New photo project brings diverse faces and stories to Concord Multicultural Festival

  • Somayek Kashi puts up mural photographs on a wall outside of The Works in downtown Concord on Sept. 12. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Somayek Kashi works on putting up the mural photographs on a wall outside of The Works in downtown Concord on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Somayek Kashi has been putting mural photographs in downtown Concord ahead of next week’s Multicultural Festival. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/16/2019 5:02:13 PM

Somayeh Kashi worked carefully with the thin paper photographs, picking each one up with the tips of her fingers, then slowly moving to her ladder as she positioned them side by side on along the wall.

She dipped her hands in a bucket of wheat paste and spread the material up and down the four-foot-tall portraits until they were firmly attached to the brick. 

“I wanted this to be in a spot where everyone could see them,” she said, looking at the array of photos of Concord residents she had already mounted that day on the side of The Works Cafe building on Main Street. “It’s so amazing to see the effect of them all lined up here. I feel empowered by it, and I hope that other people feel empowered by it, too.” 

Kashi, an art teacher at Rundlett Middle School, worked on her photo project, “Diversity in the 603” with a group of Concord High School students this past summer. The students walked around during Concord’s Market Days festival in June and took photos of more than 100 people. The portraits are now posted in storefronts along Main Street, and are plastered on walls of a few buildings. 

The project was inspired by “Inside Out” a photo project involving black and white portraits posted in cities around the world by a French artist. More than 260,000 people have participated in 129 countries.

While taking the photos, the students also recorded interviews with the subjects talking about the place they grew up, their ancestry and their fears, hopes and dreams. Each photo has a QR code, which can be scanned with a smartphone to access the audio interviews. They are also available on the website for the Concord Multicultural Festival, which will be held in front of the State House this Sunday, Sept. 22, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Kashi said the goal was to show Concord residents the diversity in the community around them and to celebrate people’s differences, along with their similarities. 

Part of her motivation came from a personal experience she had a year ago. Someone made a racially charged comment to her when she was in Concord. Kashi was born in the United States, and her parents are Iranian immigrants who came to America in the 1970s. 

“I felt like I was blindsided – 39 years and I had never heard a racist comment made to me,” she said. “I lived sheltered, almost. I really felt like I was an American like everybody else. I didn’t see my own difference until that happened to me.” 

Kashi said the experience weighed on her heavily for a long time after it happened. 

“I’d walk into a room and suddenly I didn’t feel like I was like everybody else,” she said. “I felt really different, I felt very isolated by the experience.” 

She said she saw the “Diversity in the 603” project as a way to take back her voice. 

And it did that. What also happened, which she didn’t expect, was it was a huge learning opportunity for students. 

“It was amazing to watch my students, because every time they came back from having a conversation with someone, they were moved and different," she said. “They were having very thoughtful conversations that you wouldn't have expected a 15 or 16-year-old to have.” 

Listening to the interviews that students finished, it was interesting to see all of the different upbringings and backgrounds of people in Concord, Kashi said. 

For example, Concord resident Sreeraj Nair, 33, shared memories of playing cricket in dry patty fields in the summer in the village in India where he grew up. Steve Gurney was born in the 1960s on the coast in New York, outside the city, where he spent days with his family sailing and fishing. Rebecca Bamidele, 19, talked about being born in Concord to parents who had just immigrated from Nigeria and growing up in an environment of mixed cultures and values. 

But the most moving part of the practice for both Kashi and her students were people’s answers to deeper questions. 

“Initially, everybody’s journey story is different, but when they came down to the hopes and dreams and fears, it was pretty much the same responses. It didn’t matter how old they were, how young, what gender they were, what their background was,” Kashi said. “People were afraid of being forgotten, being left alone, people were afraid of dying. People’s hopes were to have a fulfilling life, to have families.” 

She said it was powerful to see her students responses to some of the stories people told. 

“The people they thought were very ordinary people had amazing stories that weren’t expected,” she said. “We had a homeless man and he had had a very sad upbringing, but at the end he was asked whats your hope, and he said, to have children of my own. You could see suddenly students were seeing him in a different way. It was like something lit up in their eyes and I could see that empathy and that caring.”

“Very seldom do we talk to people and ask them, ‘What do you dream about? What do you hope?’ And even when we were asking that question, you could tell people hadn’t been asked that before.” 

The “Diversity in the 603” project will stay up in Concord until the spring. 

Multicultural festival 

Concord multicultural festival director Jessica Livingston said the “Diversity in the 603” project was a welcome addition to the activities of the multicultural festival. 

“It’s just such a moving project, that I think really encapsulates everything we are trying to bring to Concord with the festival,” she said. 

Concord’s annual multicultural festival will be held on Sunday – and Livingston said they’ve had more interest than ever from people who want to perform and sell food. 

“It’s burgeoning, it’s huge,” she said. “I didn’t even have time to do a lot of publicity. Everybody just started coming in anyway and registering – I had to shut off the food vendors before even started advertising for people to sign up.” 

This year, immigrant-owned restaurants and food trucks will bring new fare to the festival. Livingston said its been inspiring to see more immigrant-owned restaurants, like Katmandu on Loudon Road, pop up in the 13 years since the festival started and want to take part. 

“When it first started, you couldn’t get ethnic food anywhere. Even when I took this over six years ago, it was the only day you could get ethnic food and see all of this culture,” Livingston said. “Now, we have eight commercial vendors, which means they’re all restaurant owners. It just shows how valuable immigrants are to our country and our economy. They start businesses.” 

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)

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