Creators, Makers, and Doers: Angie Smith
Posted on 4/19/16 by Arts & History
Angie Smith speaks passionately about the importance of connecting with refugees and helping them integrate into the community. Over the past five years, she has spent extensive time meeting, interviewing, and photographing individuals in Boise to document and share their experiences of hardship and opportunity while they transition into a new home. The ultimate goal of her project, in part supported by an Arts & History Department grant, is to create connections in and strengthen the entire community as Boise becomes a model for how to accept, welcome, and engage refugees.
Can you speak about what you do?
I’m a photographer. I do mostly editorial shoots for magazines, like The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek. I do portraiture and documentary work.
What initially drew you to photography?
I started taking pictures when I was eleven. That was when I fell in love with photography. My dad let me use an old manual Olympus camera and put black-and-white film in it and then I started taking pictures. I just loved the process of taking the pictures and how much fun it was. I then started taking a class at the University of Oregon. It was an adult education class and I was the only kid in the whole class. It was a black-and-white printing and developing class. So, that was really where I started learning about aperture, shutter speed, how to develop my own film, how to print, and make my own prints. Taking that class really led me to fall in love with photography. What I loved about it the most was developing my own film, making my own prints, spending hours in the darkroom, and losing track of time.
Why do you choose to focus on portraiture? What is it about portraits?
I think for a long time I loved shooting landscapes, and I still do. I’m not exclusively interested in portraits. I like the spontaneity of capturing events and life as it unfolds and not having any control over it and just making the best picture I can of what actually happens. It is nice, also, to do portraiture where you have more control, think more, plan more, and alter the details in something before you take the picture. But I think I would get bored if that was the only thing that I did. I really like to have the balance of the spontaneity and the controlled portrait.
Can you tell me about the grant project that you are working on?
I started coming here about five years ago and I started noticing more refugees throughout town, every time I came. I knew immediately then, even five years ago, that this was an incredible project. But, five years ago, the refugee conversation was completely different. Most people didn’t even really know what the word “refugee” meant, what the actual definition is. It wasn’t something that was really talked about. It was really hard to get any contacts at some of the agencies in town. So, I did actually try to start this project several years ago, but it didn’t really go anywhere.
About over a year ago, I came back here unexpectedly, to Boise for a couple weeks and it was during that time that I was introduced to this refugee, a girl who’s from the Congo. She just sparked the start of the project, because I was introduced to her and she loved having her picture taken. She’s a fashion designer here and had a shop at the International Market. She welcomed me to take pictures of her anytime, so I was able to kind of work out, just by photographing her, what are the pictures I want to take, what are they about, what am I trying to communicate, how do I approach each person? As I took more and more pictures of her and pictures of her friends and her community, I quickly built up enough of a portfolio to then be able to start applying for grants and really thinking about what I actually want to create.
The first grant that I came across was the Department of Arts and History, and that grant really pushed me to actually come up with a concept. So, beyond it just being a photography project, what do I want to create? I realized, well, I’ll create an exhibition, an outdoor exhibition, because this is really something that should be seen by everybody. It shouldn’t be in a museum or inside some place that you have to pay to get into. This about refugees, this is about them becoming more of a part of this community. So, it really should be in people’s faces, available for everyone to see—people that are just walking to work or getting to the bus stop, they can walk by these pictures and walk by these interviews and, even if they just stop in front of one picture and read one interview, they can walk away learning something, and have a deeper understanding of what refugees have been through.
Can you elaborate on the message you are trying to communicate with this project?
I want every picture and every interview to represent a different perspective or a different aspect of the experience of being a refugee and resettling in a new country. My hope is that this project helps to educate people about what it is, what it means to be a refugee, and what it means to resettle here. Whether it’s someone who already works at the agencies and knows a lot about refugees, whether it’s someone who’s very well informed or someone who doesn’t even understand really what refugees have been through, I want this project to offer something for that entire range of knowledge. I want it to educate people, I want it to inspire people, I want it to create compassion.
I want people to understand how much refugees have been through, the fact that they’ve even made it this far. The fact that they’re in Boise is a testament to the fact that they’ve had, like, so many, almost more than nine lives. They’ve been through so much and been through so many really traumatic things and they’ve survived every one of them.
Not only have they survived an entire lifetime of hardship, they’re part of the one percent of refugees that even get resettled. Only one percent of sixty million refugees in the world get resettled. So, the people that have made it to Boise have not only survived incredible circumstances, but they’ve gotten incredibly lucky.
Each person that’s ended up here has just a jaw-dropping story that will cause anyone to stop and give them all the respect, because they deserve it and they’re here and they’re adding so much life to this community. They’re adding languages, amazing food, beautiful fashion, and a wealth of experience. Their spirit has endured so much. These are people that are here now and want to succeed and want to make something beautiful of their lives. The more that we welcome them, the more that we give them opportunities, the more that we appreciate them and honor their presence here, the more the entire community is going to succeed together.
Part of the problem with what’s happening in Europe is that if refugees are pushed out to the margins of society, it’s not really good for anyone, because they’re not an active member; they’re not an active part of this society. When people don’t have a role, when people don’t have a way to be involved, that’s when people’s lives start going down.
Finally, one of your favorite questions to ask, if you could magically communicate something to everyone in the community, what would that message be?
We have so much that we can learn from one another. In our lives, in this day and age, this modern day and age we’re all so busy and we’re all constantly distracted by e-mails, social media, our devices, work, and it just becomes harder and harder to have really pure, simple, human connection with each other. I feel like my life has been so deeply enriched by this project because all I’m doing is showing up to connect with people, listen, just listen, show my curiosity about them and their life, their experience and photograph them in their life. The experience that I’ve had of basic, pure, human connection is just incredible. We have to make ourselves available for that, it doesn’t have to be just with refugees, it’s for all of us.
But, with the refugee community, there are these things that you don’t have in common, so you don’t have language, you don’t have cultural understanding, so, the way that you connect is on a totally different level, and I feel like, for me, every interview I do, every photo shoot I do, it’s like I am communicating with people on a heart level, not on a language and assumed understanding of each other. It’s connecting on a much deeper level. Just by taking the action of showing up and saying, “Hey, can I come to your house and talk to you and take your picture?”— it creates the space for a connection that runs so much deeper than your average, “Hi, how are you doing? How’s your job? What do you do?”
What I want to communicate to people is that if they make themselves available to connect with the refugee community and try to understand where they’re coming from, what they’ve been through, how their lives have changed since they’ve gotten here, how they’ve grown and blossomed in their lives, it’s such an enriching feeling, it’s a soul-enriching experience. However people want to get more involved with the community, there are so many opportunities, and I think refugees really want to feel like they’re more a part of this city and they’re more a part of this society and this community. They want to feel involved and they want to feel invited in. There are so many ways to do that. I want to communicate to the people of Boise the different ways that you can do that.
Our city is so much more exciting, fun, and beautiful with the refugees here. The more that we give them opportunities and give them space to be a part of this community, the more they can rise up. They can open businesses, open new restaurants, and open new fashion shops. Boise will be famous; Idaho will be famous for so many more things than just potatoes. Idaho will be put on the map for being a community that has risen above all other communities to show what it means to help integrate refugees in the most positive way.
There’s a delegation of Germans coming here in later April to visit Boise to see how we do it here, because we stand out over a lot of other cities and we’re a model for how to positively integrate refugees. I think there’s still a lot more that can be done. I think that a lot of the people, the actual citizens here, don’t know very much and don’t know how to connect. I want this exhibition to really be that bridge and that force that brings people. I want refugees, too, to look at their pictures and look at their own words and be impressed. It’s for both sides; it’s reflection on both sides.
Creators, Makers, & Doers highlights the lives and work of Boise artists and creative individuals. Selected profiles focus on individuals whose work has been supported by the Boise City Dept. of Arts & History.