Anti-refugee posters popped up around Monroe Street and Riverside Avenue earlier this year, and the Spokane City Council recently approved piling sharp rocks under bridges to deter people seeking a place to lie down. When organizers of Terrain’s latest exhibit “Snapshot: A Look at Spokane Right Now,” conceived of the project, they didn’t know it would be so timely, as the city grapples with ways to serve two communities: the homeless and refugees.
The question becomes: Does art have the power to soften hostility? Can pictures provide a window for understanding?
The nonprofit arts organization Terrain put cameras into the hands of a dozen members of two often overlooked communities: local homeless teens and former refugees living in Spokane. The results will be displayed alongside that of local professional photographers taking part in the “Snapshot” exhibition. ” The display that continues through September.
The foundation of the show, which opened in July, was built on the works of six local photographers of diverse races, ethnic backgrounds, ages and sexual orientations, who were invited to share images of the Spokane they see every day.
These established artists – Rajah Bose, Robert J. Lloyd, Laree Weaver, Kristen Black, Grace Lindsey, and Young Kwak – have been joined by dozens of amateur photographers whose works were plucked from Instagram with the hashtag #snapshotspokane. The result has been a celebration on Terrain’s walls of Spokane’s emergence as a hotbed of creativity and diverse experiences.
Terrain took the show further this past week after reaching out to two local nonprofits: Crosswalk, an emergency shelter and school drop-out prevention program, and Global Neighborhood, focused on using business to provide former refugees with development opportunities.
Terrain Gallery curator Ginger Ewing said that the reasoning behind having local refugees and homeless teens participate in “Snapshot” was to include more voices in exploring what Spokane means. “My hope is that these under-represented members of our community feel empowered and proud of the work that they’ve contributed,” Ewing said. “The idea behind this exhibit as a whole is making sure that everybody has a voice.”
Artist, photographer, and Spokane Falls Community College art professor Carl Richardson, who serves on Terrain’s advisory committee, volunteered to teach a crash course to a dozen budding photographers. He also developed the resulting photos and helped curate the show.
While having lunch this summer with six teens at Crosswalk, Richardson handed the youths new Vivitar cameras (provided through funding from the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Foundation), and talked about what makes a good picture.
“Then after walking with them on the streets for an hour I just turned them loose,” Richardson said. “I told them ‘You’ve got 600 pictures you are able to take on this thing, so don’t be afraid. There is no wrong picture, so just do your thing.’ ”
One of the resulting photos currently on display is a black and white image of a street sign that all the Crosswalk teens see every single day on their way out of the organization’s building downtown. Most prominent is a single arrow stamped “ONE WAY.”
John Robertson, the assistant director of homeless youth programs at Volunteers of America/Crosswalk, said that the directional sign photo struck him as a symbol of a the new path that homeless teens can take if they are willing to walk it. “Crosswalk provides an environment where you can get out of survival mode and start to set goals and a better direction for yourself,” Robertson said.
Another Crosswalk teen photographed a circle of her friends’ feet. “They were just fooling around together and having fun,” Richardson said. “I wanted to make sure this project didn’t exploit anybody … These are typical teenagers just like anybody, and I want people to see that.”
“If just one of these kids goes on to enjoy art in their lives, then it’s a win,” Richardson said.
Richardson had to use the services of an interpreter to lead the tutorial he gave to a group of five refugees from Global Neighborhood. He worked with Mohammed and Athraa, a married couple recently arrived from Iraq; Mahsumeh, a mother from Afghanistan who is now Global Neighborhood’s assistant manager at the thrift store; Farah, who is from Sudan and is now lead driver for Global Neighborhood; and Mohammed, formerly an electrician from Syria.
“They seemed really excited to participate once I was able to communicate where and why the photos would be shown,” Richardson said.
The teenagers’ works debut tonight with a reception from 5-8 p.m. The Global Neighborhood cameras are due back on Tuesday. The former refugees’ additions to the show will launch with an opening reception at Terrain on Sept. 15 at the Cracker Co. building from 5-8 p.m.
Jen Landis, Global Neighborhood’s communications director, was gratified that Terrain chose to include the perspectives of former refugees “simply because they are Spokane residents,” she said. “For Spokane residents who are not former refugees, Global Neighborhood’s ‘Snapshot’ Spokane reception is one of those opportunities to listen, learn and see our city through new lenses.”
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