Rebecca Herman: Documented: Stories from Both Sides of the Border, 2007-2008
Introduction by Rebecca Herman
As a Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow from 2007 to 2008, I worked with the Immigrant and Refugee Initiative (RIRI) at Roca, a youth-focused social justice organization located in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Chelsea has the lowest per capita income of any town in the state of Massachusetts; more than a quarter of the city’s population under the age of eighteen lives below the poverty line. The city is home to a large and growing immigrant population. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids are common in Chelsea and their destructive consequences, both anticipated and actual, were a constant worry.
Within this context, one of the greatest challenges I faced as a documentarian involved representation. While some of the participants I worked with had documents, some did not. Given the ever-present threat of raids and deportations, I was concerned about how best to help young immigrants who were undocumented tell their stories—how to create a documentary about their lack of documents?
While I was shooting video and making the two bodies of work that comprise Northbound the question of how to represent the participants in RIRI was particularly challenging. The visual treatment in Northbound evolved over several shoots. I rejected the common method employed by television productions to conceal an individual’s identity—using a darkened silhouette or blurring his or her face and voice—as I felt these techniques would serve to criminalize the narrator and also eliminate the visual cues I wanted to retain. Physical expressions of emotion help viewers relate to a narrator despite sometimes dramatic differences between their lives. These cues are even more important when the narrator is speaking a different language, which prevents the audience from reading and interpreting subtleties such as word choice and intonation.
As an experiment, I filmed four narrators from Mexico and Central America with two cameras, with one framing the mouth and the other framing the eyes. The narrator featured in this video shares the difficult experiences he endured in order to come to this country without immigration documents. I hope this piece will shed light on and stimulate dialogue about the experiences that some members of our community go through in order to live in the United States.
The Immigrant and Refugee Initiative planned to host an event for International Women's Day, and the program participants decided to showcase famous female leaders from their countries of origin. I suggested we also celebrate women important in their daily lives. I asked individuals to bring in photographs of women they admired. Participants who rarely participated in other activities were eager to make sure that I got their photos. With the help of another Hine Documentary Fellow, Amanda van Scoyoc, I blew the images up and printed them on 8 x 10 photo paper. I then interviewed the participants about the women they had chosen and asked them to write on the photographs. The portraits were exhibited at the International Women's Day event and subsequently in classrooms that the Refugee and Immigrant Initiative use for ESL and Spanish GED classes.
The interview process was the most compelling to me because individuals who were normally reluctant to tell their stories were amazingly talkative when speaking of their loved ones. Without fail, sharing the stories of people they loved led to them sharing their own stories.
Introduction by Rebecca Herman to the Know Your Rights! Booklet
Roca developed the Know Your Rights! booklet in response to the increase in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in Chelsea. The organization wanted to provide community members with basic information about how to negotiate an encounter with the police or ICE officers. Working with Roca, I designed this booklet, and Hine Documentary Fellow Amanda van Scoyoc illustrated it. Over 4,000 copies have been printed and distributed to local churches, schools, and a variety of educational programs.
Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow 2007-2008
Rebecca Herman graduated from Duke in 2005 with a dual major in literature and history, and Spanish. Fluent in Spanish and in Brazilian Portuguese, she has worked on human rights issues for the last three years in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Bolivia.