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iSchool's Gomez captures immigrant experience in pictures and words

rgomez.jpgA picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes that’s not enough.

While working on his new book, “Fotohistorias,” Ricardo Gomez found that the stories behind the pictures are often what truly give them meaning.

Gomez and co-author Sara Vannini loaned cameras to about 40 people and asked them to choose pictures that best represent their experience as migrants. They then spoke to their subjects about the pictures they chose.

Fotohistorias_cover.jpg“By holding the conversation about the picture, it’s kind of a shortcut to the soul, a way to talk about deep, profound things in a way that would be a lot more difficult to talk about otherwise,” Gomez says.

The result is 350-plus pages of first-hand accounts and images from migrants in Seattle, at the U.S.-Mexico border, and in Colombia. The immigrant experience is an area of keen interest for Gomez, an associate professor at the University of Washington Information School. Much of his research has focused on the sharing and use of information among migrant populations, including how they use computers, mobile phones, and social networks. 

“The book is a way of honoring the work of the Hispanic migrants I had been working with over the past few years doing research, but in a way that gave more voice to their voice,” Gomez says. “We valued their voice and their experience, and not just their voice, but their images, so seeing the world through their own eyes.”

fotohistorias1.jpgGomez tells the story of a young man pictured in front of a ramshackle home in Cali, Colombia, with trash he had collected to recycle. Where others might see hopeless poverty in the photo, the man saw it as a point of pride. It was a symbol of the fact that he could make money from recycling to feed his family.

“Many times, the conversation about the picture is not about the picture itself, it’s about the feeling that it evokes, the memories, the world view,” Gomez says. “It’s about what that picture evokes in the person, and that’s a very profound story.”

Participants are identified only by first names, and the faces of many are masked in the book to shield their identities. Their immigration status is not questioned.

“We don’t ask whether the people who are participating have legal documents. They’re human beings, they’re here, trying to make a living for themselves.”

The book steers away from academic conventions, focusing instead on the pictures and words of the migrants themselves, written in English and Spanish. Gomez’s hope is that the book puts a human face on people whose fate is a contentious political issue, giving people an understanding of the experience of those who leave their homes in search of a better life in the United States.

All proceeds from the book, published directly through Amazon, will go to support Casa Latina, which provides training, information and support to Latino immigrants living and working in the Seattle area.

At the end of the book, Gomez, a native of Colombia, turns the camera on himself.

“I’m a migrant, too,” he said. “I had a piece of paper who allowed me to do it legally, and I had the language and the education and the credentials. My experience was very different from theirs, yet I feel many of the same questions of ‘What is home?’ and ‘What is my identity?’

“The fact that we’re all migrants puts us all, in different ways, in the same boat.”