This week marks the release of Gabriele Stabile & Juliet Linderman’s Refugee Hotel from Voice of Witness. The project was well underway when I got to know Gabriele in 2008 and led him astray from his serious work into the sticky morass of idiotic food stuff, which is what I do, and what I make him take pictures of. I know he was hoping McSweeney’s would get somebody smarter than me to interview him and Juliet, who added word stories to Gabri’s picture stories, but I imagine Kayden Kross had something better to do this week. So here I am, enthralled with the book they put together, and with questions to which I want answers. –- Peter Meehan
Peter Meehan: Gabriele, you shot the photos for this book over the course of five years, on your own dime and own time. Why? What was the genesis of this project? Why did you start it?
GABRIELE STABILE: Because people are foolish, and they fall in love with foolish projects. For me the foolishness was to intercept refugees, to make friends with them, and then to dedicate a small part of my life to shooting photographs of them on discontinued film stock.
The origin of the book was the New York Times (in paper form). I stumbled upon this story about refugees spending their first night in America. I convinced myself that somehow the shock of the Ellis Island experience had been embedded in my Italian DNA by relatives of my ancestors (the science of that equation may not add up), and I was consumed with fascination about those hotels, places that seemed to me to be modern day Ellis Islands.
The idea was irresistible. Average hotels on the freeway to the airport, the quintessential American backdrop, and the most foreign of the foreigners as main character: a constant influx of refugees, travelers that courageously escaped every calamity you could think of and survived, making it to here, against all odds, to start over a new life. What’s not to like, in a story like this?
PM: Why refugees, why America? What did you hope to learn, or to see, or to capture?
JULIET LINDERMAN: Refugees are unique, because unlike many immigrants who come to America, nearly all of the narrators in this book had no desire to leave their home countries let alone wind up in the United States. Most of them didn’t have a choice, and are now faced with starting a new life, in a brand new and unfamiliar world that they didn’t choose, with the painful knowledge that they may never be able to return home to their houses, their families, their countries. At the same time, these narrators represent a new generation of Americans, who will influence their surroundings just as much as their surroundings might influence them. Their children will be born Americans, and their children’s children will be born Americans. We wanted to know what those first few years, that uncomfortable period of transition that can last a month or can last forever, feels like.
GS: I suspect “America” is the project – one that every “American” photographer sooner or later will end up tackling. For me, personally, this was about becoming a photographer. About using pictures to tell a story that words can’t. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I learned a lot about myself, lost myself, traveled on buses, slept anywhere and everywhere. I met many outstanding human beings, and many others that were ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
PM: The intimacy of many of the photos make me need to ask: how did you get these people – who seem to have many reasons not to trust anyone—to let you photograph them at such fragile moments and in such personal settings?
GS: I didn’t do anything particular but to be interested and sensitive and respectful and humble. This is the one thing that can’t be learned in prestigious schools, residencies, or photo cooperatives. But all human beings respond to genuine interest and good intentions. At times, I hid behind the camera, other times I was bolder, but for the book I never really looked for the sensational “private” shot, but more for the subdued, intimate tones.
PM: It’s one thing to let someone point a camera at you; it’s another to open up about the harrowing experiences it seems that each of the refugees you profiled lived through. Did they want to share their stories?
JL: A lot of people I met couldn’t figure out why I wanted to interview them. One narrator originally from Iraq kept asking me, “Why do you care? Why do you want to tell my story? There are a million people with stories just like mine.” But there is nobody with a story just like hers.
I remember talking to one woman from Burma, who I didn’t initially plan to interview, about her life and how she wound up in America. She was my interpreter, but we became friends and I decided to try and do an oral history of her life. She hesitated at first, but eventually agreed. She was a nurse, and told me stories about the Saffron Revolution and how she and her family were placed on a government blacklist, and she had no choice but to flee. She told me I couldn’t use her name because she was still so afraid. At the end of our interview she started crying, and told me that she’d never told anyone her story before. I found that sort of shocking.
In my life, every day, I tell stories, my friends and family tell stories, we talk about our lives easily and openly. But she said she’d never shared hers with anybody in America. I asked her why, and she replied that nobody had ever asked to hear it. She said that telling me about her life in Burma made her remember it, and it reopened old wounds she hadn’t thought about in years, and that it hurt her. But she also said it made her feel lighter.
PM: Paris Review-y question: How did you conduct the interviews? Did you meet with all of your subjects multiple times?
JL: Each interview was different, so it wasn’t a uniform process. For the most part, I would meet an individual or a family and we’d spend an hour or two just hanging out. I tried to re-interview, often several times, each of the narrators, but of course there were restrictions, especially linguistic ones. I was so, so fortunate to have fantastic and kind and exceedingly patient interpreters, who bore with me while I asked the same question three different ways.
It’s amazing how much ground you can cover in a short time when somebody is willing to open up, and in a first interview I was usually able to get a snapshot, a chronological sketch, of where somebody came from, under what circumstances she was forced to flee her home country, how she came to find herself in America.
But opening up does take time, and the details and memories that wouldn’t necessarily jump out immediately in the retelling of a life’s story—like the way a plum looked on a tree, or what everyone from your village nicknamed one particularly treacherous stretch of road—those details tended to start floating to the surface a little later on. Then I tried to keep a pretty open dialogue with everyone I could throughout the editing process.
PM: Lastly: It seems to me that there is an unusual preponderance of guitars in the photos, and talk of music in the stories. Why do you think that is?
GS: I know why: I was a very passionate but quite bad guitar player in Italy and Juliet was a mean bass player when she lived Greenpoint, Brooklyn. But, seriously, I think music is one of those primary needs, like eating, sleeping and such, that brings people closer together.
I’ll tell you a short story, which happened when I was shooting in Mobile, Alabama.
Sunzu Noel is a very revered man in his community, and one of the protagonists of our book. I photographed him arriving in Miami in 2008 when all he owned were the pajamas he was wearing. Now he is a religious leader who has founded his own church, with several hundred parishioners all over the continent. Around his home the atmosphere is always jolly, but with an underlying note of sadness and nostalgia for traditions that are bound to be forgotten and lost by newer generations trying to keep up with America.
I spent a week there, at Sunzu’s, and this challenged girl, one of his many nieces, maybe 9 or 10 years old, kept on waiting for me to come every morning to shoot, to greet me at the entrance of this low-income gated community.
I will also take a short aside here to tell you that I had previously lost my driver’s license and in Mobile there is not a great choice of cabs, so sometimes I would make it there with the bus; other times I would hitch a ride. Or once or twice, when none of the above was available, I had to resort to an infamous stretched-limo car service. Can you imagine another photojournalist admitting he got to the refugees projects in a stretch white limo driven by a Dre 3000 lookalike? I am trying to be honest here.
In any case, this girl, poor soul, she would run after the limo until the driver would drop my sorry ass in front of Sunzu’s home. Then she would hug me and follow me everywhere, so much so, and with such intensity and affection, that to work would be impossible. Obviously, I couldn’t ever find it in me to avoid her, but at the same time I had to get something on film. And then I realized that what I could do was really shoot with her, on her schedule, so to say, and so we started this little game where she would drag me somewhere around the house and peacefully we would wait for someone to show up, and whenever she heard people approaching, she would scream and point them at me. Not exactly fly-on-the-wall reporting, but her enthusiasm was contagious. The camera, the photographs, I wonder what she perceived of that.
On my last day, when she understood that, bags and all, I was about to leave, she disappeared. I looked for her everywhere but could not find her. I couldn’t leave. The driver, Sunzu, his family—all of them were all around me pushing me in the car to help me not to miss my flight.
And then, at last, she came out of the woods that surround the complex, carrying this battered guitar that had seen its last tuning probably around the time Wounded Knee happened. She placed herself in front of me, played an open dissonant chord, and let go of a loud, deep, sorrowful cry. Then she dropped that thing on the ground and hugged me. After a couple of seconds she let go and quietly went to the house. She stole my breath. She still has it with her. Not one time have I opened our book without going straight to the photo of her playing her guitar and missing her.
For more information about Refugee Hotel go here.