“As Americans, we get jaded and forget what it means to live in this country. When I see the earnestness with which new immigrants in this country believe in the American dream, I realize how much we take for granted.” These words from photographer Adam Stoltman strike a deep chord in me as I relive my personal history of arriving in this country more than 50 years ago with an American dream that I’ve been very lucky to realize. Stoltman’s photo-documentary show “Capturing Culture: Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Community in American Culture and Society” opened in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., last month. It’s a unique photo-political platform through which Stoltman humanizes this swath of America’s “invisible minority” and brings their portraits face to face with policy makers who direct health care and other key areas that affect these communities around the U.S.
Stoltman’s photography journey led him across 14 immigrant communities around the country. As part of the Health Through Action (HTA) initiative, a program that was designed to bolster community approaches to improving the health of vulnerable Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander children and families by strengthening community-based organizations, Stoltman’s photo-documentary focused on community building, which helped to build capacity with regards to public health across 18 different organizations that are the vital links to services and health care for immigrant communities around the U.S. Explains Stoltman, “I was asked to spend time documenting and producing images that reflect the human face of some of the populations served by the various grantee organizations.” With decades of experience behind him, not only as a photographer, but also as an editor at The New York Times, Stoltman embarked on this project to reflect “a growing reality of America. More than ever our nation is a melting pot of various communities, each bringing cultural strengths and vibrancy to the American tapestry, yet also struggling to maintain traditional and cultural roots in a dynamic sea of diversity and modernity.”
Through his interaction with these communities, Stoltman noticed one theme that connected them all—their desire to become visible in America, as they referred to themselves as an “invisible minority.” Inspired to give these communities a visibility and voice on a national platform, Stoltman set out to create portraits that transformed their emotional and cultural experiences into powerful imagery. “Visibility is really important,” he says. “This is what as city dwellers we do not understand. America is really changing demographically and its diverse faces must become visible.”
Stoltman worked with a diverse Asian immigrant community that included South Asians, Samoans, Cambodians, Hmong and Vietnamese, among several others. “What’s wonderful about the process through which we created the images was that it was a fluid dialogue with the communities themselves,” he says. “The amount of time I had [14 months] was great because as a photographer one hardly gets a chance to layer the work in an interesting way. I took pictures as they defined what was important to them. It’s rare that you get the opportunity to work that way.”
Stoltman comes from a genre of photography that one would hardly associate with cause-related work. As a sports photographer, he has shot some of the most iconic athletes in the world. Drawing a parallel between sports photography and the imagery he created for this project, Stoltman remarks, “I was attracted to sports photography because trying to reach for ideals and to transcend one’s limitations has always affected me and what’s drawn me to it. There is a fundamental humanity in both those quests—of being an immigrant and being an athlete. In many ways there is not that much distance between the two worlds. In sports photography there is a lot of idealism. You’re photographing people who are trying every day to transcend their limits in much the same way that immigrants do. In many ways the two worlds are parallel.”
Stoltman’s unique perspective into human behavior layers the poignant portraits that are on exhibit at the show. Stoltman chose to create mixed imagery for this show—some as controlled portraiture of community members, some in their “new American context” in a citizenship class, some in their neighborhoods and others in health-care situations. Kathy Ko Chin, President and CEO of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, which was a partner in this project, was quite pleased with Stoltman’s work. “Along the way, Adam has helped us see and understand—in a different way from grant reports and conference calls—the impact of our work to support our communities nationwide. He has revealed the spirit of the people who are affected by policies, which render them invisible, but in his images, the impact is clearly visible. It has been an honor and a privilege to partner with Adam, and we hope that you can feel the presence of our Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities as you view these photos, over 18 million strong.”
Duggal helped Stoltman exhibit his work in the rotunda by mounting and laminating his prints and creating text panels to accompany the images. Kathleen Kohl, our fine art senior account manager, led Stoltman through various options for exhibiting his pieces in the rotunda. As an immigrant and a proud American, I’m extremely glad to have been able to help Stoltman with the final leg of his meaningful journey and very gratified at his response: “Duggal’s overall support and guidance was invaluable as they were extraordinarily helpful in handholding and guiding. I am very appreciative of the support they provided.”
It’s wonderful to see photographers dedicate themselves to creating a sense of connectedness for communities that are still finding their identity and voice in this great country. I couldn’t agree with him more when Stoltman says, “Photography is a wonderful medium for fostering identification, and I think in the times we’re living in, where America is more culturally diverse than it has ever been, it’s very important that we find those bridges between communities and cultures, so that was the hope for this material.”