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Story pick: The undocumented

By Theresa Vargas


Photo by Mary Beth Meehan

At first, it looks like a simple photograph of a gray suitcase on a rug. And then you look closer and see a blond-haired doll in a pink dress peeking out. Then what appears to be a book, the title obscured. Beneath that, a DVD set, the barely visible, but unmistakable curled “D” of Disney discernible.

Off to the side is a box of Barbies. We can only think they won’t make it into the suitcase.

Last week, the Boston Globe showcased a project by Providence-based photographer Mary Beth Meehan that gives us an intimate look into the lives of undocumented immigrants – all without showing a single face.

The photos instead focus on their living spaces, forcing us to study ordinary objects to try to understand the people behind them: a dresser topped with soccer trophies, a battered door adorned with a picture of Jesus knocking on a similar door, an air mattress covered with an American flag blanket in a room without a nightstand.

In a piece that ran along with the photos, Dushko Petrovich writes:

We are first of all forced to recognize that people are standing behind or beside the camera because they can’t show their faces. Everything we do see — the carefully appointed dining room, the children’s neat beds, the adjacent gerbil cage — would be evacuated if their owners were identified. This important fact lends a provisional air to interiors that would otherwise seem remarkably stable. The objects are often quite ordinary, but their missing owners signal the scene’s underlying disquiet.

I spoke to Meehan this week to better understand the work behind the project and she said it started with the photo of the flag-adorned bed. She was photographing a man from Guinea-Bissau for another project and he was nervous about showing his face. He asked if he could cover it. And that’s when they walked into his bedroom.

A few days later, Arizona passed its controversial immigration law and Meehan said the project grew from there.

“I’m usually always photographing people but I started asking myself, 'How do you photograph someone's intentions?'” Meehan said. “The spaces really reveal what the people are doing here, what they’re trying to create here. Immediately, you see how a person’s trying to build their life.”

The photo of the suitcase, she said, came about after she met a woman from Columbia in a parenting class. She described her as a “powerhouse” who volunteered at her children’s schools, two churches and an immigrant women’s group.

Then one day, Meehan discovered the woman was getting deported. When she showed up to photograph the house, she said, it was "all packed up.”

To see that photos and others, check out the photo gallery that ran in the Globe.


Photo by Mary Beth Meehan

By Theresa Vargas  | October 7, 2010; 9:36 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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