Picture.Me.Here is a digital storytelling exhibit for refugees from the Mercy Housing/ Grace Apartments in Aurora. A year ago, Brigid McAuliffe, Erin Preston and Lauren Dorn, digital storytelling professionals, sat in a Bhutanese woman's apartment, drinking amazing tea and teaching that woman and other refuges how to handle hand-me-down cameras. The participants had been chosen by Lutheran Family Services, which provides help for about 2,000 refuges a year in Colorado. McAuliffe and Preston wanted to show the women gathered for the class that photography could be a very powerful tool.They could use it to learn about the world around them, overcome language barriers, and document life.
After five months of teaching the basics, the refuges were granted gallery space for a week at PlatteForum to show off their new skills. McAuliffe, Preston and Dorn joined together for another round of the program, teaching a dozen refugees how to document their lives in photographs. The result of their work, Picture.Me.Here, opens at opens at 3 p.m. Saturday, October 5, at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center.
Fast forward a year, and the program has grown immensely. "The cameras we were using were from the beginning stages of digital photography," says Preston of that first round. "We did a lot of fundraising." And it paid off, because now the program has far better equipment thanks to donations from the Denver Foundation and private donors; Reed Art & Imaging contributed the prints of all the photos for this second show.
The program also moved out of that one-bedroom apartment and into a learning space at the Mercy House Apartments on East 13th Avenue. And what started as a group of Bhutanese refugees turned into a class of many more cultures, with ages ranging from 14 to 45. Some of the refugees had only been in the country, but they learned fast.
Twelve refugees from Burma, Bhutan, Thailand, Nepal and Tibet signed up for this year's class, which began in June. There were mothers and children in the group, but they all quickly became a family of photographers.
Armed with their cameras, they took on weekly assignments, "We had them take a picture of a picture," says McAuliffe, pointing to a picture taken by Anjana and Pabitra Adhikari, a Bhutanese mother and daughter team who came to Denver in 2011 from a refugee camp in Nepal. Their pictures of pictures were of family members back home. Anajan took one of her being held by her grandmother: "When I remember this picture I think of my grandma," she says. "She is so cute. Now she is so old, but she is still cute. She is kind of white and kind of short. Shorter then me, I love her so much when I see this. She loves me so much and you know what? She is one of the great grandmother in the world."
As the program grows, McAuliffe and Preston say they hope that past students will come back to become teaching assistants. This year's assistant was Bierendra Dikahl, a refugee who's been in Denver for the last six years. He attended South High School, where he took his first photography class and became hooked; he is now a student at Metropolitan State University and works at a gas station, where he took photos for the exhibit.
He learned the power of storytelling through a lens, he says, and choose for his pictures to be in black and white: "If this picture is colorful, it would probably mean something else but since it's black and white, it's a sad image. It's me at 12 a.m., alone, doing nothing, kind of scary, but nothing happened that day."
The teachers collected audio files of the students giving a little back-story on their photographs. At the exhibit, mp3 players will be available so that people can listen to the students' stories and experience their great sense of humor. Jamuna Dahal took a picture of herself in the reflection of a building on Colfax; she explains the process with this: "Some people, it's their street, and they are walking there in the background. I'm in the foreground. I don't like Colfax much."
Picture.Me.Here opens from 3 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, October 5, at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, 1513 Boulder Street. The show runs through October; find more information here.