Last Tuesday, the photography exhibit “Humanizing Humanity: A Day in the Life of a Refugee”, opened in the lobby of the Lang Performing Arts Center. The exhibit features images of refugees taken by several photographers which are displayed alongside short pieces of text telling the stories of the subjects of the photographs. Teya Sepunick, founder of Theatre of Witness, opened the exhibit with a guest lecture. In her speech Sepunick shed light on the use of art for support and advocacy.
“Theatre of Witness is a form of performance where people who haven’t had a voice in society are actually telling their own stories,” she explained. “It’s woven together with music, sometimes with visual imagery, sometimes with film. The purpose of it is to have people bear witness and humanize the other.”
In the course of her work, Sepunick has told the stories of a wide variety of people, from convicts within the US prison system, to runaway girls in Poland, to ex-paramilitary members in Northern Ireland. Through her art, she strives to bring disparate groups of people together with the ultimate hope of dissolving the tensions that hold them apart.
“My hope is to be able to see the other as self and when I bring people together who would be enemies — which I often do in my work — and they are able to model a coming together and listening to each other and they create their own piece — and that gives hope to people,” she said.
She uses her art to reach people, to approach them from an emotionally honest angle that leaves a lasting impact. The concept of “bearing witness” is central to her work; she’s motivated by a belief that personal testimony has a uniquely powerful ability to produce affective responses.
“For me, it’s ultimately about bearing witness and hoping that people can sometimes through the personal and sometimes through the artistic, there’s a way to open the heart up in a way that all the statistics and all the opinions and everything you read can’t always do,” said Sepunick.
Sepunick’s goals are similar to those of Rachel Elkind, one of the contributing photographers. The photographs she contributed were taken on the island of Lesvos in Greece earlier this winter. She headed there on her own in an attempt to make a difference.
“I went to Lesvos by myself to volunteer.. I went there to do whatever I could, not knowing exactly what that would be,” Elkind said.
While in Greece, Elkind began to take pictures in order to process what was going on around her. Those photos, which helped her make sense of the situation in Greece, are now being displayed in LPAC with the hopes that they will also help someone else make sense of what’s going on.
“Photographing the refugees was a way to see the situation more deeply. They would wait in the cold for days for everything from food to official documents of registration,” she said.
These photographs have become a way for Elkind to share what she learned in Greece. By taking and exhibiting photographs, Elkind hoped to document and expose some of the hardships experienced by the refugees, in order to help the viewer empathize with them and try to comprehend their ordeal.
“I was educated by the refugees. They would share their stories of why they left their countries and what their journey was like. I learned about their concerns as well as their hopes. It made me more compassionate and understanding of their history as well as their desires for the future,” said Elkind.
Sepunick also noted the significance of the photographs. She noted her admiration for the images, as well as the powerful purpose they could serve on campus.
“I think these photographs are really poignant and beautiful. Harrowing — some of them,” she said. “I think it’s so vitally important to see these images and to be reminded and to be moved. I think seeing a photo exhibit is different than just seeing a photo in the paper. These feel really beautifully done, really important.”
The event and exhibit were organized by students who hoped to provide a human face for the refugees who’ve been ending up in the headlines frequently over the course of the last year. Eriko Shrestha ’19, who organized the event was specifically motivated by what she saw as the failure of the media to provide a basis for that empathetic connection Elkind and Sepunick strive for.
“I organized it because I thought it would be a good continuation from the panel on the refugee crisis last semester, and because I feel really frustrated by the way the media covers the crisis with refugees,” Shrestha said. “Yes, they could be helpless, but they also have dignity, which the media fails to portray.”
Besides the desire to counteract the media coverage she finds frustrating, Shrestha is motivated by a personal desire to better educate herself on the experiences of refugees. She expressed admiration for the refugees’ strength in times of chaos and suffering.
“As someone who has migrated several times, I definitely empathize with their struggles,” she said. “ I’m aware that even though I follow the news religiously and I’ve been to several refugee camps, I am still only aware of a fraction of their story, but it’s enough to recognize that what they face requires a lot of strength to endure.”
The photo exhibition also includes photographs contribute from Jon Warren and Laura Reinhardt. The exhibit will be on display in the lobby of LPAC through this Friday, March 4, 2016.