Boise Idaho is home to a unique population of refugees from The Democratic Population of Congo, Iraq, Syria, Burma, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bhutan and many other regions around the world. Since the 1970's, it's been a haven for many immigrant groups, largely because of its low cost of living, and also its high quality of life, and in 2015, Idaho was named one of the most welcoming states for accepting refugees in the entire United States. Many of these refugees barely escaped their home countries, and have gradually rebuilt their lives, contributing significantly to local and national economies despite a previous legacy of trauma and hardship. For more than a year, after receiving a grant from the City of Boise, Los Angeles based (but with deep Idahoan roots) editorial and commercial photographer Angie Smith has been photographing these communities to help tell their story and illuminate the broader refugee experience in the United States. We spoke with Smith to learn more about the project, which she's titled Stronger Shines The Light Inside, and her just-launched Kickstarter campaign which will raise funds to expand it.
How did this project start? What was the first image you made for it?
I first got the idea for this project actually about 5 years ago. I was home visiting my dad in Idaho and I remember driving around Boise and noticing refugees in different places throughout town. Many of them were wearing traditional clothing and it was such a contrast against the four lane streets lined with strip malls and snow-capped mountains in the distance. I started to ask people about it and found out that Boise was a refugee resettlement city and has been since 1975. That was the first time I had that lightning bolt moment, and I knew that this was an incredible project. It struck me in a way that was different from any other project I’ve ever done. I tried to start it then, but I didn’t get very much traction. I think the refugee agencies were very protective of their clients’ privacy. I remember feeling like the doors weren’t opening for me to start this back then. I promised myself that I would come back to it and try again. A little over a year ago I was skiing with my family in Canada, and on the last day of the trip, I fell and tore the MCL in my knee. I couldn’t walk and went back to Idaho with my dad to heal for a couple of weeks. It was during that time that I was introduced to Rita Thara, a young woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo who came to Boise as a refugee 4 years ago. She and I hit it off and that lightning bolt struck again, that this was a project I had to start, and the time was right. I was lucky because it was several months before the refugee crisis in Europe hit the news. I took the first portrait of Rita with a Mamiya RZ. She loved having her picture taken and let me experiment and figure out how I wanted to approach the project visually.
What’s your relationship to the people you are photographing?
I stay in touch with almost all of the people I have photographed, and many of them have become good friends of mine. I try to frequent the places where I have met many of my subjects like church services. Every time I am in Boise, I go to this one church where most of the congregation is from the Congo. I also try to stop by the businesses of refugees that I have photographed just to say hi and support them. It’s really important to me that I develop a relationship with people. I want them to know that I am about more than just getting a great picture and disappearing. This project is about creating connection within the community and getting the people of Boise to understand how amazing these people are, that they’ve been to hell and back and continue to persevere and create a new life. With this project and exhibition, my hope is that the pictures and interviews open people’s eyes to all of the unique individuals in their community and hopefully change their perception of who or what a refugee is.
What in particular draws you to these communities and their experience?
I was fortunate because my family encouraged me to travel from a young age. My brothers are much older than me and they both lived in countries like Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia when I was a teenager. I visited them in some of these places and through my college years, I lived in different countries where I didn’t speak the language. Those experiences were really formative and helped me understand that connecting with someone when you don’t have language or a shared cultural understanding to fall back on is one of the most incredible experiences you can have. You have to find other ways to communicate and it becomes more of a heart-based communication. I think the same thing happens here when I am working on this project in Boise, I get that incredible feeling in my heart every time I take a photograph or do an interview. I have an appreciation for all of the cultures that people are coming from and the extremely challenging circumstances they have endured. On top of that, the fact that they are have come to Idaho is proof that they are of the 1% of all refugees that are resettled. Out of 60 million refugees in the world, only 1% are resettled. For each and every refugee in Idaho, coming to the U.S. was an absolute miracle, like winning the lottery.
Tell us a bit about your interaction with the people you photograph.
Usually I try to do a short interview with the person before we get started. I like to get a sense of their background, when they arrived, what their hopes and dreams are. I ask them about their life and where they spend their time, what activities do they like doing, and what is important to them. I also try to come to their house and see what their environment is like, to see what would work best for a photo. Then we usually make an appointment and I come do the shoot, it takes about an hour, then do a more in depth interview after. Usually the photo shoot is somewhat of a bonding experience so the interview that follows, the person opens up a bit more than they would if we did the interview first. I always try to very clearly explain what the project is and where the pictures will end up. I show them examples of other photographs I have taken of refugees, and then I show them a composite of what the exhibition will look like at the end of the project. I began working with Hanne Steen, to gather interviews who has helped me conduct some of the interviews and transcribe them if they are done in French, and she has helped me edit the final excerpts.
Where does the title Stronger Shines The Light Inside come from?
After a few months of working on the project and after I received the City of Boise grant, I realized that I needed a great title. It took me about a month of exploring different names. Nothing was quite right. I finally reached out to a friend who was in the project, a guy named Patrick from the Democratic Republic of Congo who had told me in an interview that he writes poetry. I asked him to send me a poem to try and get my mind to generate new ideas. I also reached out to a friend who is a professional namer and copywriter and asked her to help me. She encouraged me to come up with 5 different concepts that the project represented and within each concept, brainstorm words and word combinations. Three days later, we came up with Stronger Shines the Light Inside. It was perfect. I wanted it to be poetic, but applicable to many different experiences and geographic locations. I didn’t want it to be too Idaho specific because I knew I wanted the project to travel to other cities and even countries.
How has the project changed since you began?
At first I thought I was just going to make a photo series. But I quickly realized that this had the potential to be much bigger and more impactful. Once I got the grant from the City of Boise, and started developing the work, I realized that the interviews were just as important. With each photo shoot, people would share with me aspects of their story. The people were willing to open up and talk about what they had been through, and more than that, they wanted to talk about it. I already had this platform set up to show these images through a large scale, outdoor, public exhibition. Their words needed to be a part of this. I teamed up with a writer, Hanne Steen, who grew up in Rwanda, the Central African Republic and Kenya. She had lived in some of the countries that many of Boise’s refugees came from, she spoke French and could help conduct and transcribe the interviews.
I want the Boise exhibition to be the first phase of this project. I want to travel to other resettlement cities in the U.S. and make work in the same format. Eventually, I want to publish a book that includes multiple cities, I want to make short films about individuals in the project; I want to travel all over the world shooting this work. I have no idea what will happen, I can only hope that it will take me as far as I want to go. But it always goes back to that balance of putting everything I have into it and letting go of all expectations.
Has this work changed the way you think about the world at large?
There is something in this project that can benefit all people, whether it’s refugees or people in Boise that are indifferent to their presence in Boise, and everyone in between. The social impact of this project makes it all the more satisfying to work on. Most of the work I have made in the past is important to me, and maybe they are interesting pictures but they won’t necessarily change a person’s life. I want these pictures and the writing to change the way people think about themselves, about refugees and their community.
How does this relate to your commercial work, and your other personal work?
The work is really a combination of environmental portraits and more straight reportage, but I use almost the same lighting setup for every situation, so the work maintains consistency. I use similar lighting for my commercial work, so there is a definite consistency there as well. For many years, I shot personal landscape work about suburban development in and around Boise. It’s such an idyllic community in so many ways; I used to capture that in my landscapes. I still try to incorporate this beauty and peaceful feeling into some of the pictures in Stronger Shines The Light Inside. For example, when the refugees talk about nature or the beauty of Idaho, I try to photograph them in an environment that they frequent. Many people say the landscape in Boise reminds them of home. I have had people from Iraq, Syria and the Congo all say Idaho reminds them of home.
Who are some of your biggest photographic influences?
A combination of very different influences has inspired me along the way. Definitely some of the multimedia stories published in the New York Times Magazine, especially one called Desperate Crossing, shot by Paolo Pellegrin. Another project by Paolo Pellegrin and Alex Majoli called Congo was really influential. Pieter Hugo’s work. I actually just discovered a book today called Refugee Hotel, a beautiful series done by Gabriele Stabile. It isn’t anything like my work stylistically but it really inspired me to see interviews combined with photographs. There are a couple of pictures I found of teenagers in their rooms shot by Alexi Hay that helped me think about the lighting setup I wanted to create. I did a lot of research on lighting and decided to always mix natural light with strobe. The audio-based storytelling platform Story Corps impacted the project as well as Humans of New York for the social media component. The Photoville Festival in Brooklyn has an exhibition called The Fence, which inspired me to make the exhibition outdoors and open to the public.
Why is a Kickstarter necessary to move this along?
In the beginning, I thought the Kickstarter would be a last resort. I tried to fundraise from many different sources; Sponsorships, Donors, Grants and last resort being Kickstarter. I found that it was extremely hard to get Sponsorships. I put in a good two months of trying over 50 companies and finally backed off because I was spending all of my time pitching sponsorships and not enough time shooting. I had to start conserving my energy. I applied for different grants, got one, didn’t get some, and am still waiting to hear about a few. Fundraising has definitely been the hardest aspect of this project. But the first grant I got from the City of Boise was definitely the most important one. That really gave me the green light to put everything I had into this project and I to trust that the other pieces would fall into place. This project has been a constant pendulum swing between putting everything I have into it and letting go of my expectations.
Bio: Angie Smith is a photographer based in Los Angeles, CA. She works locally between LA + Portland, OR + Seattle, WA. Originally from Eugene, Oregon, Angie left the evergreens and misty rain to study photography at Bard College in Upstate New York. She spent 4 very influential years there studying with Larry Fink, Stephen Shore and Vik Muniz. Upon graduating she moved to New York City and worked in the photo departments of several magazines: Complex, Life and Men's Journal. With time, she decided to leave the Big Apple for the City of Angels, where she now resides. Angie calls Los Angeles home in between travel assignments and teaching workshops for National Geographic. She is fluent in Spanish and can get by with a few words Portuguese and French. Over the past 4 consecutive years, she has taught photography workshops in Ecuador, Italy, Spain, London and Paris. Selected clients include New York Times Magazine, Travel and Leisure, New York Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Sunday Times Magazine