Over four million Iraqis have fled their homes since the American invasion in 2003, and over 140,000 have been admitted to the US. The refugees did not leave to get a better job or because of a natural disaster; they left because of a brutal dictator and industrial warfare that has virtually destroyed their country. Many Iraqis sought refuge in Syria only to find another dangerous situation. The long journey to the US can take months, sometimes years, and includes refugee camps, piles of documents, and sometimes a few bribes.
What We Carried is a collaborative photographic storytelling project aimed at presenting the experiences of these refugees and creating a platform for discussion. As the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad was being looted of objects from the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia – including the tablets with Hammurabi’s Code, the world’s first system of law, and with the destruction of history and culture by ISIL – Iraqis fled their homeland with a few common personal mementoes to collect their past and reconstruct their future.
I asked each participant to share with me an item they brought with them on their journey to the US. The objects ranged from family photos to a Qur’an, jewelry to a game of dominoes. I photographed the object and then returned the 13" x 19" archival print to its owner to provide personal reflections by writing directly onto the photograph. The participants’ additions give voice to the universal plight of refugees throughout time. I hope viewers will imagine themselves making decisions about what they would gather before leaving their homes forever.
What We Carried is a collection of photographs and writing that speaks to displacement, resilience, liminality, xenophobia, rendition, human interdependence, freedom, memory.
What We Carried is an ongoing project. I have worked with the Iraqi refugee communities in Boston; Portland; Dearborn; Chicago; and hope to include others. Ultimately, all the photographs will be on display at the Arab American National Museum, Dearborn, MI, June - October 2016.
– Jim Lommasson
Jim Lommasson is a recipient of the Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize from The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization was funded in part by The Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC), the Oregon Arts Commission and the Arab American National Museum.