They’ve left Bhutan, Russia, Iraq, Burma, Vietnam, Ghana, and other parts of the globe. They’ve spent years in camps during their journeys to Lancaster. They’ve escaped violence caused by their military, governmental and religious leaders.
Portraits of these refugees who found sanctuary and safety within the Lancaster community have been collected in “Where Hope Finds Home,” a photo document exhibit running through April 9 at the Phillips Museum of Art on Franklin & Marshall College’s campus.
In a March 9 artist’s talk, photographer Kristin Rehder said the project was conceived five years ago when she and partner Sue Washburn ‘73, chair of the F&M board of trustees, moved to Lancaster. The local community, which has received worldwide attention for its long history of welcoming refugees, was a revelation.
It also spoke to something Rehder already had started exploring in her photography. What, she wondered, is the nature of “community”?
That question sparked the theme of her 2012 exhibit, “The Way to Wanakena,” a series of portraits featuring residents of a tiny Adirondack town in upstate New York. But “Where Hope Finds Home,” she said in her talk, linked to that theme in unexpected ways.
“These photos are not about the current political issues around refugees,” Rehder said. “They are examinations of my ongoing concept of community (examined through) the experiences of refugees.” That yearning to feel part of a larger body, she said, was a common theme running through interviews that she and colleague Amer Alfayadh conducted with the subjects.
“These people are fleeing countries where they’re told they don’t belong,” said Alfayadh, who came to Lancaster as an Iraqi refugee. “What they want now is to be part of the community.”
“Where Hope Finds Home” took form in 2015 and 2016, with Lancaster General Health/Penn Medicine and Church World Service of Lancaster the initial collaborators. Project coordinator Alfayadh, a senior case manager at CWS, was charged with finding people willing to be photographed.
“I promised myself and Kristin I wouldn't try to beautify the truth,” Alfayadh said. “They all have their challenges and successes, just like any other human.”
Alfayadh chose the participants by making phone calls. Once he explained the project’s aim to them, “No one said no,” he said. More than 60 refugees from 19 nations sat for Rehder.
Shot with natural light, mostly against a neutral background, the faces are pensive, gleeful, quietly suffering, confident. In each photo, the subject looks directly at the camera.
That was a deliberate decision, Rehder said. “I had not met (the subjects) until the day I walked into their environment. So the viewer is meeting them as well. People are looking at you in every picture, just as you are looking at them. It allows me (as a photographer) to get out of the way.”
Booking shots of arrested Civil Rights Freedom Riders also influenced how Rehder chose to exhibit the portraits. The photos are all the same size; all similar except for the faces, which was her way of “using individual, egalitarian portraits to show a collective experience,” she said.
Rehder said the project “turned me around. It’s been a lesson of courage, strength, flexibility [and] ingenuity; of not wanting to waste a single moment of schooling, of wanting to give back.”
“It’s a very fine line between activist and artist,” she said. “This made me want to do (my art) in a community with which I have a connection.”