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Photojournalism students chronicle immigration journeys in Michigan

Workshop tells stories of immigrants, builds students’ photography skills

​​​​Immigration in America was explored by 14 photojournalism students at Central Michigan University through a collection of photo stories. The project, titled "Fences: Faces of Migration," was the culmination of a two-week workshop led by world-renowned photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier.

"The debate around immigration has become embroiled in hostile political rhetoric," Frazier said. "We looked closely at how immigration policy impacts individuals. The group project brings to light issues facing the newest Americans living across Michigan and personalizes their struggles in a country divided by politics and ideology by giving faces to the faceless."

Photos from the "Fences: Faces of Migration" collection are featured in nine banners hanging outside of the Biosciences Building construction site.  

Fences: Faces of Migration

Junior Clarissa Williams had found an immigrant in her hometown of Detroit and said the project gave her experience beyond photojournalism.

"Even though you hear people speak about illegally entering the country, you never really comprehend what a dangerous and terrifying experience it is," Williams said. "Seeing the residual pain and fear in their eyes as they recounted their stories to me made my heart heavy. I always understood the general motive of people who migrate illegally, but it wasn't until now that I was able to really grasp the plight that plagues those who need to migrate and only enter illegally because they are forced."​

Emily Mesner, CMU photojournalism major, said this is her third time participating in the annual workshop.

"Every year after the workshop I am more passionate to tell stories," she said. "The workshop pushes me to be a better person and photojournalist. I'm not sure where I will end up or what I'll be doing after I graduate, but as long as I have my camera with me and I am telling stories I know I'll be fine."​

View several of the student-created stories below and read about what they learned through the experience, both through gaining an understanding of how immigration affects people and how they gained skills in the process. 

Lake Orion senior Andraya Croft said she wanted to bring awareness to immigration, migration and refugees. Her photo story featured Edwin Silva, a man who had been in Michigan since he was 2 and is facing deportation to Mexico.

“He could be taken away from the only life he has known over the past 20 years including his relationships with friends, family and community,” she said. “And even with everything he has gone through and the pressure he has, he holds himself together at all times and is always positive and optimistic about the future.”

View her project.

Flint photojournalism senior Katy Kildee photographed family members of Amir Hekmati, a Flint marine who has been imprisoned in Iran for more than four years. His sister has been running the “Free Amir” campaign to work toward his release.

“This is the third time I’ve participated in the CMU Photojournalism Workshop, and each year the experience has been more impactful and beneficial to me as a person and photographer,” Kildee said. “It is a humbling experience when a photo subject lets you into their life and trusts you to tell their story. I am proud of the work we have done as a group to tell the stories of immigrants all over Michigan.”

View her project.

Kaytie Boomer, a Traverse City senior, said the workshop — in which she followed a Mexican family renovating a dairy farm in Barryton — pushed her out of her comfort zone.

"Overall, my experience with them was unbelievable because their story is so unique, especially when it's compared to the many American views that immigrants 'steal our jobs.' They are not stealing anything," Boomer said. "They are just starting back up a farm that was shut down. In reality, they are helping the community bring in more dairy in the area."

View her project.

Clarissa Williams, a junior from Detroit, photographed a community in her hometown that has a large immigrant population.

“These human beings deserve to be heard,” Williams said. “Migrants forced to live in the gutters of society whilst being misrepresented by mud-slinging extremists need authentic representation in the media.”

She said at times it was difficult to photograph people because of the high tension caused by the fear that hangs over neighborhoods.

“People are terrified of being reported and torn apart from the life they’ve fought so hard to build here,” she said.

View her project.

Midland senior Kaiti Chritz reviewed how immigration is communicated within the U.S. media. Her project was a video, incorporating media clips, audio and photographs.

“Some of these images were created with a single frame with multiple exposures, and some were curated images from social media,” she said. “It was eye-opening to see the conversations happening in the media and social media. It truly seems that the screen on a television or computer acts as an invisible barrier that makes people feel protected, as if they can say anything they want with no consequence.”

View her project.

Claire Abendroth, a junior from Fremont, photographed a family who worked at Uncle John’s Cider Mill.

“As photojournalism students, we really strive to make an impact with our photos,” she said. “We want to tell stories that need to be shared, and we want to educate the public on controversial topics.”

View her project.

Farmington Hills senior Emily Mesner said she found this year’s workshop to be the most rewarding of her three times participating as a student. She followed a family who left Afghanistan and now resides in Lansing.

“Through this experience I learned the importance of emotional connections between people and photographers,” she said. “You can't expect someone to open up to you and allow you into their life if you don't do the same.”

View her project.

Shannon Millard, a Mount Pleasant senior, said the project challenged her - intellectually, physically and emotionally.

“There was a language barrier but words can only teach you so much about a person,” she said. “The workshop pushed me to make the most of the short time I spent with them and taught me to learn nonverbal cues.”

She chose to feature immigrants on a dairy farm because she had grown up on one herself.

“I see firsthand the effects of the decline in hired help availability on small farms daily,” she said.

View her project.

Rachel Harrison – a senior from St. Louis, Missouri – featured Alex Hernandez, a man from Mexico City who owns Los Jalapeños, a food truck in Mount Pleasant.

“This has prepared me for my future career on how you can’t give up,” Harrison said. “You just have to be willing to keep looking and talking with people and not being afraid.”

View her project.

Brianna Hughes, a sophomore from Pontiac, photographed Tianyu Han. Han, originally from China, is a graduate student at CMU and owner of The Dreamer Coffee Shop.

“The topic of immigration was foreign to me,” Hughes said. “I gained an understanding of the perceptions many people have about the United States.”

She also continued to grow as a photojournalist through the experience.

“What I learned is very important as I continue with this field of work,” she said. “A big aspect of photojournalism is approaching people. You're a human first and a photographer second.”

View her project.

Shelby Township freshman Chelsea Grobelny said she was intimidated by this project at first. She featured three CMU students – Maricruz Patino, a freshman from Guanajuato, Mexico, as well as Binge Yan, a CMU junior, and Yukun Wang, a senior. Yan and Wang are both from Zhengzhou, Henan, China.

“I wasn't sure what to expect, but it was interesting and amazing to be welcomed so willingly into my subjects’ lives,” she said. “While still in America, my subjects hold true to their home cultures and incorporate them into their daily lives. It was a beautiful and eye-opening experience to be a part of their lives during the workshop.”

View her project.

Arin Bisaro, an Oxford junior, photographed a Hispanic community in Grand Rapids.

“I have gained a ton of confidence in my work, and I believe that my storytelling skills have drastically increased,” he said. “This workshop is a priceless experience.”

View his project.

Alexandria Rykse, a Sparta senior, photographed a Pakistani man named Shane who had married a Grand Rapids woman.

“I wanted to compare how they combine the two cultures,” Rykse said.

View her project.

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