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Image Issue: The Refugee

Tariq Tarey is motivated by a simple, dual mission: That refugees are an asset to America—not a liability. And that most Americans don’t know when they’re looking at one. In fact, he often experiences it himself.

He’s encountered many Columbus citizens who see the sharp-dressed photographer and his J.Crew-esque style, not the man who sought refuge in the States from his war-torn home country of Somalia, and suffered through refugee camps along the way. Which, leads to the third part of his mission:

We are just like you.

“It’s easy to hate things that you don’t know. And what I want to do is show these new guests—people like me, people who have come as refugees—as humans, and share their stories with everybody,” he explained. “It’s hard to hate somebody you know on a personal level, so I just want to create a bridge between the communities—the guests and the hosts.”

In these uncertain times of human migration, Tarey’s work as a visual ethnographer is the perfect lead for our Image Issue. Shot on large format film stock, it’s permanent, real, and moving, and showcases the innate, basic power of photography— the way it equalizes, emotionally, people from all corners of the Earth.

What is it that truly drives you to do what you do? It’s like Obama said: “In no other country on Earth is my story possible.” We want to be part of a society and be integrated and own businesses and go to schools, go to universities, be part of the middle class. It’s almost impossible in many places on earth but America makes it possible for many refugees. What I want to capture is that story; I want to share it with the other Americans and also keep the stories for future generations.

How much did your motivation change in the aftermath of Trump’s victory? This has been brewing for a long time. Race and equality in America … [it’s] not something new. Yes, there is a lot of noise and there are a lot of people out right now, saying no to Muslims, saying no to others … no to Mexicans and so forth. I like to focus on the positive side of America, America that welcomes, America that gives opportunities to the new Americans that come, America that is tolerant to religion and peaceful. That is the America that I like to focus on right now. My work continues and the conversation continues about the true contribution of refugees when they first arrive to the United States. It’s to focus on the good and to keep the conversation very civil.

Why shoot film, and why large format? In the end of 2001, I walked into a camera shop called Midwest Photo Exchange and at that time there was a young man working there from Somalia. A refugee who was a photographer—is a photographer—and he handed me my first roll of film and ever since, I’ve been shooting film. I feel comfortable with it; I have a process in place, a workflow … also the longevity of film. Most of the stuff that I shoot is for archival purposes because, obviously, they’re part of an American story and I want to keep that for future generations.

Also, it slows me down. When I have my subject sitting before my camera, I like to engage, I like to talk, I like to have sort of a dialogue, an understanding, a mutual respect and, digital, as wonderful as it is, it seems to be a quick-fix. You shoot and it’s not in ones and zeros—it’s emotion, it’s silver, it’s organic. It’s something that you have captured as an artist and it’s hard to do that in digital, I believe. I shoot digital as well for other projects, but when it comes to the stories that I want to capture for future generations, definitely film is my go-to.

What are the misconceptions about refugees that are living in Columbus and the United States as a whole? I think the biggest one is the security, or the vetting process. Many refugees, like myself, went through an extreme vetting process and what that really means is that you go through questions about your birthplace, the reason why you’re a refugee, and so forth and so on. First, you get interviewed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, when you register as a refugee and they go through the background. Then, once you get processed, if you qualify for a third country resettlement, you go to Australia, Canada, or the United States. If you are selected to go to the United States, you go through several interagency questions. Some of these things are years apart. You know, first year, second year, third year, and then obviously fingerprints and then many many background checks. There are so many things they ask you about who you really are, and they do the background checks so anybody can’t just come in.

Most Americans can’t differentiate between the refugees you see in Columbus and the Florida nightclub shooter and the San Bernadino Californian shooters. First of all, the nightclub shooter was American-born, so it’s hard to safeguard [from] that, and the Californian shooters I think those came through a student visa—they didn’t come through the refugee process. So the notion that refugees are high-risk, it’s extremely, extremely, rare and almost non-existent. That’s one huge misconception.

The second one is that the cost to the America taxpayer is a ton of money. As soon as refugees arrive they receive an allowance of roughly $2,000 that pretty much covers their life to start—mattress, dishes, that kind of stuff. And they get cash assistance, about $250-$280/month per person for eight months. And if you don’t speak the language and you haven’t been trained in the American workforce, finding a job in eight months is extremely difficult.

The third one, that refugees take jobs from Americans. That’s actually not true. In Columbus alone, according to the Community Research Partners’ study they published in 2015, Columbus Ohio has 873 businesses that were created by refugees. And that’s job creation—not taking jobs, they’ve created jobs. The refugee spending power, what they spend in the economy in Columbus Ohio is $35.9 million per year. So the notion that refugees actually are not an asset to our community, and they are a liability, is absolutely false, every study after study will tell you. The median household income [for refugees] in 2015 was $42,000/year, and for American-born, it would be $51,000—not far off if you look at it. It’s a really huge misconception. Columbus, Ohio is a model of what refugees can do for a community—we build a community. The Northland Mall, as you recall about 15-20 years ago, was a very rough neighborhood and now that area neighborhoods they clean, they revitalise the neighborhood and it’s extremely important for the public to know that.

Now that everyone has a camera phone in their pocket, why is professional/traditional photography still important? I think democratization of art is something that is amazing, and I’m a true believer of giving everyone the same tool, in order for us to capture our own history and our own path. The difference is, instead of just photographing your family, your children, which is very important, my goal is to save the history of America today, so future generations, can access it in a very professional and intentional way. So, when I photograph a subject they usually are interviewed, and images are scanned and catalogued and saved. All those things in the future will give us a way of looking back and seeing the Bhutanese Nepali first generation, like the Irish who came here last turn of the century, or Italians, or other immigrants. So I think there’s a slight difference, although the tools might be the same or similar, the intentions are much deeper. It’s a way of saving history for all to access in the future.

Tarey is an award-winning documentarian, honored by the Columbus Museum of Art and the Ohio Arts Council, among many. This spring he will be launching a show at the Ohio Historical Center on the Bhutanese-Nepali people of Columbus. For more, visit tariqtarey.com.

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Travis Hoewischer

I've been working in journalism in central Ohio for more than a decade, and have been lucky enough to be a part of (614) Magazine since the very first issue. Proud to live in a city that still cares – and still reads.