The objects immigrants hold dear
This photo series explores the emotional weight of the items immigrants carry with them to America
An immigrant's journey to America is often an emotional one — uprooted, they leave a part of themselves behind to start anew on foreign soil. Often, the few items that make it over from their old home can weigh heavy with meaning.
Anna Steinberger, who was born in Radom, Poland, holds a photograph of her parents taken before they fled German occupation. | Sept. 3, 2015 | (Marie D. De Jesus / Houston Chronicle)
Armando Perez has kept the outfit he was wearing when he arrived in the U.S. from Cuba in 1962 as a reminder of the life he left behind in the pursuit of freedom. | 2015 | (Marie D. De Jesus / Houston Chronicle)
Alex Antonio George, from Eritrea, snuck aboard a container ship in 2004, where he hid inside an oil tank for three days before he was found, fed, and given a jumpsuit to change into. | 2015 | (Marie D. De Jesus / Houston Chronicle)
In 2015, Marie De Jesus, a staff photographer for the Houston Chronicle, headed up a multimedia project exploring the Texas city's immigrant population. "The project consists of 14 different subjects representing the diversity of Houston's newcomers and the objects they brought with them," she said in an interview. "Their stories convey the depth of emotion and loss carried within the items."
The immigrants' stories were as diverse as the objects they hold dear. When Alexander Kogan, now in his 70s, came to the United States in 1979, he brought with him $114, one suitcase, and the cooking pot he used to make pilaf. Mexican Marisa Rummell grew up in the United States, but has kept her grandmother's 105-year-old hand-embroidered handkerchief as a reminder of her heritage for future generations.
Anmol Sanyasi, 14, brought a traditional combat knife when he and his family, refugees from Nepal, resettled in the U.S. in 2009. | Aug. 20, 2015 | (Marie D. De Jesus / Houston Chronicle)
When Alexander Kogan came to the U.S. from the Soviet Union in 1979, he carried his kazan cooking pot, along with $114 and his suitcase. | Oct. 13, 2015 | (Marie D. De Jesus / Houston Chronicle)
Marisa Rummell, who was born in Mexico but grew up in the United States, has kept her grandmother's 105-year-old hand embroidered handkerchief. | Sept. 21, 2015 | (Marie D. De Jesus / Houston Chronicle))
De Jesus has long been fascinated by the American immigrant experience. "My experience as a migrant, moving from [Puerto Rico] to the mainland of the United States, shared similarities to the people I was photographing," she said. "We both knew what it is like to feel the discomfort of difference while resting on the hope of carving out a space in society where we can fit in."
This shared experience gives De Jesus' photographs an emotional gravity that is only enhanced by her artful choice of isolating the subject against a stark background and focusing on the object. "Some of the stories are uplifting, but they also convey a sense of loss and nostalgia," she said. "The darkness of the black background helped amplify those emotions. I also wanted their current life to take a backseat and visually focus on the pieces of their past."
"The intimacy and power of storytelling is that it can bring disparate peoples into one space of potential understanding," she said. "That is what I hope viewers can take away — that somehow the unfamiliar can become familiar and bring them closer to the stranger."
Idolortegwolor Smith Iruru brought a song that reminds him of his home in Nigeria. | Sept. 12, 2015 | (Marie D. De Jesus / Houston Chronicle)
Lourdes Reira, originally from Honduras, crossed the Rio Grande River carrying the photographs of her children. | Aug. 19, 2015 | (Marie D. De Jesus / Houston Chronicle)
Krishna Vavilala, 78, brought his father-in-law's Ph.D dissertation from India as a reminder of how much the family values education. | Sept. 15, 2015 | (Marie D. De Jesus / Houston Chronicle)