Once a month the Los Angeles Convention Center finds its inner Ellis Island, is declared a Federal Court, and hosts the administration of some 10,000 oaths of allegiance, thereby creating America's newest citizens. For photographer Sam Comen and writer Michael Estrin, this proved an irresistible opportunity—at this fraught moment in history, politics, and notably in our immigration policy—to meet some of these new Americans and add their real faces and life stories to the often problematic, abstract rhetoric on the issue. "Environmental portraits are usually carefully composed, even constructed," notes Comen. "The convention center is devoid of individual environment in that way, but Michael's writing takes over that part, providing details and context, personality." Thus, through a classic pairing of stately candid portraits and empathetic reportage that evokes both the Small Trade portraits by Irving Penn and the narrative journalism of Jimmy Breslin, Comen and Estrin offer a warm and engaging snap survey with a lot of soul and more than a few surprises.
Comen and Estrin describe the palpable sense of relief, of easier breathing, that comes like a collective sigh after the ceremony. Among the subjects, audiences will meet trans people, grandmothers, Dreamers, doctors, artists, and the proud parents of soldiers and social workers. There's a lot of patriotism, enthusiasm for being able to participate fully in politics and business, and appreciation for the ways the US is better and safer and more tolerant than where they came from. There are Trump supporters, too, which was maybe the biggest surprise. "It makes you feel better about America," says Comen. Not to mention, this was all happening right after the inauguration. American identity is always an issue, "But this is the time to have done it," both agree. "The most politicized moment has been the strongest time to ask, Who is an American?"
"We wanted to ask open-ended questions," say Comen and Estrin. "We really didn't have an agenda beyond just being there and meeting them." They asked how they came to this country, about the American Dream, and for a message to the new President. They chose their interviewees—and sometimes the subjects sought them out on their own—with a combination of intuition and a small team of scouts. Comen's photographic work is primarily produced in serial portfolios, anthropological mini-censuses that each explore a very specific demographic, such as a neighborhood, a profession, an age, or, most recently, female Clinton voters on Election Day. "I come from a long tradition of approaching randoms," he says. "You develop a sense." Estrin's background is in interview-based journalism, what you might call slice-of-life pieces, "super short stories, like 200-word stories. And I'm a weirdo magnet. My rule is the same as in improv: just say yes."
More than 30 eclectic portraits and stories from The Newest Americans are currently posted to the project website.