Local photographer illuminates the many faces of immigration

Menlo Park resident Mark Tuschman focuses his lens close to home

Menlo Park resident Mark Tuschman has earned accolades for his international photography exploring topics such as human rights and global health.

Now, he has turned his eye – and his photographic lens – closer to home to explore a topic that resonates with him on a deep personal level: immigration.

It's a topic, he says, that symbolizes the extent of polarization in the U.S. He sees rising anti-immigrant rhetoric, he told The Almanac, as "the old fascist 101 playbook," which uses discrimination to consolidate power "instead of working together to solve complex problems."

Ecosystems thrive best when they're diverse, he says. As proof, just watch the new Netflix documentary series "Our Planet" (narrated by David Attenborough), a show he's recently been enjoying, he adds.

Immigrants have always played an important role in shaping the U.S., he says. Go back far enough into one's ancestry and you'll find people who came to America for the same reasons they're coming now.

In his family, he says, it was his grandparents who came to the U.S. from Russia at the turn of the century. He credits his own life to their move. Had they tried to immigrate later in the 20th century, after the U.S. restricted immigration for Jewish refugees, they might have become victims of the Holocaust, he notes.

"I see how immigrants are being used as a political scapegoat," he says. "It's important for me to do something."

For him, that something was a project that's occupied his time over the last 15 months or so: to shoot portraits of immigrants from all walks of life, many of whom are from Northern California, and some of whom are local residents. Some are undocumented, some have green cards; others have H-1B visas, or temporary status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act. Some have full citizenship. They also span a wide socioeconomic spectrum. All of them, as he demonstrates on his project's website, immigrantsareUS.org, have powerful stories to share.

He says he tried to highlight immigrant groups that he feels are being discriminated against most strongly: Hispanic, Muslim and African people.

Another goal, he adds, was to show how immigrants contribute to society. Immigrant workers play a critical role in the agricultural system, and in filling restaurant, hotel, service and home care jobs. And in Silicon Valley, the high-tech industry also relies heavily on the technical expertise of immigrants.

The project taught Tuschman to look at his own community differently, he says. Before starting his project, he explains, it had never occurred to him to ask the woman who cleans his house about her story. But then, he asked, and by the time she was done telling the story of her flight from Nicaragua about 30 years ago, and sharing the terrifying experiences she underwent, he had tears in his eyes, he adds.

"(There are) so many immigrants we deal with on a daily basis," he says. "We don't take the time to talk and hear their stories."

Still, he says, there were some subjects, especially among undocumented residents, who were afraid of being photographed. Some people said no, and others agreed on the condition that their identity be kept hidden or their name changed.

Tuschman continues to photograph new subjects while working with different groups, like the National Immigration Law Center in Washington, D.C., and Define American, a nonprofit focused on changing how immigration, citizenship and identity are discussed in the U.S., to try to get his photo show on the road. He's hoping to show his photographs at college campuses, with the aim of inspiring young people to vote.

As a photographer, he says he's learned that the work of changing minds isn't done as effectively with facts and political arguments as with stories and photographs.

"You really can't argue with a person's story," he says.

If you go

Mark Tuschman's exhibit, "Immigrants are US," will be on display during presentations by Tuschman and immigrants who participated in the project on Thursday, May 16, from 7 to 9 p.m.; Friday, May 17, from 7 to 9 p.m. and Saturday, May 18, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Art Ventures Gallery at 888 Santa Cruz Ave. in Menlo Park. Go to immigrantsareus.org to access the project website and read personal essays that accompany each portrait.

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