Even from hundreds of yards away, I could see throngs of strangers milling in the dusk, disembarking in the D’Alzon Library parking lot. I stopped long enough to watch the dark shapes, some tall and some small, find their way into the light of the library entrance, then vanish inside.
When I followed them into the exhibition space, I found myself surrounded by immigrants, people who had journeyed from far-flung continents to build lives in the United States. Some were hugging and laughing, some were talking earnestly – and some were simply quietly staring at the walls, covered in the photographs they themselves had taken, all part of Immigrant Perspectives of Life in Worcester.
Absorbing my surroundings both visually and emotionally, I knew then that my words in this blog weren’t going to do this occasion justice.
What I didn’t know was that Esteban Loustaunau, whose Spanish 381 students had collaborated with Training Resources of America (TRA Inc.) to create this “literacy through photography” project, was facing a similar problem. Having worked tirelessly on every aspect from the original project and approaching the library to framing the photos and coordinating the effort to get the clients to campus, now he was the victim of his own success. People were coming at him from all angles, socially as well as spatially: College colleagues and students, TRA Inc. staff members and, of course, the photographers themselves. When he finally addressed the crowd, he would forget to use an anecdote from the last college that employed him.
But what he said, with his usual warmth, was plenty powerful.
“This is for you. This is your space. This is your home.”
People then spread out among the exhibits, which ran a wide range from the work place and family to the courthouse and landscapes. Taken with disposable cameras that Assumption had provided the TRA Inc. clients, the photos weren’t artfully cropped or digitally manipulated. They were simply what the immigrants saw when asked by their teachers to take one photo that symbolized their life in Worcester – and, in a way, their life in America. In their TRA Inc. courses, they then would give a short presentation in English, explaining their photo and why they shot it.
Some opted for strikingly picturesque landscapes or cityscapes, reminding again of how an artistic eye isn’t limited by language. Some, such as the person working a forklift, focused on work. Some took family pictures, either at home or around town, at their favorite places to visit. One took a photo of a Starbucks at night, expressing surprise at how much some Americans spend on coffee. (Guilty.)
Sadly, the conversations I attempted with the artists were short, limited by both my linguistic shortcomings and their own. Certainly, with most, there was no way to go into a jargon-steeped discourse on photographic composition. Finding your way through a still foreign world, trying to learn what you can in the little time you have between the demands of work and family, is a continuing journey.
But that made the exhibition, which is on display through April 13th, all the more extraordinary. Standing below a series of family photos, TRA Inc. administrator Cynthia Vlasaty told me that her biggest obstacle in explaining the exhibit was her clients’ plain and simple disbelief.
“They kept asking, ‘They are doing this for us? Why us?’ They couldn’t understand. Why would a big institution like a college want to show their work.”
Of course, educators can tick off any number of reasons, ranging from both the Catholic sense of mission and the secular version of civic engagement to the incalculable value of experiential education, especially when it comes off campus, in a world almost as foreign to college students as the college might seem to TRA Inc.’s clientele. Even as I talked with Cynthia, I could spy one of our most dedicated CSL minors, Victoria Flynn, carrying on intently with a female TRA Inc. client, who occasionally touched Victoria on the arm as they conversed, a reminder of the connection they’ve made.
But philosophizing aside, on this surreal and inspiring night, what I saw – both on the walls and between the walls – was justification enough.
As one TRA Inc. staff member told me, “This will go down in their history.”
And, of course, our own.