I often tell people that Andrea Patiño, a Colombia native and a 2012 Duke graduate, is the most well-traveled person I know. She grew up in Bogotá, went to high school in Norway, has spent summers and semesters at Duke in the Netherlands, Ghana, Togo, Palestine, and New York City, and always seems to be traveling between continents. As a photojournalist and a cultural anthropologist, she seeks out multicultural stories; as an immigrant, she thinks a lot about mobility. In 2012, directly after graduation, Patiño was awarded a Hine Fellowship through the Center for Documentary Studies, and it was through this program that she moved to Boston, encountered the immense cultural diversity of neighboring city Lynn, and embarked on a multimedia documentary exploration—From the World to Lynn: Stories of Immigration, which opens as a full-fledged exhibition at CDS tonight. I spoke recently with Patiño, who is currently a graduate student in visual communication at UNC-Chapel-Hill, about the exhibition (which is also online here), how she finds herself in her documentary work, and the power of personal narratives.
KI: Tell me about the entry point to [From the World to Lynn]—was it through a particular person you met?
A map showing all of the countries from which immigrants have traveled to Lynn. Image courtesy of Andrea Patiño; part of the exhibit From the World to Lynn.
AP: I moved to Boston [to partner with nonprofit RAW Art Works] and was commuting to Lynn, and I realized pretty quickly that it was an incredibly diverse place. I did some research and found out that almost 30 percent of the population is foreign-born, which is a ridiculously high number—a lot higher than Massachusetts, and more than the national average. That was fascinating right away, and also in contrast to Lynn’s reputation. When you go to Massachusetts everyone says, “don’t go to Lynn, there’s a lot of crime and gang violence,” and so you never really get to hear the fact that it’s such a diverse place, and so rich, culturally and historically. That’s kind of outside of the narrative. Also, just the fact of going [to Lynn daily] and seeing all the different restaurants with different foods and walking the streets and hearing all these different languages. There was a Russian bakery, and a taco place, and lots of Iraqi people around as well. Lynn’s a refugee resettlement city.
When I was doing my work with RAW, I started reaching out to resettlement agencies, and the first one I went to was an Arabic association. Also through RAW I met children of immigrants and second-generation immigrants.
KI: I remember earlier this year we were talking about your current work, about how you’re trying to orient a lot of your documentary projects around immigration. Did [the Lynn project] cement that interest?
AP: I think doing this project reaffirmed a profound interest that I have [in immigration]. It’s such a relevant and important issue—especially in terms of questions about mobility nowadays when everyone’s moving around constantly. Once this project was done, hearing from the subjects [of the photographs] was really powerful, and validated my work in a way that was very profound. That really confirmed that [immigration] is a topic I want to keep working on, because it also felt important to them—having those stories out.
For me as well, I’m trying to figure it out. I’m an immigrant myself, and it’s a completely different kind of immigration story. I’m here for education and sometimes that gets lost; [immigration stories] are nuanced. But here in North Carolina, unlike in Boston, there’s more of a Hispanic presence and I will probably continue doing work on that for the rest of grad school.
A portrait of Antonio, who immigrated from El Salvador. Photo courtesy of Andrea Patiño; part of the exhibit From the World to Lynn.
KI: Speaking of the story of your immigration, I was struck by your exchange with Antonio [an immigrant from El Salvador, photographed as part of From the World to Lynn] who flipped it back on you, and asked you why you were so interested in immigration. Can you talk a little bit about that dynamic?
AP: That was so surprising and honestly so good to me, to be confronted with that question. He was an undocumented, unaccompanied minor, which was a huge thing last summer in the States, but he came 11 years ago. At that point, as I was doing all the interviews, I was trying to figure out my own status. My work permit was running out in the States, and honestly it was a very hard. It produced a lot of anxiety. I was trying to figure it out: either I would have to leave, or try get a job that would sponsor my visa. And I’m explaining all of this to [Antonio] and he’s like, “why don’t you stay, and be undocumented?” It’s the first time anyone has asked me that. That was very powerful. Of course it’s something I had never considered, because of the implications of it. It meant I wouldn’t be able to go back home [to Colombia], or if did, I wouldn’t be able to come back [to the U.S.]. Some people choose [to stay, undocumented] because they don’t have any better option. I think that also reveals the nuances of why people come, why people stay, why people make those kinds of choices.
KI: Has, and/or how has, your thinking about immigration changed?
AP: I think it reaffirmed that personal narratives—though often dismissed—are so important in showing how complicated these decisions are. It also got me thinking about the right to migrate, but also the right not to migrate. The idea that if you don’t want to move, why would you have to move? Which is the case for a lot of people who are forced to move.
Mobility for me is such a big issue. When I first came [to the U.S. and Duke], I did my first summer abroad in Netherlands. I said I needed a visa, and everyone was like, “what is that, why can’t you just…?” Which is completely understandable: If your mobility has never been questioned, growing up, why would you even think about it? I’m somebody who has been able to travel a lot despite all these limitations. I’ve been denied a visa here and there, which is really frustrating. Of course a lot of people say, “why don’t people come [to the U.S.] legally?” but don’t realize that there are all these processes. It’s virtually impossible [to immigrate legally, to obtain a visa] if you are, for example, an impoverished person from Central America.
Also, for me, the situation in Lynn with the Iraqi refugees was really interesting. It connects to the idea of the war in Iraq, to America’s involvement and how that had a very tangible impact on people’s lives who are now coming here. What’s that relationship between an American citizen whose taxes paid for the war and someone who’s coming here? How does that relationship work? How are we involved and responsible?
KI: How has your photographic style evolved through your other projects—including photographs of slave castles in Ghana and Palestinian youth in Nablus—up to this point, a show made up solely of portraits?
AP: [During a class] last semester at UNC was the first time I really had to think more deliberately about style. [With the Lynn project], I was going with my gut, trying to figure things out by myself. I thought portraits were more important in this project because I really wanted them to go together with the voices of the people telling the stories, so you can see the portrait while listening.
KI: What does it mean to you to come full-circle and exhibit your work at Duke?
AP: I’ve been at the Center for Documentary Studies forever, from [being a] front-desk receptionist to having an exhibit there. It definitely feels like a bit of a completion. [The place] was so important in my Duke experience, even though I only took one class there.
This is the first time I have an exhibit up. I remember [at the beginning of the fellowship], my advisors were talking about how you’re going to try many ideas and maybe many of them are going to fail. But you’re going to have time and support to do the project you want to do. I think that kind of support is kind of rare, for somebody to tell you right after graduation that you have the opportunity to fail if you need it. So going back to Duke, and back to CDS, feels like a good first exhibit and also a closure to a long circle.
KI: What are you working on right now? What’s your next big project?
AP: I’m thinking about my [graduate] thesis pretty soon. I would be interested to see how Obama’s recent executive action is going to play out and unfold for a lot of families.
From the World to Lynn is on view at the Center for Documentary Studies until April 13. See more of Patiño’s work here.