Communities

Refugees Tell Their Stories Through Photos Of Their Possessions

by Liz Ohanesian

June 21, 2018


Photographer Jim Lommasson had been struggling with a project for six months.

He was taking portraits of refugees at their homes in the U.S., intending to create something similar to his photography/oral history collection, “Exit Wounds: Soldiers’ Stories — Life After Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Something, however, wasn’t working.

Then a woman told him about the items that she had been able to bring with her from Iraq: a family portrait and a Koran. She asked Lommasson to make a copy of the portrait. He obliged, made an extra print, and asked her to write why she brought those items.

“What We Carried: Fragments & Memories from Iraq & Syria” was born.

Lommasson’s ongoing project began in Portland, Oregon, where the photographer is based, but he has since interviewed refugees in various cities across the country. The accompanying photography exhibition has also traveled far, from Boston to Lincoln, Nebraska, to Los Angeles.

“Everybody wants the same thing. We all want safety. We all want a roof over our heads. We want our kids to get an education and want to buy ice cream cones for our kids. Those things are all universal,” says Lommasson by phone.

He continues:

“One of my main hopes for ‘What We Carried’ is for the audience to see people for who they really are, for us to put ourselves in their shoes. I hope we look at those pictures and ask ourselves, ‘What would I bring?’ There’s a process that we go through. It might be a picture of our mother, something that has been in the family for a few generations. It might be your cellphone.

“Starting that process is valuable, but it also reminds us of what we’re leaving behind. When you’re leaving your home, you take the keys to your house because you hope you’re going to come back; but you’re also leaving your education, your culture, your history. Everything. It’s not just about the things that we carry, it’s about the things that we leave behind — and it’s more than just objects.”

GOOD spoke to Lommasson about a few photographs in the series currently on view in L.A.’s Japanese American National Museum, where the show is positioned to highlight similarities between the experiences of Middle Eastern refugees today and the experiences of Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated during World War II.

We all have had a childhood … But it differs for everyone …

Lommasson: That [used as the featured image above] is one of my favorite pieces. We expect to see teacups and candle holders and carpets and the things that we associate with the Middle East. One of the things that happens is that when we see the Barbies, 50% of the audience probably says, “I had Barbies too.”

So, again, that’s a way of breaking down stereotypes and “othering.” It builds bridges when we see things that are similar.

All photos by Jim Lommasson, used with permission.

Translation: These coffee cups remind me of my precious father who taught me so much, and who I will always remember with love and gratitude … How many times have we happily drunk bitter coffee from these cups in our house … until the decorations disappeared from its surface … I couldn’t leave these cups in Baghdad despite having left so many valuable things. 

Lommasson: She left her beautiful home. They had a lot of things like that, from her whole family history. But these cups, her father had purchased a dozen of them (and saucers) before he even met Susan’s mother.

Over time, they lost a few ... in travel ... and I like the fact that there are six saucers and five cups. She wrapped each of those in her clothes, in her bag, to try to keep them from getting broken. It brings tears to my eyes when I think of that. They’re also beautiful things.

She told me about leaving her home. When she left, she knew that — probably not long after she leaves — somebody else is going to inhabit her house, and they’re going to live with everything that she lived with all of her life, and ... that’s the end of everything that’s been familiar to her.

Translation: Alas, is today similar to yesterday? Despair, sickness, and foreignness. Will my tomorrow be just like my yesterday?

Lommasson: [Haifa’s] an academic, so she brought her books. It’s actually a book that was purchased on Al-Mutanabbi Street, which is the bookseller street in Baghdad that was blown up by a car bomb in 2006; it’s a very important part of Iraqi culture, a gathering place. It was very deliberate when the bookseller street was blown up, and that’s because they’re doing kind of what the German Nazi students did in the ‘30s; they burned books. That’s for a deliberate reason — to destroy culture and history and free thought.

So, that book that she bought on Al-Mutanabbi Street, I photographed it and gave her back the 13” x 19” archival print. I thought she would write around the book, like most people write around the objects; and then she did that beautiful ancient Arabic calligraphy and mushed some paint on the paper. She really turned this simple photograph into its own artifact.

I really feel that all of these photographs have turned into new artifacts by what the participants have hand-generated onto these photographs. When Haifa did that, I realized that this project really can speak in personal ways.

She writes about sorrow — Will my life be like my yesterday, sadness and sorrow? But I also see it as a statement of freedom and looking towards a new life and wondering how it’s going to play out.

Translation: I laugh every time I see this photo … and in the same time, I am sad because I left them.

Lommasson: Especially for kids that age, the phone is the center of their universe; it’s how they do everything, maintain everything. He showed me his phone and it was turned off.

I said, “Are there any pictures there that you have a real connection to?” and he found that one.

Translation: My mother made this carpet in the early ‘90s of the last century … It is made of my father’s old neckties. I was so keen to bring it with me for it contains a lot of memories. It reminds me especially of my mother’s skills for doing something from nothing … And that’s what she was always doing during the economic blockade on my country Iraq. That was the situation of all mothers.

Lommasson: To me, it just shows a sense of humor and being very practical. I don’t think it was created because they didn’t have a rug and they needed material for it. I think it’s represented for a sense of humor.

That’s part of the joy of this project. It’s the unexpected things. When I go to people’s homes, they’re less fortunate than me, mostly. Every time I go, they offer teas and Turkish coffee and pastries. The hospitality is so amazing and it would be an insult to say “No, I’m not hungry,” or “I don’t want to impose.”

The people in this project have really understood the project, what it could be, and how it’s giving a voice to them. I’ve had people say to me that I’m the first American that’s even given them the time of day.

I feel that this, just by the fact that we’re doing it, is important. The fact that it does reach thousands or hundreds of thousands — or maybe even millions — I think that it’s doing more than I ever imagined any project I would do could have.

That’s why we do these things. That’s why I became a photographer in the first place.

In 2002 someone told me that Paul Bremer sent a message to George Bush saying “We are not in the Gulf … We are in Mesopotamia.” Well, first it’s unfortunate that Bremer relies on Hollywood to believe that Gulf is still using camels for transportation, and expects to see flying carpets in Baghdad!

Second, it’s a pitty that I was not given the chance to show him before going to Baghdad this photo of teachers in school annual party in Baghdad … in the 60s … I could have told him that Iraqis are modern, and we are civilized enough to build our own Democracy … Maybe, and just maybe, he could have limited his job to ousting Saddam and not oust the craddle of civilization itself!!

Thank you Jim Lommason … late is better than never!

Lommasson: That comes from Dr. Baher Butti in Portland. He was a pretty high-level dignitary in Iraq and dealt with bigger issues. He was also eventually put on a kill list and had to leave Iraq.

But, basically, he’s saying: “Americans have an image of us and it isn’t exactly accurate. Here are teachers, dressed in Western clothes. We have an organized society. What you’ve seen are bombed buildings and war, but before that, we had a thriving world.”

Those were the days my friend ... We thought they never end!!

Lommasson: That’s another one from Dr. Butti. That’s him and his wife on their honeymoon. I don’t know if they’re on the edge of the Tigris or the Euphrates. He’s basically saying, “I’m nostalgic about the Iraq before Saddam and I’m nostalgic for the Iraq before the 2003 invasion.”

The wedding video I never got to watch. The father I’ll never meet.

Lommasson: If someone were to come to me and ask me to write on a photograph of one of my objects, I would probably say, “Well, where do I write? Do I use a No. 2 pencil? Should I write these?” The fact that people do things in so many different ways and they write in English or Arabic — to me, every time something unique happens, I love the fact that it’s making this whole project richer.

This is a Swiss made milk product was the most popular for children up until mid 1970. After using the milk, my mother always repurposed this can as a container to freeze water. 

This particular can is an Iraqi icon that is a constant reminder of drinking cold water in a hot summer day. I felt like I had to made room for it in my small suitcase.

Lommasson: The family would always save the milk can after using it and freeze water or juice on a hot summer day; the kids would have frozen juice or whatever. Almost every Iraqi who sees that says, “We had that same can. It’s kind of a universal thing.”

Translation: The picture on the phone is my house in Baghdad. This means home for us. This phone has all the numbers of our friends and relatives in Iraq as well as pictures.

Lommasson: That’s the last picture he took in Baghdad as he was leaving his home because he wanted to remember his home. There are so many of these that have had profound effects.

It’s not that greeting cards were not available during sanctions, or we didn’t have enough budget and time for that, but the creativity of a 7 years old daughter to send greeting card to her father is the miracle of Love that makes the world livable.

Lommasson: We all have things that a child made for us, whether it’s a birthday card that they drew or whatever.

That’s what this is: an expression of a little girl who is missing her father and how that’s something that’s so important to him. We all have those kinds of things.

Top and share photo by Jim Lommasson, used with permission.

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Refugees Tell Their Stories Through Photos Of Their Possessions