • The School of Media Arts & Design at James Madison University (JMU)
  • JMU Faculty Senate
  • Arts Council of the Valley / Smith House Galleries

Press

Project Overview

Here + There was an exhibition of photographic compositions created by high school students that gave visual form to their lived experience as refugees. The work stemmed from a photography-focused community arts workshop held at James Madison University in May & June 2021 that I taught. As part of the workshop, each student created a composite of two different photographs that represented the multi-layered reality of the artist’s personal identity.

The workshop was designed to build visual literacy, teach software skills, and strengthen visual storytelling skills. The exhibition made visible the complex personal identities of local refugees, inviting the viewer to reflect on the diverse range of experiences present in the local community.

The gallery opening had a record number of guests (136), and the exhibit received lots of good press and positive reviews (see press links). There were 269 in-person visitors over the course of the month, and the Facebook version of the exhibit reached 1,948 people. 

The exhibition allowed members of the local community to reflect on the life experiences of refugees from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Mozambique, Uganda, and Iraq, through the medium of photography. Students engaged with the community as artists; some will go on to study photography further.

Awards

This project won a 2022 Gold Anthem Award for Best Local Community Engagement

Process

Selected Works

Image by Hieldana Weldu

“I took this photograph on Eritrean independence day, May 24, at a local park. The boy is a family friend, and the design overlaid on top of the image is of an Eritrean pattern from some traditional clothing.”

Hieldana Weldu is from Eritrea and moved to the United States in 2014 after spending some time in Ethiopia. One thing she likes about Harrisonburg is how peaceful it is, how kind people are, and how diverse it is. In Eritrea she misses her family and community life, how everyone cared for each other. Her photographs include details from her home/family culture of Eritrea, as well as Harrisonburg. Through her photographs, she would like to tell and show the world what’s important to her. She enjoys photography as a way to show her emotions, feelings, and what makes her happy.

Image by Moses Kasangaki

“This image includes a traditional fabric from Uganda, overlaid on an image of a basket from Uganda. Usually the basket would hold fufu, a traditional food that’s made from corn or cassava. The fabric reminds me of my grandmother, who lives with me here in Harrisonburg and is a seamstress.”

Moses Kasangaki is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and came to the United States in 2018 after living in Uganda for most of his life. One thing he likes about Harrisonburg is how many seasons there are—he likes them all, except for winter! He misses his family, friends, and neighbors who still live in Uganda, and the food—especially the corn and beans that they used to grow in their garden. One of the things he enjoyed about the photography workshop that led to this exhibit was the chance to make friends with other people his age here in Harrisonburg.

Jonathan Samuel composition
Image by Jonathan Samuel

“In this picture I was experimenting with overlaying different shapes, textures, and objects based on images I took during the workshop and at home.”

Jonathan Samuel is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and lived in Mozambique for most of his life. He moved to Harrisonburg in 2020 from Maryland, where he lived for just over a year. One thing he likes about Harrisonburg is how peaceful and quiet it is. One thing he enjoys about photography is the ability to create something beautiful.

Image by Soliana Medhin

“My mom means the world to me. This is an image of her, combined with a sunset here in Harrisonburg taken at a soccer game at the high school.”

Soliana Medhin is from Eritrea and came to the United States in 2013 after spending time in Sudan and Ethiopia. One thing she likes about Harrisonburg is how friendly and approachable people are here. She misses neighbors and family from Eritrea, including how easy it was to go in and out of neighbors’ houses and how she felt safe and cared for by her community. She also misses the food—somehow it tastes better back home. She enjoys photography because it’s a way to capture the present and remember the past. She likes that photographs are a way to tell a story without words.

Image by Mubara Mayar

“The picture of me sitting on a rock was taken during a family picnic here in Harrisonburg. The second image is of a flower on some fabric; the flower is similar to patterns we would have in Afghanistan. Both of these things remind me of rest and peace.”

Mubara Mayar is from Afghanistan. It has been just over a year since she moved to Harrisonburg from Kabul. Her love of nature made her fall in love with Harrisonburg. She misses the tasty pomegranate fruit from her home country. She enjoyed the photography workshop that led to this exhibit because she and her classmates spent time going outside to take photographs, looked at each other’s work, and shared their perspectives on photography. She hopes to express her feelings about the world and her unique point of view through her photographs.

Collaborator Feedback

Elisabeth Kvernen reached out to the CWS Refugee Resettlement Office in early 2021 with an idea to offer an arts education workshop for refugee high school youth to learn about photography and digital photography software. CWS was excited to offer our youth a fun opportunity to learn new skills, but the most powerful thing I saw in the workshop was the sense of purpose Ms. Kvernen provided for some of our youth who were struggling during COVID. The flexibility and calm grace Ms. Kvernen demonstrated while working with the young adults was a wonderful model for the youth. I am very grateful to Ms. Kvernen for the time, effort, and attention she put into making this project happen. 

—Rebecca Sprague, Youth & Employment Program Coordinator at Church World Service Harrisonburg Immigration & Refugee Services