Travel

Let a Radiant Photo Profile Series Introduce You to the Newest Americans

Photographer Sam Comen and writer Michael Estrin team up to portray the surprising stories of 'The Newest Americans.'

by Shana Nys Dambrot
Apr 7 2017, 6:09pm

Toutes les images et les légendes sont publiées avec l'aimable autorisation de Sam Comen et de Michael Estrin.

Sam Comen/Michael Estrin, The Newest Americans. Freddy Castro. Country of Origin: Ecuador. "It feels great to know that I'm going to be able to participate in the electoral process. I've been waiting to vote my whole life. I'm looking forward to being involved in the politics here so I can help people like me be protected by the law. Message to the President: Think before speaking."

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/Estrin, The Newest Americans. Martina Bautista. Country of Origin: Mexico. "I want Americans to know that Mexicans have good values that come from strong family roots. To our President I say, I want to touch your heart. The Latino and Hispanic people that come here, we come here only to work, to have a better life and give a better life to our families. So I say to the President, God bless you, and we are going to pray to God so you change your heart, so you can see that all of the immigrants here just want to work hard and be good people."

Comen/Estrin, The Newest Americans. Anis Chaudry. Country of Origin: Pakistan. "Religious fanatics killed one of my brothers in Pakistan. The killers were Muslim and we are Muslims, but because we are from a different sect, so they don't recognize us as Muslims. This is the mentality of terrorist fanatics. And this has been the reality of Pakistan all my life – violence. America feels like home, especially when you shut off the news and talk to people, because the people are very nice. Now, that I am a citizen, I feel like the world is mine. I can travel freely. I can pray without fear of fanatics."

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?"

Comen/Estrin, The Newest Americans. Maria Villagordoa. Country of Origin: Mexico. "My mom made the decision to come here for a better life and because she wanted me to have an education. I was 12 when we moved here. I was scared and nervous because it was a big change for me—new language, new culture. But then I started to adapt and make friends. When I had friends, I felt like I belonged, like this was my home. I can't describe taking the citizenship oath; it's just amazing and overwhelming. I'm in college right now, studying political science. I want to be a lawyer. I don't know what kind of law I'll practice, but I'm thinking maybe family law, so I can help people who need help. Message to the President: I respect him. But it's wrong to make stereotypes about people based on race or religion. It's just wrong, and he shouldn't do that."

Comen/Estrin, The Newest Americans. Ghassan Merrawi. Country of Origin: Syria. "Since I was a kid, I loved the United States; I love the history. I love, love this country. I love everything about it: politics, the education, and entertainment. I love the sports here, especially football. I was a 49ers fan, but since the Rams moved to Los Angeles, I decided to become a Rams fan – hometown team. The American Dream means opportunity and success. A lot of people say an immigrant can't be a Trump supporter, but I am. I love politics and being a citizen means I get to be part of that, so I registered to be a Republican. You know California is a blue state, so people say my vote doesn't matter, but I think it counts. I'm looking forward to voting in the next election. Message to the President: Stick to your promises. You know, we have high hope for Trump. So if he's not going to be able to change it, well, we're screwed. He's the first outsider to be the President, so if he's not going to stick to his promises, we're screwed."

"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."

Comen/Estrin, The Newest Americans. Katya Sonina. Country of Origin: Russia. "Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be an American. I grew up in Moscow and lived all over Europe. My parents always said, stay in Europe, but I said America. But I'm a concert pianist, and so one day I auditioned for Juilliard, and I got in! So that's how I came to America. I started at Juilliard two weeks before 9/11. It was a very traumatic time because I was so happy to be at Juilliard and in America, but there was this horrible tragedy. But what I saw in New York was people coming together. I saw love breaking down walls and healing grief. I saw that and I felt like this is my country. This is a country that gives people a chance. You can be who you are here without apologizing for it. That's freedom. I studied for the citizenship test and learned about the laws that protect freedom. Freedom of religion. Freedom of assembly. Freedom to speak, like I'm doing right now. I could not do that in Russia. You say the wrong thing in Russia and you could go to prison for the rest of your life. Message to the President: I just want to wish him luck. It's a challenging situation right now. A lot of people have different opinions. But if he's going to be with us for four years, then let him do the best he can. People chose him, so I wish him luck. I don't want to say anything bad. But maybe he can support the arts a little more."

Comen/Estrin, The Newest Americans. Elyvanie Mukangoga. Country of Origin: Rwanda. "I came here in 1989. I thought I would go back someday, but after the genocide in 1994, I knew I could not go back. That's when I realized that America would be my home. My American Dream is my ministry. I help women and children become the best they can be in life, and I believe that living in America it's possible for that dream to come true. Today is special because I feel like I am a complete American, and there's no limit to what I can do now. Message to the President: I would like him to hear the stories of the immigrants – how they are not being respected, not being welcomed. I want to give him the message that it's good to let the immigrants come here and make homes. Because if they can have a home, they can have a dream. But when he sends people from their homes, it's like killing their dreams."

More than 30 eclectic portraits and stories from The Newest Americans are currently posted to the project website.

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