Cambodian boys asleep on a sofa. Haitians languishing in an immigration prison. Dutch children in exotic costumes at Ellis Island. Buddhist monks sitting cross-legged in their Bronx apartment. Cubans on their small raft in the middle of the ocean. Migrant workers sleeping on the banks of a San Diego freeway, light from the zooming cars flowing onto their tired faces.
The images in "Points of Entry" - a sweeping photographic show on display at Miami's Museum of Art through Nov. 30 - invite the visitor not simply to observe and ponder, but to "live" the American immigrant experience.
The historical scope of the show's 370 documentary images is breathtaking.
But its power comes from the fact that it explores three facets of the immigration saga rarely seen together: the story of the diverse routes taken to reach American shores, the immigrants' views of of their new home, and their struggles to maintain a sense of identity.
" 'Points of Entry' " suggests a longer view of things," says Terence Pitts, one of the three curators of the exhibition.
Navigating through the tapestry of images and emotions makes it clear there is much more to immigration than dates, numbers, and dollars. The current debate over immigration laws today - which could tear families apart, deny benefits to senior foreigners, kick illegal children out of school - lends an explosive contemporary raison d'tre to the exhibit.
Immigration, the exhibition movingly reminds us, is an ongoing human drama. It is full of complexities and contradictions. And it is made up of hopes and disappointments, joy and fears.
The three-part exhibition is a collaborative effort by three prestigious West Coast photo institutions.
"A Nation of Strangers," put together by the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, offers 204 images of immigrants from the 1840s to today. The second part, "Reframing America," designed by the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Ariz., showcases 133 photo essays by European migrs who fled poverty and fascism. "Tracing Cultures," put together by Friends of Photography in San Francisco, surveys 38 contemporary artworks.
Spectrum of humanity
"A Nation of Strangers" takes us through the whole spectrum of humanity flooding into America. In this patchwork of exotic colors and costumes, in this swirl of emotions, questions about when these people came, where they came from, and why they came aren't what matter. What counts a lot more is the intimacy of the children and families who packed their bags and came here and the toll in human anguish brought on by their journey.
"We need to put forward the idea that immigration is a shared experience," says Lorrie Mertes, an assistant curator at the Miami show. "Immigration is an ongoing story in a country's history."
This tapestry of tales and experiences speaks to the universality of immigration.
It also provokes outrage. "Native of the soil, Arouse!" exhort self-proclaimed "natives" in a poster dating back from the mid-1800s, which warns about the "Ruinous Influence of Foreign Immigration on American Labor."
Like the poster, many images in "A Nation of Strangers" testify to the government policies and the national moods that, so often, turn an immigrant's dream into ugly reality. Thus, the photos echo in today's context, reminding us that many of today's immigration-related issues - such as the sometimes-perceived unfair treatment of certain immigrant groups versus other groups - have roots deep in history.
In a 1942 photo, an FBI agent searches a family's home for incriminating evidence of links to Japan while the frightened family members look on. How forcefully the photo tells of the sad story behind the US government's evacuation of Americans of Japanese descent to detention camps during World War II.
Irony is sometimes woven in the juxtaposition of photos. A shot of Haitian refugees crammed in their raft, for instance, is not far from another photo of Haitians, this time sleeping on bunk beds at the Krome Detention Center, Miami's immigration prison.
"U.S.A. I love you. Freedom we want!" This cry of hope, captured in a 1993 color photo of Chinese immigrants arriving at America's shores in a rusty vessel begs the question: Will these immigrants' hopes be fulfilled?
Fresh social vision
Immigration is more than refugees bringing bags and needs.
It's also the story of these immigrants' talents and visions contributing to the shaping of America. In "Reframing America," the exhibition's second part, immigrants are no longer the subjects of photos but artists bringing to America their own styles and a fresh social vision. Their lenses capture a world of opportunities. But a deeply troubled one.
Standing in Times Square on his first day in America in awe of the flock of people of passing by, photographer Alexander Alland proclaimed: "For the first time in years I felt secure. Already I was one of the millions. I was an American."
Indeed, whether in his shots of Turkish-American schoolboys or of students demonstrating against racial discrimination, Alland's work captures the sense that being an American means "sharing the desire for happiness, prosperity, and liberty," regardless of one's origins.
But the America many immigrants find is more complex, more cruel. Hungarian-born Marion Palfi finds an America torn by racial intolerance and unfettered capitalism. To her, America is the eyes of the black girl standing on litter-strewn streets in Arkansas; the women sitting in the back of a bus underneath a sign that says, 'for Negroes only.'
Search for identity
The immigration journey never ends, for it is impossible to leave one's country behind completely. The immigration story, the exhibition's third part tells us, involves a constant search for identity, a constant negotiating between different cultures. How immigrants deal with their dual heritages is the main issue in the series of arts assemblages by six recently arrived artists showcased in "Tracing Cultures."
Korean immigrant Young Kim speaks for many in "Distances," an installation of 12 wood panels. Combining photographs of her family with her own thoughts, she touches upon what it means to be an American.
"We know each other and yet we don't know each other," she says.
In Panel No. 3, the artist is photographed with her father twice. In the first photo, she's a child; in the second, she's an adult. "I thought getting away from my family would change my life but I realized I had been wrong all along. One can never leave one's family."
Panel No. 7 features two sculptures - one brand-new, the other rusty. "As my English gets better, my Korean gets worse."
Kim's installation concludes with a simple shot of the ocean. "Leaving my country was not a simple task. I now realized I never really left nor really arrived."
A collective experience
"Points of Entry" isn't just for the scholars. Whether we are "true Americans" or recently arrived immigrants, it speaks to all.
Upon leaving the exhibit, visitors are asked to place a red pin on a world map to indicate their place of family origin. A few weeks ago, there were almost no blank spots. It's hard not to carry along the recognition that all Americans share the immigration story, past and present.