Jim Lommasson: Stories of Survival: Object – Image – Memory
If your life were in danger and you had to leave your home immediately, with no hope of returning, what would you take with you? What would you leave behind?
Today I’m honored to share an interview with Jim Lommasson, the award-winning photographer behind Stories of Survival: Object, Image, Memory at the Illinois Holocaust Museum on view through January 13, 2019.
Over two years, Lommasson photographed more than 60 items carried by Holocaust and genocide survivors who fled to safety in America. Survivors were then asked to engage with the photographs and express themselves however they felt comfortable, directly on the print.
We talked about this unique, collaborative approach to visual storytelling, his background in documentary photography, and what’s next.
Jim Lommasson is an award-winning photographer and author living in Portland, Oregon. He received the 2004 Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize from The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University for his first book, Shadow Boxers: Sweat, Sacrifice and The Will To Survive In American Boxing Gyms.
Lommasson’s 2015 book and traveling exhibition, Exit Wounds: Soldiers’ Stories – Life after Iraq and Afghanistan, profiles U.S. veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and their lives after war. It led to Lommasson being awarded an Oregon Humanities Conversation Project Grant for his public discussion “Life after War.”
His companion project, What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization, is an ongoing collaborative storytelling project with displaced Iraqi and Syrian refugees who have fled to the U.S. It was awarded a Regional Arts and Culture Council Project Grant, was published in 2016 by Blue Sky Books and has been widely exhibited in galleries and museums across the U.S. What We Carried will be exhibited at The Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration in New York City, May 28 – September 3, 2019.
Stories of Survival: Object, Image, Memory
Illinois Holocaust Museum, July 16, 2018 – January 13, 2019
“I was living in Germany in the thirties, and I knew that Hitler had made it his mission to exterminate all Jews, especially the children and the women who could bear children in the future. I was unable to save my people, only their memory.” – Roman Vishniac
We often think about war and its aftermath, as though there were a clear demarcation between the two. Few ponder the tectonic forces, the signs and omens that portend the end of an era. But Vishniac saw the war looming, and urgently began to document a way of life on the verge of extinction.
My recent projects, Exit Wounds: Soldiers’ Stories – Life after Iraq and Afghanistan; What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization; and Stories of Survival: Object · Image · Memory, have been driven by a desire to illuminate the darkness and give voice to the silenced.
Inspired by the model developed for What We Carried, Stories of Survival is a collaborative photography and storytelling project with Holocaust and genocide survivors who fled to safety in the America. It centers on objects they were able carry with them on perilous journeys. From my photograph of the object, the participant responded with a story, a memory, a poem or a drawing. Their stories speak to the luminous inner life of these ordinary things and testify to the unspeakable anguish of a life forever left behind.
Shortly after What We Carried opened at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in January 2016, Museum staff asked me to create a similar project with Holocaust Survivors. Over a two-year period, the project expanded to include objects and stories from a too-long history of genocide in Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda and South Sudan.
Roman Vishniac’s impulse to photograph what he saw on the horizon in Europe was prescient. It’s clear to me that the currents of hate and bigotry still run strong. Stories of Survival memorializes those lost and those who survived, but it is also a call to action. We need to listen, and act. – Jim Lommasson
Megan Ross: Can you talk about your journey as a photographer? When did you start taking photographs?
Jim Lommasson: When I was ten, in the 1960s, my parents took me to Montgomery Wards. I’d always go to toy aisle to look at microscopes and chemistry sets. One day I found a darkroom kit with a little contact printer that you could print a 2 ¼ negative, and three trays for developer, stop bath and fixer. I remember setting it up in a closet in my bedroom. It was magic. It was alchemy! For me it was less about photography than it was the darkroom experience. But I had to take pictures to get back to the darkroom, so I did.
I went to an all boys’ technical high school where I majored in graphic arts. I learned about printing presses, setting type, photography, and art. I gravitated to photography and spent most of my time in the darkroom. Then I went to Portland State University and majored in sociology but couldn’t pass statistics. So I ended up in the art department taking photography classes.
One of the most profound experiences for me was a night critique class. A classmate had a young daughter that she brought to class one night when she couldn’t find a babysitter. The professor was describing some prints up on the wall, asking us to consider the luminosity and tonal range. The little girl was bored and said, “So what?”
I thought, wow. That’s a good question to ask about a photograph. That became a mantra for me. My career has been about making pictures that can have an answer to so what.
MR: Who were your photographic influences?
JL: Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn, Lewis Hine—I spent a day with Roman Vishniac and that was a key thing. I love Irving Penn’s series of detritus found on the streets of NYC. I’ve always love how he transformed ordinary objects into things of beauty. When I started What We Carried I didn’t realize that Penn’s photos were an influence until much later. But mostly the 70s semi-street photographers. People like Hine—people who made a difference. When I saw their work, I realized I had this toolkit and could apply it to do something meaningful.
MR: Your projects seem to unfold organically, with one leading to the next. Can you describe how Stories of Survival came about?
JL: In 2007 I began a project about returning soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars [Exit Wounds]. When I began interviewing returning veterans, I felt that I should interview someone from Iraq.
I found an Iraqi psychologist here in Portland and asked her opinion of the war. She said: “I thank America for removing Saddam Hussein, but did you have to destroy our country?” It was a powerful statement. I thought, I need to bookmark that and return to it.
As I was finishing Exit Wounds in 2010, I began a collaborative photography and storytelling project about refugees who fled their homes after the US invasion of Iraq [What We Carried].
Years later, What We Carried had been traveling around America, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum hosted it in 2016. At the opening, Susan Abrams [CEO of the museum] asked if I would do a similar project with Holocaust survivors. That stopped me in my tracks. I said yes, absolutely – and we have to start right away because the survivors are getting older.
MR: You could have photographed the objects in isolation, or made portraits of your subjects. Why include the handwritten stories?
JL: When I began What We Carried, I actually started with portraits – I photographed refugees in their apartments. I envisioned a book similar to Exit Wounds with a portrait on the left page and a story on the right. But the photos didn’t speak. I did it for six months, but I was never satisfied.
One day I was photographing a woman in her apartment, and I saw a family portrait on her desk and asked her about it. She said that when she left Iraq, it was one of two things she took with her along with her Q’uran. It was the only copy she had, and she asked if I would make some copies for her.
Later, while I was reviewing my images I came across those few frames of the family portrait. I realized I had something. This photograph spoke more to leaving one’s homeland — maybe under duress, maybe with a child under each arm.
I also considered photographing the objects in isolation and putting interviews next to the photos. But I know that in a gallery setting, most people won’t read a lot of text. I thought, what if I ask the participant write directly on the photographs? So I made a few photographs with lots of white space and asked this woman to tell me her story. She wrote the most beautiful story about how deeply saddened she was when she left her home.
That was the ah-ha moment. From there, the project took on a life of its own.
MR: What was it like, emotionally, to immerse yourself in stories of genocide for almost two years?
JL: There are times when I was down in the basement of the museum in tears. I was just doing the photograph and I would read the notes… and I would understand gravity of what that object was and what it meant.
One in particular stood out, a woman from Rwanda. Her two toddlers and her husband were killed in the genocide. After the war, she went back to try to find the remains of her family. There was a ditch that had been opened up that was discovered to be a mass grave. The only way she could identify her daughters was by seeing their dresses. When I handled the bloodstained green dress, I just lost it. We all know how much we love our children and what a horrible thing it must be for a mother to go through that.
These stories are specific to genocides in our time, like the Holocaust, but they’re not just about history. They are about humanity.
MR: How do you want viewers to feel when they leave this exhibition?
JL: The stories are so human, so powerful. I really see myself as conduit for their stories. I use photography because that’s what I do; it’s part of my toolkit. But it’s not about me.
What I learned is that when a person leaves their country, their journey isn’t a direct flight. Often, it’s a long walk that might lead to a refugee camp, or to a rubber raft floating to Greece. Some journeys take years. I hope the viewer puts themselves in the shoes of the refugee and starts to think… what would I take?
As we start to consider what we would take, we also find ourselves asking what we would leave behind. The answer is everything. Your family, your home, your culture. I want people to see this and realize—wow, they left everything, and now they’ve arrived in a country where they don’t speak the language. They have to start all over. And my hope is that this questioning starts a process of empathy and compassion.
It’s also a call to action. We’re realizing that many Americans have some ugly beliefs. I recently gave a presentation where I showed historical black and white photos from Nazi Germany. I contrasted those with color photographs of white supremacists with torches in 2017. They look very similar.
We must remember these stories of the Holocaust and genocide. My hope is that these stories will remind us of the inhumanity of war and the fragility of life.
MR: What’s next for you? Any upcoming exhibitions or new projects?
JL: Stories of Survival is up through January 13. I will continue with What We Carried, which is currently traveling around America and will go to the Ellis Island Immigration museum in 2019 (Memorial Day – Labor Day). They say a half million people will see the show. I can’t imagine a better place for it.
Every once in a while I think, wouldn’t it be nice to do a project on the gardens of Tuscany? But I don’t see that happening.
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