Last week I spent another day making images at the ICC in Roger’s Park. I spent most of the day in the basement area photographing in the common area, kitchen, storage, pantry freezer and walk in refrigerator. I made a few images that felt like they would say something or add to the idea that the space in which I’m making images is a place where people are taken care of on a large scale. Much more important than any of the images I made during that visit was the conversations I had with my chaperone Maria who is one of the teachers at the ICC. I’m further convinced that incorporating the staff into the project to hear their experiences with the children, what it’s like working there and their own related life experiences will bring an important element to the work that’s currently missing. While there’s no children currently at the ICC I’ve often found myself looking at and making images of things the children made (art and letters), earned (like sports trophies) or where they left their mark on the space. Towards the end of my visit Maria took me up to a classroom where she pulled out a folder full of handwritten notes and letters thanking her for everything she did for them. Many of the children refer to her as a second mother and often thank her for teaching them English while remarking on how when they arrived they may not have spoken very much English at all. The letters really kinda hit me this time even though I had seen some of them before. I think it was the total volume of letters, it really started to make me feel how many kids have come through this place. It’s hard to remember that when I first visited the place was full of kids because I’ve experienced it mainly empty this year. I’ve reached out to Maria Kenney to see if I can get permission to photograph the thank you letters that teacher Maria and other people have at these shelters. Unfortunately many of the letters are laminated and scanning them would not likely work as well as making a copy stand to document the letters. While initially my mind began down some immediate pathways towards how these letters might be incorporated into some kind of exhibition or online presentation of the fellowship work (that’s so completely my natural instinct) it pretty quickly dawned on me that I do in fact need to spend some time with the words on those pages think about what these kids are saying. I’ve not read them all yet and I’m sure there’s a multitude of experiences represented there. As Judy has so patiently been reminding me, this fellowship is not about the end product but about the journey and engaging with people and the issues at hand. I think I’m untangling some wires in my brain with how I work and while I don’t think I can or want to get rid of those impulses completely, I think there’s ample opportunity to add some layers and nuance to my practice. So assuming Maria can get me the green light on photographing these letters I’ll be adding that to my list of new things I would like to engage with at the UC shelters. I don’t envision this being a huge problem as it seems like a particularly small ask compared to the interviews of staff. What I think would be most compelling about incorporating these letters into the project is that each letter is both the literal words of each child who wrote it but also a visual stand in for a child who can’t be there and couldn’t be photographed anyway. The different color paper, the choice of including a sticker or a drawing and the idiosyncratic nature of handwriting all makes for individuals expressions of gratitude. Lastly, while I know that these kids go through a lot getting to the US, being away from their families and having to navigate the immigration system (including at Heartland’s UC Shelters) when I see stacks of notes thanking teachers, paintings given as gifts to youth care workers and other tributes to the staff it’s pretty apparent to me in those moments that whatever the challenges and hardships the work that’s being done at these UC shelters is a net positive on the lives of most if not all of these kids.
This is an important awareness and I hope you write this quote below down and then tape it to your computer where you work so you can see it everyday and have it inspire you as your work:
“I think I’m untangling some wires in my brain with how I work and while I don’t think I can or want to get rid of those impulses completely, I think there’s ample opportunity to add some layers and nuance to my practice.”
I am certain that doors are opening, as we talked about, for you to build bridges between the notes and paintings that honor the staff while at the same time engaging with the powerful stories of the children themselves. Keep focused on your interactions with the staff and let that lead you: – as they share their insights, their own journeys, what working at Heartland means to them, and how they are coping day to day both before the pandemic and now, during the pandemic – as well as your own incredible ride you find yourself on.
Working in a head space where you don’t exactly know what you are doing or where you are taking the work, but you want to find out, where you are excited and energized by your discoveries. I think you are beginning to trust and have confidence that you are on an exciting path, both with the work and in with your practice. Stay focused on these ideas, then its pedal to the medal:)
Jonathan, I’m a little late to the game, but I wanted to make sure I had time to read your blogpost, process it, and respond. I always find your words to be enlightening, and I appreciate being brought along on the journey. It doesn’t surprise me to read all of this as much as it encourages me. It takes a toll hearing all the negative things that people say about immigrants and on the flip side, to see how the critique of U.S. immigration policy has been bastardized to become an assault on the staff who are providing care for the kids caught up in an unfair and unjust immigration policy (which, I always feel compelled to add, existed for decades before Trump was elected). I, of course, live on the other side of that spectrum, where I witness and try to help heal the pain, sadness, and trauma these staff experience as a result of working in the shelters. They do their best, they show up “all in” even while leaving their own kids and families behind while they work, they work for an org trying to change the laws and the systems that create the necessity for this work, and all the while they get attacked for it. I’m not sure how they keep doing what they do, but seeing these letters pretty much makes one thing clear: despite their hardship, or perhaps because of it, these kids know love when they see it, and they have found a way to show gratitude even while in a deep state of pain. That is a powerful thing to witness.
So, for today, thanks for giving me something to wrap my heart and mind around, to feel encouraged by.