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Photographer embedded for years with local refugees releases book

Last modified: 10/1/2015 11:54:24 AM
At a Muslim prayer service in Concord in 2012, Becky Field stood at the back, her camera down, hesitating.

The women there were separated from the men, behind a screen, and Field was unsure of how to proceed as a woman, a photographer and a non-Muslim. At the time, she was only at the beginning of her project documenting new Americans’ lives in New Hampshire, and she didn’t want to offend the imam, a black man in a neatly pressed gray robe and a beige cap, as he began his call to worship.

“I was holding back, and pretty soon he turned around in the middle of his call to worship and yelled back, ‘Becky! Aren’t you going to photograph me praying?’ ” she said.

So, she got to work. Three years later, the imam, with his fingertips pressed to his head, appears on page 89 of her recently released book, Different Roots, Common Dreams.

His image is one of dozens in the collection that depicts local immigrants and refugees as they celebrate their faith traditions, citizenship ceremonies, marriages, and learning a new language and culture. Net proceeds from the book will go to nonprofits assisting refugees and immigrants in their resettlements.

After her career as an ecologist, professor and most recently a spokeswoman for the Red Cross, Field began studying photography in a program at the New Hampshire Institute of Art in 2011. At the time, she became angered by hateful graffiti that was scrawled on the sides of four refugee homes in Concord, an act that put in focus for her the project she would develop over the course of her studies.

“I decided then to use my camera as a way to say there’s a different way we can treat our new American neighbors. We can welcome them into our homes, into our communities, and we can be part of their lives,” she said.

As much as she’s welcomed them, they’ve welcomed her back. She’s photographed New Hampshire residents from 47 different countries of origin during intimate moments of their lives and, in a few cases, in death at funerals.

Field said the refugees who were suddenly forced to pack up and move couldn’t bring along photos of themselves, and the walls of their apartments are often bare. She’s taken to sharing copies of her photos with her subjects, many of whom can hardly contain their excitement to be photographed.

“I’ve found it’s a little hard to go into a home in the Concord and Manchester area, especially of a refugee family, and not see one of my photographs,” she said. “It feels wonderful because I know it’s giving those people a sense of pride and a sense of recognition.”

She said she sought with her project to honor the lives and expertise of new Americans, reflect their arduous paths to resettlement, stimulate public dialogue about the strengths and skills they bring, and bring awareness to the cultural diversity here.

“Cultural diversity is not the first descriptor you think of in the Granite State,” she said.

Along the way, she’s become more acutely aware of what it means to be American. She said she spoke with a Bhutanese refugee, who like many others had her citizenship revoked and lived in a camp over the border in Nepal for decades, before settling as a refugee in America. After waiting years here and passing an exam, it meant she had a country for the first time in 25 years.

“If you just try to wrap your head around the idea of not belonging to any country for that long . . . it’s really a very moving experience, then to see somebody stand up and say the Pledge of Allegiance and to become part of our citizenry,” she said.

The book contains 133 images shot over three years, as well as the stories of refugees from six countries who have found new homes in New Hampshire. Field said she intends to publish further works along the same theme, now that she’s formed close relationships in the community.

“I have been so welcomed into these families, into their homes, into their lives. That often is something that can leave me quite emotional, just that I’ve been so welcomed and so included in so much,” she said.

“In fact, many of these families now have generously included me as an honorary member of their family, and I feel likewise toward them. I’ve acquired quite a few additional grandchildren and sisters and brothers,” she said.

The hardcover book, with an introduction by Gov. Maggie Hassan and a foreword by John Isaac, former chief of the photo unit at the United Nations, is available online and at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord for $35. More information about it can be found at differentrootsnh.com. She’s scheduled to speak at the Portsmouth Library at 2 p.m. on Oct. 4, where her work will be exhibited the whole month.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)


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