Exhibit brings city’s immigration stories into focus
The exhibit used photos and essays to show how people assimilated and how their stories changed.
“Out of Many: Stories of Migration” is a traveling exhibit highlighting the American immigrant and migrant experience through photographs and essays, focusing on Pittsburgh’s particular immigration stories.
A precursor of the exhibit is currently on display at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill and will run through the end of December, while a much more extensive version with almost entirely new content will open in January at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.
Five area photographers contributed to the exhibit, including Brian Cohen, of Brian Cohen Photography and founder of The Documentary Works, which produces collaborative photo documentaries focused on social and environmental justice.
The name of the exhibit was inspired by the U.S. motto, e pluribus unum (out of many, one).
“The premise at the heart of the project is that we all come from somewhere,” said Cohen. It also represents migration and how the stories change as people assimilate or move on.
In addition to Cohen, who curated the exhibit, the other local photographers whose works will be featured are Scott Goldsmith, Nate Guidry, Lynn Johnson and Annie O’Neill.
Currently on display at the JCC are 39 photos, all of which document various aspects of the immigrant and migrant experience from different angles and viewpoints. There is, for example, a section on Bhutanese refugees who have just arrived at Pittsburgh’s airport, photographed by Goldstein. Johnson captured personal reflections on immigration, documented by photos of window signs with such phrases as “Stop profiling Muslims” and “My ancestors were immigrants.”
By photographing its buildings, Cohen chronicled the numerous ethnic groups who, for a variety of reasons and circumstances, settled in Pittsburgh and its surrounding towns; the buildings now serve or have served as social institutions in which newly arrived immigrants would congregate for cultural or social activities. “Some represent communities that are still thriving; others represent communities that have moved on,” said Cohen.
Captions accompanying each photo give a broader history of the particular ethnic group’s American immigration and specific information about how and when each group settled in southwestern Pennsylvania.
For example, the photo of the Irish Centre of Pittsburgh represents the region’s Irish-American community, a microcosm of the almost two million Irish immigrants who settled in the U.S. between 1820 and 1860. Another photo is of the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center in Homestead. Founded in 1930, it is the oldest, largest and most active such organization in the country.
A photo of Murray Avenue Kosher in the background with a Chinese lion in the foreground, taken earlier this year during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration, represents the changing population of Squirrel Hill, showcasing that neighborhood’s established Jewish history as well as a more recent increase in the East Asian population.
Cohen said that he chose to photograph buildings, such as grocery stores, private clubs or benevolent societies, as they have functioned as de facto social centers.
The “Out of Many” project has been on Cohen’s radar for a long time. “We live in a wonderful world, but it’s not perfect; there’s a lot we can talk about, and we have a lot to fix,” he said. “The idea is to get people talking in constructive and positive ways about something that seems to be a little heated, to create a space in which we can lower the temperature and be more empathetic and sympathetic to other people’s situations.”
When the exhibit moves to the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, it will be significantly larger than the current showing at the JCC, with many more photos as well as extractions of essays from a book that will be published in January. Writer Reid Frazier will be writing a series of vignettes that describe the lives and experiences of recent immigrants, and Erika Beras, a frequent contributor to public radio programs, is compiling firsthand accounts of Pittsburghers who arrived here as part of the Great Migration.
A future tool in connection with this project will be an interactive, location-sensitive digital platform. “We will place pictures and accompanying texts into the database and will ‘pin’ each item to a location that you can then find on a map. The tool will ‘know’ where you are and can tell you about migration-related stories that are nearby,” said Cohen. Through this tool, people also will be able to upload their families’ or their own immigration stories to a database, which will be pinned to a location.
Cohen added that some area institutions, such as the JCC, Repair the World and City of Asylum, will be engaging in related programming in conjunction with this project. These organizations will have access to the materials for the purposes of encouraging positive conversations and interactions about the topic of immigration and migration. pjc
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at