Immigrants of America
Nearly 13% of the United States population is born abroad, and when you begin to consider ancestry the number becomes exponentially larger. So it is no surprise that Hanne Steen and Zach Oren have found so many incredible subjects for their new photography series Immigrants of America.
With it’s home on instagram and tumblr, the project pairs evocative portraits with interview quotes about immigration, family, and identity. Hanne has a knack, reminiscent of Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York, for eliciting deeply personal perspectives from her subjects.
Taken individually each portrait is a revelatory snapshot of a stranger’s life, but together they weave an intimate portrait of the immigrant experience and American identity.
Below, Hanne writes about the inception of Immigrants of America and we share a collection of some of the portraits to be found online.
Introduced by Christina Roman
Hanne Steen is American but spent much of her childhood in Africa, the daughter of AID workers.
I have experienced the privilege of being American and the unique rights that my passport grants me wherever I am in the world, and I have also experienced the feeling of being an outsider, of living in a country that is not my home, and the isolation of not understanding a new language. As a result I have one foot in and one foot out of the United States—I see its unique strengths and beauty as well as it’s shortcomings. I am neither anti- nor pro-American. I vote, I pay taxes, I love much about this country, and I am deeply critical and concerned about where we are headed.
The idea for Immigrants of America came when I was working as a writer for a project about refugees in Idaho in 2015 called Stronger Shines the Light Inside by photographer Angie Smith. During the day I was sitting on couches or floors of Syrian or Rwandan or Iraqi families' homes, interviewing newly arrived refugees about their experiences, and in the evening I was eating at white middle-class Idahoan dinner tables. These "native" Idahoans were curious about and supportive of the work we were doing, but expressed that they had no idea how to connect to the refugees themselves, some of whom lived right down the street, or worked in their local supermarket. From both sides of the divide I witnessed a desire to connect, and from both sides I saw a chasm of fear borne out of a sense of too much difference, too much otherness. I asked one of my hosts where he was from and he said, "Idaho. We've been here forever." I said, "But where before that?" He told me about his ancestors who had come from Europe in the 1800s, about how they fled dire poverty. I went around the table and asked each guest about their heritage and it became clear that each one, no matter how far back, had an immigrant story somewhere in their past. Something seemed to shift in them in the telling of these stories. It was subtle, but I could feel the perceived distance between themselves and the refugees narrow a little bit. Even though they didn’t have direct experience of immigration themselves, they could appreciate that their ancestors went through similar experiences, and that broght them closer to their refugee neighbors.
Inspired by this experience, I decided to develop a simple project which would look into the collective immigrant experience that America is built upon. My aim was not to highlight only newly arrived immigrants or refugees, but to look at immigration through the context of average Americans, those of us who have been here for generations. I also wanted to interview Native Americans and hear their perspective on immigration and immigration reform.
No one would be expempt, the project could include anyone who wanted to share their story. I wanted to create a quilt of individual narratives, each with a different perspective, each highlighting a different aspect of the experience of being American through the lens of immigration. I wanted my project to be a means of looking more deeply into our definition and assumptions about the term "immigrant." I was inspired by the simplicity of Brandon Stanton's project Humans of New York (and my friend, photographer Andrew George’s bright, simple idea for the title) and I reached out to another friend, photographer Zach Oren, himself an immigrant who came to the US as a child from Israel. While I know and work with several talented photographers, Zach felt like an obvious match for several reasons—firstly, his own immigrant status would certainly warm him to subjects who might be wary of telling their story. Secondly, he has an eye for color and an ability to shoot on the spot and capture a person’s humanity. Thirdly his lack of judgment and his desire to hear everyone’s story for what it is—this was key for me as I did not ever want to be pushing a political agenda. We agreed that we would do our best to stay away from overt politics, which became difficult around the elections. The aim is not to change anyone's mind, but to be willing to explore and share the stories of any and all Americans, New Americans, immigrants and refugees.
As it has progressed, and as the 2016 elections unfolded, it has become clear that I need to open the project up to a wider pool of contributors to reflect the broad range of perspectives in this country. I’ve had people write from all over the country saying they want to share their story, and we are beginning to include them on the Tumblr page.
Every one of these stories has moved me. When people connect with their roots it seems to make them realize they are part of a much larger tree connecting them to the roots of others and it’s a beautiful thing to witness. I don't think anyone would argue that this country is divided right now—more divided than united, and for healing to happen we need to hear each others' stories. I hope that people reach out to us and share theirs, no matter what their experience or views on immigration policy.
My family arrived in the United States from Hinzweiler, Germany in 1911. They settled in Cincinnati, OH. The Germans believed they could keep their own culture while they adopted American culture. Americans did not see it this way. During WWI our government urged the public to be wary of “German Spies.” Many supported an Anti-Immigrant policy approach. Not a single German spy was ever caught, tried, or convicted. This did not stop people from destroying German Communities, harassing them on the street, or threatening any employer who let a German work for them. My own family was terrified to leave the house because their neighbor would frequently scream at them and wave around a machete. “Safety” is always used as an excuse to ignore justice.
A true, honest American does not betray their values because of fear. A good American citizen is loyal, courageous, fair, and intelligent. We want to learn from our past mistakes. It is possible to achieve security without persecuting our neighbors. I am thankful to the many Americans who accepted my family. It is because of their kindness and understanding I am able to say today, “I am proud to be an American!” I will not let their goodwill be in vain.
TO SUBMIT YOUR STORY TO IMMIGRANTS OF AMERICA:
Immigrants of America invites everyone to share their story.
To take part, please send up to three (one is fine) photos of yourself or your family to:
Make sure the photos enhance the story you choose to tell. We love old family photos, no matter how grainy or blurry!
If you want to remain unrecognizable, you may send a photo of your hands, a silhouette, or some other way of hiding your face, but there must be something of you in the photo. Be creative!
In telling your story, we are most interested in how you or your family came to the United States, why they left their country of origin, what obstacles they faced along the way, what it was like for them here, and what it’s like now.
Additionally, if possible, please address the question: What does it mean to you to be American?
Answers may be as short or long as you wish. They will be also be shared onFacebook but will live in their entirety on our Tumblr page. Edits will be made only for spelling and clarity, but the meaning will not be altered. You may express anger or frustration, but we will not publish anything bullying or hateful.