CHATHAM – Mark Chester began taking the photographs that became “The Bay State: A Multicultural Landscape” in 2015, well before immigration became the hot-button issue it is today.
“This is not intended to be a geopolitical project,” said Chester, who grew up in Springfield and now lives in Woods Hole, “but it seems like it's becoming more meaningful.”
Chester's project involves photographing more than 400 naturalized U.S. citizens from all over Massachusetts. The subjects hail from nearly 190 of the world's 195 countries. A selection of the photographs, featuring residents of Cape Cod, are on display at the Eldredge Public Library's Forgeron Room through June 30. On Thursday, June 22 at 7 p.m., the library will hold a meet and greet with Chester.
The seeds of the project were planted decades ago when Chester, then a freelance photographer based in San Francisco, was given the assignment of doing photographs for Charles Kuralt's book of essays, “Dateline America.” One of the places he photographed was Ellis Island. This was 1978, and the facility where hundreds of thousands of immigrants arrived earlier in the century was neglected and rundown.
“It was just a mess, actually,” Chester recalled in a telephone interview last week. “It still had the patina of the late 1800s, early 1900s.”
Although his grandparents and father had immigrated from Belarus, they didn't come through Ellis Island, but that photography experience helped him realize that, like most Americans, he was from a family of immigrants. “That always stayed with me,” he said.
Fast forward to 2010. Chester was living in Woods Hole when he saw a news article in which then-Gov. Deval Patrick talked about the diversity of the state's population. Looking at the census figures, Chester saw that people representing more than 100 nationalities live in the Bay State.
“That got me thinking, where are they?” he said. He began attending naturalization ceremonies in Boston and other locations throughout the state; officials sent him lists of countries of origin of the participants and he began tracking them down one by one. He'd show up at the ceremonies – some of which included thousands of new citizens – and call out the names of countries. If someone responded, he told them about his project and, if they were willing, arranged a photo shoot.
Some connections were made purely at random. A man he saw repairing shoes in a shop in Harvard Square turned out to be from Greece, a country he hadn't checked off yet. When looking for a native of Brunei, he discovered that another of his photographic subjects – from Samoa – had gone to school with someone from Brunei. In other cases, he contacted embassies and consulates to try to track down residents from specific countries. Almost everyone he approached agreed to be photographed, Chester said. Many invited him to their homes; he leaves the location of the shoot and other details – such as whether the person wants to dress in native clothing or not – up to his subjects.
“I've made friendships with a lot of people,” he said of the process. He uses natural light so prefers outdoor settings. “I'm interested in the subject and the presentation.”
“The idea was more or less from a photographic point of view, to show what a person from Madagascar looks like compared to a person from Albania,” he said. “What is the physiognomy of different countries.” The goal was also to show the diversity represented by immigrants living in Massachusetts, and to pique curiosity about where they'd come from and why they are here.
He ended up “traveling around the world without leaving the state,” he said.
A non-profit organization, the Mark Chester Diversity Project, endorsed by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, grew out of the photographs. An exhibit of the photos has been touring libraries and other locations throughout the state since 2015; there are actually three separate exhibits, Chester said, currently in Chatham, Milton and Hingham. They will continue to circulate through 2018.
Chester has also put together a book featuring the photos, “The Bay State: A Multicultural Landscape – Photographs of New Americans,” which he plans to distribute free to state schools, libraries and community organizations as part of an education component of the project, called “Teaching Children Tolerance, Diversity and Social Justice.” He is currently raising the money to publish 3,500 copies, one of which will be given to each of his photographic subjects.
The project presented other challenges for Chester; it was the first time he'd worked with a digital camera, and it was a departure from the “street photographer” approach he'd used for years as a freelance photographer. He began his career as an intern on the Steve Allen Show, taking behind the scenes photos. For years he was director of photography and staff photographer for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in New York City for about 25 years. He ended up in the San Francisco area where he freelanced for national and regional publications, traveling extensively.
“I always had a wanderlust,” he said. “Even as a youngster, I always wondered what another place was like.” His photos are in the collections of numerous museums, including the Cape Cod Museum of Art, and he's published two books along with the Kuralt volume: “No In America,” a tongue-in-cheek collection of “No” signs, and “Twosomes,” photos of pairs collected through his travels.
Through the multicultural exhibit photographs, Chester said he hopes people will develop a curiosity about other countries and “compassion for those who speak with an accent, or wear clothes that differ from Brooks Bros. and J.C. Penny or Wal Mart or Puritan, [and] respect others' customs and want to understand them.”
Chester sees the project as a positive way to promote understanding.
“I'm happy with the photos, and happy that the people like them,” he said. “It's their project as much as my project.”
For more about Mark Chester and the multicultural project, visit www.markchesterphotography.com
Immigration Expert To Speak At EPL
CHATHAM – The U.S. is a nation of immigrants, but you wouldn't know it by the current political climate.
“An Uneasy Nation of Immigrants” will be presented at the Eldredge Public Library on Monday, June 26, at 7 p.m. by Daniel Tichenor, Philip H. Knight Chair of Political Science and director of the Program on Democratic Engagement and Governance of the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon.
“Although the United States is a nation built upon immigration,” Tichenor said in a statement, “the subject has been a source of contentious debate since the founding generation. This talk will help shed light on the practical and philosophical origins of these differences over immigrant admissions and rights, and encourage audience members to reflect on several important policy dilemmas.
Tichenor has published six books and more than 50 journal articles and chapters on immigration politics and policy, the American presidency, national security and civil liberties and the influence of interest groups and social movements on representative government. Among his books are “Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control” and “Rallying Force: Presidents, Social Movements and the Transformation of American Politics,” his most recent, written with Sidney Milkis.