Wedding Photographer

To Bear Witness – Extraordinary Lives: New exhibition explores the refugee experience

At the entrance to the gallery, the man leads you with his frank gaze. Saron Khut has some precious memories of his happy childhood in Chongkal, Cambodia, until the Khmer Rouge, the guerrilla arm of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) led by their brutal dictator Pol Pot, took power. Determined to purge foreign influence, as well as intellectuals and progressives, the Khmer Rouge began a reign of terror that led to mass death through execution, hard labor, disease, and starvation. Today, they are best remembered for the Killing Fields, sites where more than a million people were murdered and buried by the regime.

In 1975, when Khut was five years old, his father, a teacher, was taken away by the Khmer Rouge to be “re-educated”. The family will never see him again. Knowing they were also at risk of being targeted, Khut fled his home five years later, walking with his mother and sister at night through woods and jungle, eventually reaching a refugee camp in Thailand. A year later, the little family got to safety and resettled in Portland, Oregon.

Saron Khut from Cambodia. Photo credit: John Rudoff
His mother’s locket and family photos that Sarun Khut and his family took to the United States. Photo credit: Jim Lommasson

Khut’s childhood experience fleeing genocide in Cambodia provided him with valuable survival skills – resilience, adaptability and courage. In his new adopted nation, he learned not just the language, but also how to make friends and thrive, graduating from Portland State University and receiving his American citizenship in 1996. the Southeast Asian immigrant community.

Khut’s story is just one of fourteen people, all of whom fled their war-torn homes to find safety in Oregon, featured in Testify – Extraordinary Lives, on view through May 15 at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education in downtown Portland.

Through profiles, large-scale photographs, short videos and podcasts, the exhibition captures, in their own words, the stories of refugees from distant and diverse countries, but all of whom have been torn apart by the atrocities of war. , genocide , and rape – Bosnia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Hungary, Rwanda, Sudan, Syria and Tibet, as well as Holocaust survivors from Austria and Germany.

The multimedia exhibition is a partnership between OJMCHE and The Immigrant Story, in collaboration with photographer Jim Lommasson and NW Documentary.

Evelyn Banko from Austria. Photo credit: John Rudoff
Her father’s sketchbooks and her mother’s belt that Evelyn Banko took with her to the United States when she was 4 years old. Photo credit: Jim Lommasson

Bear witness was first conceived when Sankar Raman, founder of The Immigrant Story, a Portland-based organization that tells immigrant stories to document and archive their voices in a variety of formats and genres, met the freelance photographer Jim Lommasson during a presentation to the Photography Council at the Portland Museum of Art. Lommasson was there to discuss his project, What We Take: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization, a photography exhibit that explores the possessions that recent Iraqi refugees treasured enough to bring on their trip to the United States. The project included photographs of the objects, the stories of which were then written by their owner directly on the photographs in English and Arabic. Originally an exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, Lommasson then creates Survival stories: object. Picture. Memory, again in cooperation with the Illinois Holocaust Museum, which featured Holocaust and genocide survivors from the Chicago area.

“We both started thinking about how we can take this concept of things people wear and apply it to Holocaust and genocide survivors here in Portland, with people who have settled around Oregon,” Raman recalled. “It took us three years to complete the project, although we continue to collect more stories.”

They struck up a conversation with Judy Margles, executive director of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.

Imam Abdullah Polovina of Bosnia. Photo credit: Sankar Raman
Ancient collection of Mawlid poems and recitations worn by Imam Abdullah Polovina. Photo credit: Jim Lommasson

The result is a powerful exhibition that combines short profiles on each participant with photographic portraits of Raman, John Rudoff and Paul Fardig with Lommasson’s photos of their objects and five videos produced in collaboration with NW Documentary. As they walk past each exhibit participant, viewers can scan a QR code that takes them to The Immigrant Story website for links to podcasts featuring more stories from these and other refugees. The exhibit itself was designed by Bryan Potter Design, a firm Margles describes as a fourth partner in the project, citing their thoughtful approach to understanding the material they’re working with before creating the design.

“We used very documentary storytelling, but basically storytelling in many different forms, so the viewer could get the stories any way they wanted,” Raman explained.

The photographs are all 24″ x 36″, resulting in slightly larger than life images that have an unavoidable impact on the viewer. “When you’re in the gallery, you can’t escape their gaze on you,” he noted. “Every one of them. It doesn’t matter what part of the gallery you’re in. It was on purpose.

Bear witness named after the late Elle Wiesel, writer, professor, political activist, Nobel laureate and survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Holocaust – “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness”.

Participants volunteered to be part of the project and share their stories and the items they brought with them. “It gives them the agency to share their own stories,” Lommasson said, “And they want their stories told for a reason. These people can educate us.

Tsering Choephel from Tibet. Photo credit: Sankar Raman
Tibetan prayer books carried by Tsering Choephel. Photo credit: Jim Lommasson

“This is a storytelling project, not photography,” Lommasson said. “What I love about storytelling, especially in an exhibition like this exhibition, is that you can’t ‘alter’ a person when you hear their story.

“These objects are history. They ask the viewer, if you were to leave, what would you take? And not just what you take, but what do you leave behind? Your culture, your school, your family, your language. They leave behind not only their homes, but also the traditions needed to continue building community.

This effort to share the stories of Oregonians who survived wars and genocide in their home country is central to the mission of the Jewish Museum of Oregon and the Center for Holocaust Education, which was a partner ready for display. OJMCHE is committed to honoring the memories of the past, as well as examining the causes and risks of mass atrocities today, and learning what can be done not only to prevent violence, but also to foster community pathways to peace.

“Storytelling is such a powerful educational tool,” Margles noted. “Those who survived, who came to the United States, Israel or other countries, spent years rebuilding their lives. Most never spoke about what had happened to them. They just wanted to bury these horrific events. But then Elle Weisel came out very early in the 1960s and coined this phrase to testify, saying that we who survived must testify to those who are not here, who did not survive.

Emmanuel Turaturanye from Rwanda. Photo credit: Sankar Raman
A photo of his father officiating at Emmanuel Turaturanye’s wedding which he carried with him. Photo credit: Jim Lommasson

She said many Holocaust survivors told her they woke up to the murder of Mulugeta Seraw, a 28-year-old Ethiopian immigrant in Portland who was beaten to death with baseball bats by three white supremacists. in November 1988. “That event was kind of a trigger. Some of our Holocaust survivors, including Les and Eva Aigner, who are featured in this exhibit, said, ‘We have to tell our stories, not because we have been victims, because we must try that this does not happen again.”

“Genocides happen everywhere in the same way and start by labeling others in derogatory terms, verifying identification. There is an eight to ten insidious step plan that is consistent across all genocides,” Lommasson said. “Each step towards a Holocaust is more ‘otherness’, dehumanization and discrimination.”

“In an exhibition like this, you can’t ‘alter’ someone when you look at them and hear their story,” acknowledged Margles. “We hope people will experience empathy and compassion, but also start thinking about what else they can take away from the exposure, what actions they might take.”

Bear witness is made possible through the generous support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Reser Family Foundation, the Oregon Heritage Commission, and OJMCHE’s Arnold and Augusta Newman Fund for Photography.

Among the events marking Genocide Awareness Month in April is a storytelling event presented by The Immigrant Story. With storytelling and live music, the event will include a father and son from Afghanistan. The father is a traditional Sufi singer and the son is a classically trained pianist. The father’s music was stopped during the Taliban takeover in 1994. Finally, after the last Taliban takeover, the father managed to escape to the United States in October 2021 with the help of a group of journalists. Visit Immigrant History for more information.

Bear witness is on view until May 15 at OJMCHE. The museum, located at 724 NW Davis Street in Portland, is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Visit or call 503.226.3600 for more information.

Beth Sorensen has worked in arts and higher education communications since 1990 and, as a generalist, has written on a wide range of creative forms. Having lived across the state of Oregon over the years, she is especially interested in sharing the stories of the artists who live and work in our area, finding out what inspires them, and how they incorporate their creative process into their lives. daily. She currently lives in southeast Portland with her husband and three rescue terriers.