Approximately 60 million refugees survive around the world today in the largest international refugee crisis since World War II. Yet, prominent American voices have recently begun to rouse fears and to problematize United States acceptance of refugees at a time when they most need safety and despite an American tradition of welcoming persecuted people. In an effort to act as global citizens, Vassar students with Professor of History and Chair of the department Maria Höhn, introduced the Vassar College: Solidarity with Refugees initiative and a six-week course on the 21st Century Worldwide Refugee Crisis.
To explore the ways in which Vassar students can help to alleviate the crisis, Professor Höhn asked documentary photographer and activist Kristin Rehder to Vassar as a model of an individual making a difference, in particular through the arts. Rehder presented her most recent project examining the concepts of community and acceptance of resettled refugees in Lancaster, Pa. to the class and its guests. Rehder’s photographic-activist work is personal and comes from wanting to learn, to grow and to change the world; a goal of activism she insists is necessary for all of us.
As she drew from her understanding of Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea of beloved community in conceptualizing her project, Rehder said in an emailed statement, “I found the notion of a beloved community that we work toward now to be quite compelling.” The question of Rehder’s work became: “How do you use photography to try to convey the concept of a beloved community?”
Professor Höhn imagined a similar question and wondered in response to Rehder’s presentation, “How can our students, for example, use the photographer’s lens to introduce people in our own community perhaps into our larger community of cohabitation?”
A series of the individual mug shots of the Freedom Riders provided a template of how individual photos or portraits, shown together, demonstrated a beloved community. Rehder chose Lancaster, Pa. and its refugee population as the subject of her community–and activist-based explorations.
When asked why she chose photography as the medium for her activism, Rehder said, “If you want to affect what people think or how they experience the world or how they might imagine change, a picture is a very powerful medium. We live in a highly visual age. Photos and images are a universal language. They move through social media rapidly and have tremendous impact.” In fact, over 10,000 people have viewed her video “Look in My Eyes”–a video compilation of her refugee portraits–online on YouTube and on social media platforms like Facebook.
Rehder explained her methods for photography as an illustration of story: “For the refugee project I put less emphasis on me and my art and gave more attention to them—who they are and the story they had to tell me.” She uses the camera to see better and to learn rather than to take a picture.
According to Rehder, “My goal is to create an experience for viewers in which they feel that they could have just met the person in the photograph. One way to do that is to keep it ‘natural’ but still interesting.” Her photographic method therefore includes natural lighting, the refugee’s familiar home settings and direct eye contact.
Direct eye contact, though, seems the most significant of Rehder’s aesthetic criteria. She explains, “We dignify another person when we look at them face-to-face, eye-to-eye…it’s also about how they have given us permission to see them honestly and directly by looking right at us.” Eye contact requires relation, engagement, identification and to view the other as human and real.
Rehder further describes engagement with her refugee subjects not only in the eye contact of the portraits themselves but also in the photography sessions. She said, “There is something that happens when I am looking at a person through the lens and that person is staring right at me—there’s a moment when it all comes together and I feel it deep inside. It’s as if the person has let me in.”
Ashley LaMere ’18, a German and International Studies double major, said of the Rehder’s photographs, “Rehder’s work emphasizes that aestheticizing a crisis, such as that of refugees and displaced peoples, can prove to be an endeavor which is both polemical and profoundly personal.” Rehder does take her work personally, a quality she feels activism necessitates.
A significant turning point challenged Rehder’s understanding of the sympathy she perceived refugees needed and her knowledge of the refugees’ roles in the Lancaster community and in communities around the world. In an interview with a Russian refugee family comprised of a mother, father, and three daughters of high-school and college ages, she learned from the girls of their involvement in the community – student councils, charity projects, community outreach programs, National Honor Society, sports.
This marked moment reflected what Rehder said she learned similarly from all of her refugees: “They felt Lancaster was a welcoming home. They want and expect to work hard. They want to learn to speak English if they don’t already. Many speak several languages. Children and grandparents are to be nurtured and cared for within the family.” These refugees were and are active members in their community.
Rehder told me a Russian refugee’s story. She said they had come from so little, been through struggles and now understand them more. The refugee realized she wanted to help others with similar problems and give them hope. When asked why she felt Rehder’s presentation important, Professor Höhn said, “We want the class to be, on the one hand, intellectually educating students by learning about the crisis, but also to be a sort of advocacy class…she inspired them to search for their own way to make a difference.”
Jenna Doherty ’17, a drama major, attended Ms. Rehder’s presentation said, “As a student in the arts, I think it’s important to see how actual artist-activists are using their mediums to try to make a point, to change public perspectives, to affect change, and to bring good through their passion.”
With increasing numbers of refugees worldwide and a surge in public debate surrounding these displaced persons, Rehder said of her project, which began two years ago, “World events inserted themselves into this project like lightning bolts, making our work on the project even more critical in terms of showing real people in a positive model of resettlement.” She works to introduce to those who may distrust the different or the other the refugees as “real people, already living with them, as Ahmad from Afghanistan said, ‘under one sky.’ We are already neighbors. We want many of the same things.”
Rehder noted the importance of educators in response to these global events saying, “The way we counter prejudice and ignorance and fear-mongering is to educate, educate, educate, and being able to show this kind of work and invite people to debate every aspect of it is something I truly love about creating it.” Kristin Rehder’s work premieres on April 28 in its inaugural exhibit and will continue to teach viewers attending its further exhibitions about issues of migration, citizenship, human rights, globalism, social change, history, culture, entitlement, identity and art.