by Ayumi Davis / News Editor
Barren, open fields with sparse, little plants fill out much of the images at the Gage Gallery. The panoramic view of the photos display the vastness of the area, nothing and no one around to see. Just from looking, one can tell the arid conditions of the environment, the plants that are gasping for water. One would think there’s nothing there but land, but out a little ways lie rectangular nondescript buildings surrounded by menacing fencing and barbed wire. No one in and no one out. These prison-like structures surrounded by empty land are detainment centers holding detainees for months on end for seeking asylum and leaving problematic home countries in conditions that are not so blank as the outside portrays.
The new exhibit at the Gage Gallery titled, “Detained: Stories of Immigration Detention” opened Oct. 17, focusing on the immigration detainment issues currently happening throughout the nation. Chicagoans and Roosevelt students alike came to the opening to view the photos, panoramic images of detention centers across the country and to hear photographer Greg Constantine’s lecture.
Constantine has been a professional photographer for 17 years, working since 2002. He traveled with his camera quite a lot, causing him to fall in love with photography and telling stories through the medium. The process of focusing on human rights, he explains, was a gradual one. “In 2006, I started working on a community from the Rohingya community from Burma,” said Constantine. “They’ve been in the news a lot over the past few years and I’d never seen a group of people so persecuted in my life.”
Constantine is still working on the project now—14 years later. “Just seeing what could happen to the community because of the actions of the state, it gave me this huge sense of purpose to wanting to keep doing this, and then that then branched off into other stories and led to this.”
This particular project came into fruition after the 2016 election sparked him to come back to the United States a little earlier than planned, having been working in Europe for a while. “I knew I wanted to do this project on immigration detention, but it was the trajectory as to where I would be working. That’s what shifted when Trump got elected,” Constantine said.
Many of those who came to the event were horrified, but also informed by what the pictures displayed. Martha Pierce, 73, who lives in Evanston, has worked with a number of organizations regarding immigration and justice for immigrants. Having been heavily involved in the issue, seeing these photos, she said, was informative. “We hear about these places, but, especially, living where we live, we never see them. And to see them looking like these huge, giant prisons set off far away from where anybody could see is really powerful,” Pierce said.
Pierce has been in a detention center before with her work with organizations, so the inside of the centers are no mystery to her. “It’s helpful for me to have this visual of the vastness of the settings where they are and how they look so forbidding and menacing,” said Pierce.
Charlotte Cherne, a Roosevelt graduate admissions counselor, talked about putting herself in the detainees’ shoes. “Imagine living in these places. You don’t know where you are, you don’t speak the language, you don’t know where your family is,” Cherne said. “You don’t know if anyone knows where you are. You’re just completely lost and alone. It’s really heavy.”
An interesting piece that sets this exhibit apart from others is the constant loop of audio playing overhead—stories of the centers told to Constantine by some of the immigrants he encountered. The stories were recorded by Roosevelt students in the opera project class taught by Professor Susan Payne O’Brien, Chicago College of Performing Arts’ head of opera.
The recordings were a decision by Mike Ensdorf, the director of the Gage Gallery, who said the idea helped to add to the environment of the gallery. “One thing I didn’t want to do was to reproduce all the text that he has in his publication because, in some ways, some people don’t read the text all the way through or at all,” said Ensdorf. “I thought, ‘if they’re hearing it in the space, they can’t help but absorb it and listen to it.’ So, that human voice and the stories being read by the Roosevelt students, I like that connection where there’s sort of a need to be empathetic and sort of engaged with this content.”
Constantine discussed the impact of having the exhibit held at the Gage Gallery, mentioning that having it in Chicago will allow many different people to come see it. “Informing people and allowing them to see a different perspective or have a different visual translation of this issue is really important. So that’s why I think this exhibition and being in this setting, I hope, will make some kind of small, positive contribution to things,” said Constantine.