Photographer Captures the American Dream

The Day – News from southeastern Connecticut 9/15/16, 9:21 AM
Published September 14. 2016 4:00AM | Updated September 14. 2016 1:32PM
By Carol McCarthy

Photographer Joe Standart looks over an image with Catherine Reveil of Haiti during a photo session at the Hispanic Alliance in downtown New London. (Peter M. Weber photo)

A decade ago, photographer Joe Standart changed the landscape of downtown New London, at least temporarily, with his arresting and head-turning public art endeavor “Portrait of a City: The New London Project.”

In that installation, massive portraits of a broad cross-section of New Londoners – some well-known and some unknown – populated storefront windows or were draped from historic buildings, such as Union Station. Later this year, Standart will revisit that project with a series of anniversary portraits that will be installed in the city much the same way.

But first, he will take his public art project in a new direction with “Portrait of America: WE ARE – A Nation of Immigrants,” images of members of the region’s diverse immigrant population. New London’s City Center District, downtown businesses and the Hispanic Alliance are supporting the project, and Standart also has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the installation, which opened in July and runs through November.

Standart’s desire to portray people from diverse backgrounds stems from his college days, when he lived and worked in distinct regions of the country with Americans whose lives and back stories differed from his own, including a black auto worker in Detroit, a hog farmer in the Midwest and a coal miner down South. “That is how my interest in depicting other people came,” he says. “I have a greater appreciation for people of other backgrounds.”

Standart is a New York and Lyme-based photographer with 40 years of experience whose work is in galleries, museums and private collections. He also teaches at Lyme Academy of Art.

Given recent world and national events, such as the refugee crisis across Europe and the anti-immigrant tone of U.S. presidential campaigns, the theme of this work takes a topical and urgent focus.

“It became more pressing for me to talk about immigration. The more you get to know people, the less foreign and scary they are,” he says. “I like to think about this project breaking down barriers. As an American, I am bewildered and dismayed by the dialogue the presidential candidates are espousing.”

With this installation, more than two dozen black and white photographs will depict extreme close-ups of each subject’s eyes at a scale of 8 feet by 12 feet and larger. The portraits will gaze out from empty storefronts and beckon from landmark buildings along State and Bank streets, much in the same way as the earlier project. The installation will feature immigrants from several Caribbean and Latin American nations, Norway, Ireland, China, Africa and India.

With a Chilean mother and a father who can trace his roots to the Mayflower, Standart brings a dual American and immigrant perspective to the project. “In the end, the goal is to be a true portrait of America,” he says of the work.

He hopes the installation sparks constructive conversations about immigration in America. “The project puts immigration into the public dialogue so we appreciate and understand what people are going through and what their dreams are,” he says. “Their dreams can’t be very different than our forebears’ dreams.”

He believes New London is the ideal location for such a project, not just because of the diversity of the city and surrounding area, but because of its openness to creative ideas. “New London is unique in its receptivity to the arts and acceptance of the arts. I love working here,” he says.
He hopes the community will find creative ways to engage actively with the project. “I would love for groups to generate their own ideas on how to build off this,” he says, suggesting town hall style discussions or essay and poetry projects in the schools.

Mongi Dhaouadi. (Joe Standart photo)

His other aim is that the work brings the region’s many non-English speaking immigrants into the community fold. “One hope would be that the immigrants who are shy about being in the public realm, that this project will help them come out of the shadows,” he says.

Eventually, he would like to replicate the immigrant portrait installation. “I would like to take this project elsewhere and do it for other cities. It’s a large project but manageable for a city to put on,” Standart says.

“It’s about who we are as a nation, as people.”
—Migdalia Salas, born in Panama, lives in Ledyard, runs MS17 Art Project Gallery and is a board member of the Hispanic Alliance. She was longtime director of development and community relations with New London’s Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication (ISAAC).

Migdalia Salas, who arrived in the United States with her mother at age 17 and has lived here, off and on, for 35 years, remembers a less-than-warm welcome when she first arrived in Southern California.

“My experience was horrible. I came from a different place where people were multilingual. I had traveled extensively. One of the first experiences I remember was being asked if I could read, if I was literate because I was Hispanic,” she recalls.

Not only is she literate, but she speaks Spanish, English, French and Italian. The assumption that she was uneducated because she was not white left a lasting impression and made a disorienting transition more difficult. “The air you breathe, the noise you hear, the colors you see — everything is very different,” she says of being a newly arrived immigrant.

In 1995 Salas made her way to New England, where she felt more comfortable. “New England has a personality. There is a lot more diversity, especially in a place like this between Boston and New York,” she says.

She believes the “WE ARE” portrait project is a timely one, an antidote to the current anti-immigration political climate, and she is happy to be a part of it. “It’s about who we are as a nation, as people,” says Salas. “Diversity is the source of the creativity and innovation this nation is known for. We export that. You get that by being open.”

Salas, who became a citizen in 2008 — something she found meaningful and special — so she could vote for Barack Obama, is disheartened by the anti-immigrant national discourse.

Mirana Agudelo. (Joe Standart photo)

“The current political climate is very sad, not just for immigrants. It’s like going back 100 years,” she says. “I didn’t think something like that could happen in this country.”

She believes America has become a nation of reality shows where even something as important as electing a president is more about the act than substance. “They’re not paying attention to important issues,” she says.

And empathy is in short supply, she says. “There’s a need to understand the immigrant families coming to this country. They are very hard working people, working two and three jobs. We need to engage immigrant families; we need to be open to their ideas,” she says.

“You’re never Haitian enough. You’re never American enough.”
— Kathia Flemens, Haitian-American, lives in New London, French teacher at New London High School.

Technically, Kathia Flemens is not an immigrant. She was born in New York City in 1971, a year after her parents arrived from Haiti as political refugees fleeing dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. This gave her pause when she was asked to participate in the “WE ARE project. “I was a bit apprehensive. I thought, ‘I’m not an immigrant. I’m American-Haitian,’ ” she says.

But Flemens, who speaks English, Creole, Spanish and French, recalled experiences that only an immigrant or someone from an immigrant family would have and decided to participate.

Because her parents were political refugees, they were able to receive Green Cards upon arrival in the United States, making that element of the transition easier. However, political refugees could not bring children with them, so Flemens’ older sister had to stay in Haiti with grandparents until the rest of the family could leave.

Flemens and her family lived in a New York neighborhood dominated by immigrants from many countries. Growing up in a multicultural and multilingual environment, she felt comfortable. “Being in an immigrant community, you don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the ‘American’ world,” she observes.

One of the project’s installation in downtown New London’s Cronin Building is shown. (Joe Standart photo)

Her father worked at a brokerage firm and stayed politically active. Her mom worked and went to secretarial and nursing school, but struggled to learn English.

One day Flemens and her mother met Mayor Ed Koch while walking in New York. She was three and politely shook His Honor’s hand. Her mother, in halting English, told the mayor: “No pay, six weeks,” repeatedly until he realized she was telling him that she had not been paid at her seamstress job for six weeks. Within a week of that meeting, she had received all her back pay, recalls Flemens. It is an indelible memory.

It wasn’t until she moved to Philadelphia with her mother after her parents split, that Flemens felt like an outsider, as her mother had in New York. “No one really spoke French, and there were no little bodegas. It was mono-linguistic,” she says.

She and her sister were teased about eating different foods at lunch and speaking another language, so Flemens spoke French and Creole at home and English outside to make life easier.

It was then that she realized that she had been labeled “other.”

“They were always trying to pin me down: ‘You don’t have an accent.’ Even Haitians do the same thing. You’re never Haitian enough. You’re never American enough,” she says.

Participating in the portrait project offers an opportunity to not be labeled or mislabeled but simply to be one of many-hued faces integral to the uniquely American tapestry.

“I think the greatest need is for people to see a light of hope.”

— Frank Silva, born in Puerto Rico, lives in New London, does HIV/AIDS advocacy work at the Alliance for Living.

Frank Silva was born and raised in Puerto Rico, came to the United States at 18, and has followed his passion advocating for people with HIV/AIDS to South Africa, Mexico and Spain.

Silva says he was thrilled to be asked to participate in the “WE ARE” project and considers himself blessed. He sees the importance of such a project given the anti-immigrant rhetoric driving so many political discussions.
“I think the greatest need is for people to see a light of hope. We need to be unified,” Silva says. “We need to find ways to bridge those differences and find common ground.”

He knows what it is like to feel apart from the culture you are living in and to question your place in it. When Silva first arrived in the United States, he struggled with his identity. Was he Hispanic enough? Or too Hispanic?

Others made assumptions about his life because of his ethnicity. People would want to know who in his family was in jail, he says with a shake of his head. “When they find out I live in New London they think I live in the projects. I’m a homeowner,” Silva says. “It’s something we have to work on. We have to aim for inclusiveness.”

Projects such as this one strengthen inclusiveness, he believes, and they need to be funded so more of them can be implemented.

“If it’s going to help solve the racism and the disputes we are facing, then every single day of our lives needs to be dedicated to this. We need to open the conversation,” he says.