Humans have always migrated, whether by choice or because of involuntary forces such as political or environmental displacement. Photographer Brian Cohen said in the age of travel bans and border walls, exploring the idea is as topical now as ever.
“It's interesting to me how, in a sense, the more things change the more they stay the same,” he said.
Cohen is co-curator of Out of Many: Stories of Migration, on display through April 22 at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg. The exhibit will return to Pittsburgh and be on display at Carlow University in the fall.
It features the work of five Pittsburgh-based photographers, including Cohen, who were given artistic license to explore the idea of migration through their individual lenses. Some contributed portraits, “some more what you might call ‘fly on the wall’ kind of photography, and it takes a lot of legwork and background work,” said Cohen, who himself contributed urban landscapes.
One black and white photograph by Scott Goldsmith depicts three Bhutanese women on a bus on their way to a refugee center the group is working with in Millvale. It was taken 36 hours after they entered the United States.
“I think one of the things that many of the photographs convey is that it's not easy to migrate,” said Cohen. “I think sometimes people have the impression that people just turn up on the doorstep expecting services and expecting some big welcome.”
But Cohen said the act of being in a new country is difficult and stressful. Of the photo, Cohen said “the expressions on their faces are so full of curiosity and anticipation on the one hand, but uncertainty on the other. They’re clearly taking in the entire newness, the novelty of being in this new place.”
The women are wearing traditional clothing in the Goldsmith photograph. But in some of the works on display, the people represented wouldn’t necessarily be recognized as migrants if they were passed on the street.
Another photo shows a single father from Mexico raising his two daughters in Pittsburgh. He’s seen brushing one's hair and getting them ready for school.
“That's what we do. That's what we all do when we get kids ready for school," Cohen said. "It doesn't matter what he looks like or what language he speaks. He's doing what everybody does and that I think breaks down many of the preconceptions that we might have that we might bring to the photographs.”
Some people think of immigrants as different, as strangers or somehow exotic, said Cohen.
“I feel like what we're doing here is we're taking the other, [and] we're presenting it in a way that enables people to recognize it and to understand it from a new perspective.”
While the national migration conversation largely revolves around travel bans and building a southern border wall, Cohen said the Pittsburgh exhibit aims make the dialogue around migration more positive and empathetic.
“What the photographs help us to recognize is the similarities rather than the differences,” he said.