In the wake of the midterm elections, immigration reform promises to be high on the agenda for President Obama and Congress. That fact makes Natalie Camou’s United States of Mind an important statement on the issue. Natalie’s photo essay is part of FotoWeekDC which had its opening November 7 at the Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain.
United States of Mind is a series of 11 prints, a selection of the many photographs that Natalie took while actually living with immigrant families in Spain. A first generation U.S. citizen, Natalie is passionate about the topic of immigration. “My mom is a single parent and she learned English with me when I was going to school,” said Natalie. She is currently a graduate student in the Multimedia, Design, and Photography Program at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School for Public Communications. “There is nothing more infuriating as an immigrant family to be watching the news and they are talking about immigration issues, maybe they’re just talking about health care or education, and yet the little picture on the upper right hand corner is like someone jumping over the border, the wall. I don’t think it’s just the United States. I think it’s something that I see everywhere I go, whether it’s England or France or Spain. I see this repetitive imagery and it becomes sort of iconography of how we paint the immigrant, how we’re going to speak about the immigrant. As though they are this enemy that we can’t conquer.”
During a talk at FotoWeekDC’s opening, Natalie said she hopes her photo documentary will confront what she terms “lazy thinking” about immigration. “I find it fascinating that no matter where I find myself [I hear] `they’re here and they want my job, and they want my school’ and it’s just not so simple,” she said. “There’s so much more that the immigrant has to offer.”
Maria Isabel and her brother, Enza, play after cleaning the kitchen. This is one of their only breaks in the day. Almeria, Spain. 2013. Photo by Natalie Camou
Natalie spent five immersive months over the course of two years living with immigrant families in Spain, looking for families that would represent different stages in the immigrant experience. Adama, an immigrant from Africa who spoke Spanish, agreed to help her find families that she could live with. But after he got to know her, he volunteered his own family. “Because he had been there for so long [his family] was a great key study for what we consider the most assimilated late stage of a family,” Natalie said. “He had been in Spain for 17 years, his wife, Aminata, immigrated there 12 years ago, and they have two daughters born in Spain, so they feel very much stable in Spain.”
Diakite works in the invernaderos six days a week. Some of his greatest joys are doing laundry and the general upkeep of his home. Almeria, Spain, 2013. Photo by Natalie Camou
In addition to Adama’s family, she also lived with families who were at the first and second stages of living in a new country. “I actually found that the determinant of whether a family felt isolated or not hinged on whether the father had had the ability to relocate his family with him,” Natalie said. “Diakite, immigrated nine years prior, but still felt isolated and considered himself hardly assimilated because he still hadn’t brought his family over. Whereas, another man (who has requested anonymity) considers himself second stage after only a year and a half living in Spain (not quite assimilated, but on his way) because he has both his wife and son with him.”
Although the families knew that Natalie would be living with them photographing everything, she was very respectful about invading their space. For the first few days, she did not take out her camera, instead giving the family time to get used to her. “I think sometimes photographers can chase moments; I sometimes see my colleagues just like – brrrrr,” she said, imitating the sound of a camera’s shutter rapidly clicking. “That’s very violent. You come into somebody’s home and so you’re put into a position of trust and then to take advantage of that and just shoot everything, it feels like a very violent experience. I really try to be more conscientious and purposeful and sensitive to that.”
Adama prays at dawn before heading to work. Today he has gotten only two hours of sleep. Almedria, Spain. 2013. Photo by Natalie Camou
Looking at Natalie’s photographers shows that her approach achieves remarkable results. Her subjects seem relaxed and comfortable, revealing a great deal about themselves and their situations. She captured Adama praying before heading to work after only two hours of sleep. There are several photos of Aminata, Adama’s wife. “Braiding hair on the boardwalk is done by the entire family, as both Aminata and Adama’s second means of income aside from their day jobs,” said Natalie. “Adama works as a cultural mediator for Almería Acoge and Aminata as a limpiadora for a local school.” Natalie captured their daughter, Maria Isabel, having a water fight with her brother, Enza, after they cleaned the kitchen.
Children figure prominently in a family’s decision to immigrate. While Natalie was working with Mexican families in Los Angeles, Italian families in D.C., or African families in Spain, she often heard: “I just want to go back already. I don’t really want to be here.” But after further discussion, the common thread would be finding a better life for their children. “I think it’s something that anybody can relate to whether you’re living in a small town in Minnesota and you want to move to the city because there are more opportunities and better schools,” she said. Except for many of these immigrants, “it’s not so much about better schools; it’s more about bombs going off.” One man witnessed his pregnant sister dying in an explosion. Responsible for his wife and children, he knew he had to leave.
Aminata engages another potential customer as she works braiding hair. Almeria, Spain, 2013. Photo by Natalie Camou
For Aminata, she hopes her children will get a good education. In an audio that accompanies Natalie’s exhibit, Aminata talks about how the rich and powerful can afford to send their children away to school in Europe or the U.S. That’s what she seeks for her own children.
Because children often find it easier to adapt, whether that means learning a new language faster or finding friends, their assimilation into the culture often outpaces that of their parents. Sometimes that can upset the balance in the home. That’s the situation Natalie now sees with one family she’s working with in Syracuse. After a year, the mother is having trouble with English while her two daughters are fluent. Her eldest daughter handles all the paperwork and translating for her mother. “I find this common that the children will begin to be leaders and you have this strange role reversal that starts to blur the lines,” said Natalie, who said the mother now depends upon her eldest daughter for emotional support.
While the family qualifies for benefits, the rules often work against them making progress. Natalie noted that the mother in Syracuse will have her benefits reduced if she goes to work. Her dream is to become a nurse and she knows that is she takes a job in a fast food restaurant, that dream will probably go away.
Having resources often means a shortcut to citizenship, according to Natalie. “In Spain, if you can buy a 60,000 Euro house, a 140,000 Euro house, then your route to becoming a citizen is cut in half,” she said. “And so you begin to ask yourself questions like, `oh, it’s not immigrants we hate; it’s just the poor ones.’ It’s unfortunate.”
United States of Mind
On display during FotoWeek DC
Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain
2801 16th Street NW
For more information on Natalie Camou, go to her website.