In 2014, at a moment when immigration was cresting a wave in the public consciousness in America, Newest Americans was launched. Cities and counties across the country were beginning to shift to minority majority status, DACA was altering the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people, and a backlash against immigrants would help fuel a presidential campaign. In this climate, project partners Talking Eyes Media, VII Photo, and the Center for Migration and the Global City at Rutgers-Newark birthed a project that honors the past, present and future of our migrating identities.
Newest Americans is a multimedia collaboratory of journalists, media-makers, artists, faculty and students telling the stories that radiate from the most diverse university in the nation and the global city of Newark, New Jersey. This project’s stories have been published in National Geographic, The New York Times, The Nation, The Atlantic, and Mother Jones, and have garnered support from National Geographic, the Dodge Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Most recently Newest Americans was named the 2021 Online Storytelling Project of the Year by Pictures of the Year International.
In this event presentation, Ed Kashi, Julie Winokur, and Tim Raphael share a sample reel and a selection of work from Newest Americans, discuss their most recent developments in curriculum and teacher training, and the process of creating the Newark Story Bus, which is a mobile media lab scheduled to launch this spring. The goal of this multi-year project is to shift the narrative on immigration and support the next generation of diverse storytellers.
Ed Kashi: All right. Yeah, it’s very exciting this partnership that we’ve got with PhotoWings and, again, The VII Foundation. Okay. Today we’re going to talk about Newest Americans. This is a project that began, I guess it was in 2013, with myself, Tim Raphael who’s a professor at Rutgers University in Newark, NewJersey, and Julie Winokur who’s the Executive Director of Talking Eyes Media. And together we’ve created what has ended up being a really awesome project looking specifically at the issue of immigration in the United States through the lens of this one campus which is the most diverse campus in the United States. I’ll leave a lot of the detail to my compatriots here but what I want to also share with you is that this is something that’s a very unique— I think Tim coined it. It’s a “collabratory” and it’s really a union of professional media makers, faculty at the university, and the student body.
I’m going to turn this over to Julie now who’ll share her screen and take it from here. Hey, Julie. Oh, one other thing I wanted to say, please save your questions for the end of this presentation. I am monitoring the Q&A box but it would be great to save them for after our presentation so we can hopefully have a robust and interesting conversation. Julie.
Julie Winokur: Thanks. And one thing Ed forgot to mention is that we are husband and wife also so we collaborate in every which way and so … This project was really birthed, I think— I’d love Tim to talk about it but this is Tim’s brainchild but it was birthed in its execution at our kitchen table through conversations and much enthusiasm and aligned interests. So actually what I would love to do is have Tim talk about the genesis of the project because it really started with you. So I’d kind of like to actually bounce the ball back to you and I’ll share my screen and when you’re ready to talk about the website then I’ll start to share.
Tim Raphael: Julie, I thought we were going to show the teaser first, no?
Julie Winokur: I thought we were going to do that after you talked to the website but I can share it.
Tim Raphael: I think it makes more sense just to give everyone— Hello, everyone. Sorry, we had a plan which keeps changing. Thank you all for being here. What we’d do is just show you a quick teaser to give an immediate sense of some of the storytelling that we’ve done and then I’ll jump on to try and provide a little bit of context.
Julie Winokur: Okay.
We’re in the shadows of New York. The thing with the Newark scene is there’s so much good talent, it just needs to be recognized. I’m an immigrant. I’m an artist, an organizer, and an instigator.
A lot of their parents don’t have cars. They don’t have phones. They don’t have all these basic things.
In my homeland. In my homeland is me. My love for you is fire in my heart. When am I going to see you free?
Every time I’ve said I’m going to stop, but I can’t. (singing)
Whenever someone uses the word illegal they’re actively dehumanizing a person.
Well, Newark was … Let’s say Newark was a place of entry. You come from someplace else, you got to stop in Newark first.
For most of my childhood, my father was all over the world traveling, speaking, writing poetry, doing plays. Their grandson is now the mayor of the city.
My family is from Pakistan … Egypt … Puerto Rico … India … Nepal.
I’m the first one in the family to be born in America.
Tim Raphael: So, Julie, thank you for showing that. And the reason why I was excited about sharing that from the beginning is that I think it gives a little bit of sense of the range of people, of the range of immigrant and migrant communities that we’ve been working with. And to provide a little bit of context, as mentioned, Rutgers University in Newark is not only one of the most diverse college campuses in theUnited States, according to U.S. News & World Report, it has been the most diverse for the last two decades. And as Ed mentioned, I’m a faculty member at Rutgers. I’m also the director of the Center for Migration and the Global City.
And in that context, and in working with students over a decade prior to the beginning of NewestAmericans, I became both fascinated with and tremendously excited about the fact that the student body of the university, according to demographers, is what the United States is going to look like in about 30years. And so in a very real sense, the campus is a crystal ball into the future of the United States. And when we launched this project in 2014, we were in the early stages of a rather nasty and toxic debate about immigration in the United States, and one that in many ways was responsible for the election of Donald Trump and some of the really discordant and rancorous debates that have followed about who is an American, who belongs in the United States, and about what the United States means and is for the people who live here.
And, as Ed and Julie mentioned, this is a project that really began around their kitchen table because although I’m the one member of the trio that’s not married to the other two, I feel at times like I am married to the two of them. We spend a lot of time together. We’ve worked together now for a long time and one of the interests that we all share is the power of storytelling in all its many guises to open up important questions like the ones I just mentioned and to make possible conversations that are not currently available in the national media and in sort of more visible forms of communication.
When we started the project we were really excited about bringing together VII Photo, one of the leading photojournalist agencies in the world. Julie’s production company, Talking Eyes Media, which is a social documentary production company, and a Research One university, in order to try and build on the strengths of all three of those institutions. It’s very rare for universities to engage in long-term partnerships with organizations outside of the universities. And it’s very rare for world-class scholars to be able to work in communications media that allow their work to be available to a larger public.
And building off the fact that we did have this amazing student body which gave us access to communities throughout the state of New Jersey, and indeed throughout the world, we’ve been able to, from an insider’s perspective and sort of following the examples and concerns of our students to, over the last seven years, produce dozens of stories in multiple media. And Julie will talk a little bit more about those various forms and how we’ve come to use them. But I think as a way to sort of segue into the work itself, I think it’s important to point out that as far as we know, this is the only sort of collaborative project like this in the United States, certainly in the U.S. and potentially in the world.
And I did come up with this term “collaboratory” because it feels like a collaborative laboratory which, as somebody whose background is in the theater, is a sort of very natural space for me to be in. But within academia, it’s really not. For all the talk about interdisciplinarity and the need for people with different knowledge and skills to work together, it doesn’t happen that much. And one of the things that this project has done is to really emphasize what are the skills and experiences that all of the different project members bring to the table? That is, faculty who have a range of disciplinary backgrounds from the humanities and the social sciences, and some scientists, to the students who come from, I think at latest count its somewhere well over 100 different countries.
So from the beginning, we’ve been trying to create this project that is hyper-local, that is we are rooted in city, Newark, New Jersey, which is itself a city that we have emphasized in the project is a global city. It’s a city that has a national reputation as being sort of defined by black-white tension. But that’s a really old story and it was never an entirely accurate story. Newark’s the fourth oldest city in the United States. It was shaped and formed by waves of immigrants beginning in the early 19th century, and really has always been, in a really important sense, a global city, since 1965 and the change in immigration laws in theUnited States. It has brought to Newark a wide variety of people from parts of the world that had not had the same kind of access to the U.S. or to the city. And those people who came here came to a city that had been defined by the descendants of immigrants who came through Ellis Island since the late 19thcentury, and then again by migrants who came to the city from the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration.
So although we call the project is called Newest Americans, which seems to imply it’s really about people who have recently arrived here, it’s much more about that experience of migration and of what migrants make in cities in the United States and, indeed, across the world. And the crucial and critical role that they have played in creating new forms, new economic possibilities, new cultural and social relationships, and networks. And I’ll chime back in, I think, later about a few other pieces of the project but I think as a way of sort of framing what Julie is going to be talking about more specifically with the particular kinds of work that we’ve done, that’s a good place to begin.
I’m just going to take two minutes now to talk through the website because our website is really the best way to understand the range of publications that we’re involved in. As you can see on the screen, the website has four bars on the side, two on each side of the screen. The top bar is “Stories.” The bottom bar below that is “Engagements.” There seems to be a black or a gray element above the— There it goes. It’s gone. The third bar is “About,” which gives a little bit more sense of the project, who the folks are involved with, and some of the press that we’ve gotten, and folks who’ve sponsored the project. And then “Education” is the work that we’ve done in the last three years, taking the media that we’ve produced and creating curriculum, both high school, and middle school curriculum, in tandem with teachers in Newark and with input from teachers around the country who’ve been using our media in their classrooms.
So this is a piece of the project that’s probably the newest piece and one that we’re really excited about in terms of the long-term impact of the work. We are going to be working in the Newark public school system over the next three years, we hope in dozens of schools, to introduce into the curriculum stories that currently don’t exist at all really within public or even private school curriculums in the United States, and that’s the story of people who have arrived since 1965. Typically U.S. curriculum, when it does engage with immigration, will end with the closing of Ellis Island which was in 1954. So the vast majority of students who are in the classroom never really get to see or hear their stories in the curriculum that they are engaged with.
This is the “Education” tab right here which is a combination of some examples of the curriculum that we have developed and of student stories, stories that have been developed out of classes that we have taught at Rutgers over the years, which has served as a research and development wing for the project. And then “Curriculum,” the curriculum that we’re beginning to build. And these are the student stories here. So again, very kind of strong example of how students have contributed to the work. Many of the finished professional stories that we have produced have come out of work that began with students in the classroom.
The “Stories” page, which is probably where I should’ve started, is really where we publish the vast majority of the work that we’ve done. Students work on all of these stories. Faculty work on all these stories. And then through the remarkable professional media makers that we partner with, including Julie and Newest Americans and a number of photographers from VII, as well as artists and filmmakers at Rutgers, we’ve produced 43, I think— I just counted, 43 stories in the last seven years that run the gamut from video to podcasting to— I’ll let Julie go and show examples of the work that we’ve done.
The “Engagement” tab is something else that has been important to us from the very beginning. I started working on oral history projects in and around Newark with African- American histories and immigrant histories before Newest Americans and we’ve drawn on a lot of those oral histories to build several different exhibits, both in Newark and beyond. And you can access those on the Exhibitions tab of the page. We partnered with a variety of different organizations on those including Photoville which many of you are probably familiar with, National Geographic which probably all of you are familiar with. And then we’ve also created these experiences which are more interactive engagements with the work that we’ve been doing.
And as Julie trolls you through the various exhibits, these experiences include a— Stories from the pandemic, which is a project that we began two weeks after the quarantine began in Newark, where we enlisted students who had worked with our project before as frontline correspondents reporting on the impact of the pandemic from their homes.
And because of who our students are, we were able to report on things that were not appearing in the national press including the impact of the pandemic on people who were undocumented, people who were not eligible for a variety of other reasons for the CARES Act support. And to also gauge the impact of the burgeoning social movements that emerged in the wake of George Floyd, and to understand how our students were positioned in relationship to this changing social moment.
And this is a project that we’re particularly proud of because it really is totally student-driven. All the multimedia posts for this project were done by young people between the ages of, I believe, 16 and 24. They run the gamut from why playing video games provided a form of solace and engagement during this time to the impact of volunteering with the homeless during a time when homelessness in Newark was growing to just terrifying and sad proportions.
And then a range of other interests and concerns including the importance of art-making during the pandemic as a form of mental health and therapy. I probably should stop there in the interest of time but the Gateways to Newark project and Poem Quest are two other examples of ways in which we have taken research conducted by students and faculty and the kind of art-making that has been occurring in the city and tried to expand the impact of the kind of incredible opportunities, as well as the challenges in post-industrial cities like Newark.
And for those of you who are at all intrigued by the project, I encourage you to take a look at these other forms of storytelling that we’ve engaged in. And then I think with that, Julie, in the interest time I’m going to throw it over to you to talk a little bit more about some of the projects in a more detailed way.
Julie Winokur: Great. Thank you, that was great. And we wanted to share the website because we are a digital magazine. We started as a magazine, was the initial intent, in terms of knowing that our media could live online in perpetuity and be consumed through various portals. And it was always important to us that we told stories through different types of media. And we’re firm believers that people consume media in different ways and that you might speak to some person through music and somebody else through photography and somebody else through video. Someone else may love fiction and want to sit and read.
So we approached the entire project as story packages. What I’m going to do is I want to give a bit of a run-through of some of the stories we’ve produced over these years and give you a sense of the range of types of approaches we’ve done. Again, I think it’s unprecedented to see a project like this, a storytelling project that has quite the breadth, the scope of media that is engaged. So I’ll give you a little sample of that. I’m going to share the website again and I’m going to just talk through a bit some of the stories to give you a good sample.
I want to begin with Notes For My Homeland. This was actually the first story that we produced of the entire project. It ended up being published on National Geographic. That’s always been a big part of our intention, was to have people come to our website but we’re aware that we don’t have a lot of earned traffic— that if we can place these pieces in major media outlets then we’ll have a much better chance of being seen by a wider audience who would not normally come to us.
This story, it’s a video. It’s video-driven. There’s a lot of archival footage in here but this is the story of a Syrian-American composer. He works with an oud player who is also a professor at Rutgers Newark every story has some sort of a connection, intersection with Newark and with Rutgers Newark. And so we thought it would be interesting to draw this sense of a global city that the folks who we engage with are connected to the larger world. This is a man who wrote a composition that became something of an anthem for the Syrian revolution, classical composer. He also ended up, while we were working on this, he ended up performing at Carnegie Hall. I think he was only the second Syrian composer to perform at Carnegie Hall to premiere work.
This story, as you can see, there’s written text. There’s a video that’s accessed up top. I’m not going to play that now because we don’t have time but I would encourage you to. The video draws on a lot of archival photography because Ed has worked extensively in Syria and then a lot of found footage from conflict on the ground. In addition to National Geographic, we ended up running this and a number of our videos on The Atlantic and then also sharing this film through multiple film festivals.
This is an interesting story because, again, we’re always experimenting and part of the joy of having a sandbox like we’ve got with Newest Americans is that we really can brainstorm in an editorial meeting and think about how might we approach any given story. And the sky’s the limit. We’re truly only limited by, well, resource to some degree obviously, but also our imaginations.
This is a story about a law student. At the time she was a law student at Rutgers University Law School, in Newark— an undocumented Mexican American brought over as a very small child and very active in the DREAMer movement as well, very outspoken. While she was at law school there was this huge question of whether or not she would even be allowed to practice law as an undocumented American and she was absolutely determined to stay the course and push her way through. And the fact that we initiated this story while she was in law school meant that we could actually watch her journey unfold in real-time.
So in order to serve that, we decided to serialize Marisol’s story. As you can see, we told this story over the three years that she was in law school. When we first meet her you get her back story. These are all short films. Each one of these is— This one’s five minutes. They were dropped on our website sequentially as we completed them. Marisol got a fantastic internship where she left New Jersey for a summer in order to do an internship at Harvard University at a law clinic for immigrants. Again, this is a seven minute film.
In the third part, her father gets a traffic violation ticket so if anybody understands the plight of undocumented Americans to drive without a license and get stopped by the police for even a minor thing like a brake light that doesn’t work could end up in deportation. So this is a very short piece but this is talking about how they navigated a very precarious moment in their lives. And as you can see, we continued to follow her all the way through her graduation. At this point here she’s graduating.
And so this was an experiment for us in how to visualize and track in a really organic way somebody who was very close within our Newest Americans community. I want to point out too, on the bottom of the website we make a point of also suggesting other stories that are related. So if something about undocumented Americans interests you, you might very well be interested in seeing other pieces we’ve produced on that topic.
Tim Raphael: I can jump in before you move on—
Julie Winokur: Yeah.
Tim Raphael: —just so I don’t leave everyone hanging. The final episode shows Marisol being sworn in as the first openly undocumented lawyer in the State of New Jersey.
Julie Winokur: Second. She’s not the first. Just for accuracy. And we were pissed. When the other guy got sworn in we were like, How come we didn’t know about him? We should’ve known about him because the whole time we were figuring this was going to set precedent.
I’m going to share a little bit about this. We Came and Stayed is, to Tim’s point earlier, he was talking about oral histories. And a lot of universities have phenomenal oral history collections because it is definitely— in research, it’s a primary original content collection that happens at universities that is often sitting underutilized beyond the research of the original scholar.
At Rutgers, there is a collection of voices of Newarkers who migrated from the South as part of the Great Migration. And it was this incredible undertaking of having peer-to-peer interviews within the Rutgers community. And these cassettes of these recordings, and Tim you can tell them, I forget how many of these interviews were done, but it’s a substantial number of interviews. I can’t remember exactly. In any event, the interviews were put in shoeboxes basically. They were put in boxes and tucked away at the Newark library and there was a graduate student several years back, she’s since gotten her PhD, Samantha … And I’m so sorry, Sam, I’m blanking—
Tim Raphael: Samantha Boardman.
Julie Winokur: Boardman, thank you. Samantha Boardman. Sam actually found these boxes of interview tapes and it was quite a discovery. As a scholar can you imagine walking into a library and actually unearthing, it’s almost like finding an original manuscript, in the voices of folks who partook in the GreatMigration and they did these sweeping interviews, everything from food to what they brought with them, talking about the kinds of shops that they encountered when they arrived.
One of the people who had been interviewed is the grandfather of the current mayor of Newark, RasBaraka. And Ras Baraka, he had just come into office when we launched Newest Americans. It was quite a bit deal. He came in after Cory Booker. He’s an activist. He’s born and bred in Newark and he’s also the son of Amiri Baraka, a very famous poet, part of the Black Arts movement, very radical voice in poetry who was arrested during the uprising in Newark in 1967.
So it was this incredible confluence of our current reality mixed with this incredible historic document in the interview with Ras Baraka’s grandfather. So we determined that we should use the audio of Coyt Jones and we engaged Ashley Gilbertson from VII, a phenomenal photographer who ended up shadowing Ras Baraka in the early days of his administration. And these are Ashley’s photographs.
We were really honored that we were able to get access to Ras. He was press averse in the early days and through trusted connections at Rutgers University he agreed to speak with us and to allow Ashley in. And Ashley is so personable, he won Ras’ heart over. We used these photographs and Coyt Jones’ voice and an interview with Ras Baraka to piece together of how one family in the Great Migration moved from abject poverty and apartheid in the South to, within two generations, having the mayor of the city within the family. So this film captures that.
Hijabi World. I’m going to allude to the fact that this is a great example of how an idea can be birthed in Newest Americans class at Rutgers. Tim had been working with a group of students and in all the classes related to Newest Americans we have worked with students to produce media as part of their storytelling, that there’s a lot of self-examination as well as deep dives into neighborhoods, a context of history and looking at that compared to where we are now.
Two of Tim’s students decided to do a project that was about wearing the hijab and so they ended up creating their own video which was rewriting the hijabi narrative. They were upset about the assumptions of Judeo-Christian Westerners about women who wear hijabs and they decided to interview a range of their friends and tell the story of what it was like to be a hijabi. That idea, then— we decided to work with that idea and develop it further in order to produce a Newest Americans story that was based on this concept, and we produced a film called Hijabi World. And, Ed, if you would talk a little bit about that I’d appreciate it just in terms of the approach of the film.
Ed Kashi: Yeah. And this was one piece that appeared, I know, in The New York Times and probably went viral to some degree but ended up being seen by millions of people. But when this idea was brought to me that these students had put together, I immediately thought about this idea of empowerment and hearing their voices in a very direct way. And so I devised this. My vision for this was to basically work with a Steadicam and mic them and have them walk and talk and basically say their lines or address certain issues that they’ve encountered or their beliefs and reasons for wearing the hijab so that it was truly in their voice.
But more than that, the sort of audiovisual experience, they’re right in your face. Not in an aggressive way because they’re all really intelligent and quite lovely, but that to me was the idea behind this, was to really have their voices and their presence at the forefront, and that was really how this came about. Yes, it was quite taxing on my shoulders, I’ll tell you, holding still like that or holding the camera. But we’re really happy how this turned out and that we were— Again, with so much of this work, and I think increasingly in doing this work and the time we’re living in and the kind of social and media landscape that we’re living in, I see my role as— I don’t know how to put it, almost a facilitator or an amplifier of other people’s stories and other people’s voices.
And that myself or my opinion really must recede into the background and I feel this piece was a great example of that.
Julie Winokur: Okay. Am I muted or not?
Ed Kashi: Nope, you’re good.
Julie Winokur: Oh, good. Okay. And as you can see, there’s written text in this and then we did a short film as well that is all about hijabi style and shows the girls wrapping their hijabs and kind of talking about different styles of wearing a hijab.
I guess I’m going to kind of rush through a couple of things. I don’t know if we have any questions. I see the time is running tighter but this is a story that I’m going to– sorry, stop, go back to the top on this. I was looking at it earlier which is why it’s all the way down.
Off the Rails is a story that is based on both research by one of the Rutgers grad students again, SaraGrossman who wrote this fantastic article all about environmental injustices in Newark. Newark has a deep history of toxic industry. It’s the sight of the longest Superfund site in the United States. They used to manufacture Agent Orange in Newark. There is a garbage incinerator, a port, an airport, just unspeakable toxic legacy here.
We engaged Ashley Gilbertson again to do a photo essay. He and Sara did this article together. It’s a really fantastic deep dive into both the historic context as well as what is still haunting this neighborhood. And so, again, a situation where there’s in-depth reporting, photography, and then at the bottom of this piece we also have done a whole mapping so you could get a better sense. He actually found a guy in the middle of all this toxic industry who’s growing vegetables and they’re like mutant-size vegetables. You would not want to eat these.
Tim Raphael: Just to add one thing to what Julie is saying, the maps at the bottom, which were annotated for this story, are now being used in environmental justice classes all over Newark and, indeed, outside in other parts of the state as a way of introducing people to the toxic legacy and the range of environmental justice issues that exist in cities like Newark.
Julie Winokur: And so this reporting also ended up leading to other work in environmental justice, it’s such a big topic. So part of the outgrowth of this was another project that is called The Sacrifice Zone. This ended up resulting in a documentary film that we’re doing extensive outreach and impact with. This was broadcast on New Jersey television as well as multiple film festivals across the country and has become a major rallying tool for environmental justice organizers throughout this region. And so just in terms of a lot of these stories and the potential for the growth out of what can happen both in the classroom, in production through the media, and then— it almost is infinite in terms of what we’re able to keep exploring in this one small region.
We always talk about the idea of hyperlocal matters of global significance. And then I also ended up teaching environmental justice at Rutgers and having students produce their own stories based on the models of what we had created already.
I would like to actually jump to Ironbound Foodscapes because this is another interesting approach that has happened. Tim, you want to talk about this?
Tim Raphael: Sure. This is a project that began in a graduate field school that was conducted by— We got funding for a Newest Americans postdoc, an amazing Iranian- American scholar who works on the intersection of architecture and social history. And we focused on five buildings in the Ironbound, all of which are today restaurants run by people from different ethnic groups that currently live in the Ironbound. And through a kind of deep dive into the history of these buildings, we were also able to document over a century of immigration to the Ironbound.
So there’s an essay at the beginning that sort of frames the whole project and then each of the restaurants and the buildings in which they’re housed has its own story told through a variety of different means, visual storytelling, text, mapping, and architectural drawings and renderings. And it’s a beautiful example of how one can understand and engage with the immigrant history of a neighborhood through food and buildings. Through the built environment and food, restaurants that serve not only food but serve as social hubs for the immigrant communities that run them.
This is a piece that took two and a half years from the beginning of the research to the final project and I know of at least two other projects like this that are happening in different places now inspired by this. There’s one in Milwaukee and there’s one being done in New Brunswick which is another campus at Rutgers.
So again, a way in which we can take advantage of the capacity of a Research One university, of the skills and languages that our students possess. We were able to do this story because the students were involved, spoke most of the languages that the recent immigrant proprietors of these restaurants speak, which gave us a way in, to tell this story and to gain trust in environments where many of the restaurateurs don’t speak English particularly well and without some kind of cultural connection we probably would not have gotten to dive quite as deep into these sites.
Julie Winokur: Okay. I want to go to— I’d also encourage people if you have questions please write them in the Q&A. Occasionally I’m seeing a raised hand but please do us give us questions. We’ll be answering questions shortly.
I wanted to share this because this is a story about folks who have been detained locally, folks who have come over seeking asylum in the United States, and our welcome mat is a straight line to a detention facility. Locally we have one called Elizabeth Detention. We decided to, first of all, Elizabeth Detention had a horrific incident a couple of decades ago where there were just such abusive conditions that the detainees staged a riot in the detention facility and it ended up exposing the unspeakable circumstance.
It’s right here. Basically, this detention facility is right next to Newark Airport, so it’s in plain sight but most folks have no idea what’s going on.
And so we decided to first track down folks who had been in the facility during that uprising and this gentleman had been there. We did extensive interviews. Ed and I did this story together. We had a hard time tracking down more than a handful of the people who had been in the facility and part of a lawsuit that was brought against the facility. But what we opted to do is then we expanded to people who had recently been detained there and we could compare what was it like at the time of this riot and what’s it like there now. Ed, do you want to speak to the photographs, please?
Ed Kashi: Yeah, and this was, as Julie said earlier, we’ve used this grand project as a way to experiment with different forms of storytelling or aesthetic approaches. I come from a tradition of documentary photojournalism where nothing is changed, nothing’s altered, no direction. And in this case, because first of all, it was, as Julie said, very difficult to get access to folks to agree to do this for obvious reasons, that I decided to take a more— not so much conceptual but a much more aestheticized approach where I purposely made vertical portraits that would be printed for an exhibition we did life-size on canvas paper. And then in post-production tone them quite dramatically where we basically kind of etched out the backgrounds so that the idea was to make it feel as though they’re sort of here but not here like they’re floating in a netherworld. That was the idea behind this aesthetic approach to this set of portraits.
Julie Winokur: And then if you notice at the bottom of each of these pictures there is a short audio piece which is the person in the photograph telling you their story of arriving in the United States, why they were seeking asylum, and what happened to them when they got here. And we ended up creating an exhibition of this work with life-sized portraits and then each portrait had a number next to it that you could on your mobile phone text that number to a phone number and then you would get a phone call back from the person in the photograph telling you their story. So these audio tracks were part of an interactive exhibition and it was extremely powerful because if you’re standing staring face-to-face with somebody and your phone rings and it’s that person talking to you about what happened, it transcends the experience of just looking at a caption on a wall.
Tim Raphael: I think it’s also worth mentioning, Jules, that our access to this story and the impetus for working on it comes from the fact that the lead attorney for the lawsuit in 1996 against the operators of the Elizabeth Detention Center is a member of the Rutgers law faculty. And a couple of the graduate students who worked on this case over many, many years now are leading figures in the immigrant rights movement nationally.
And so because we wanted to tell the story within the context of what happened at the ElizabethDetention Center and because we had this amazing repository of knowledge and access to all of the court documents, it’s a particularly rich story and one which has drawn more attention to the plight of detainees which, sadly, has not improved tremendously since 1996.
Julie Winokur: Yeah. I’d like to know, do we have questions, Ed? Are there …
Ed Kashi: Yes, there are a few.
Julie Winokur: Can you go ahead and field those? That’d be great. I’ll stop sharing this screen.
Ed Kashi: Sure. I’ll read them out and then let you guys answer. Actually, Jorge … Oh my God, Jorge Delgado-Ureña. How you doing, man? Anyway, thank you so much for joining. So he has a question, “Do you guys have the idea of maybe expanding this concept to other parts of the country or even other parts of the world? Greetings from Spain.”
Julie Winokur: It’s always a dream absolutely with the project, and Tim and I have had multiple conversations and meetings with folks. We’ve done some work in Colombia through contacts and collaborators that we’ve worked with very closely over the years. And so we’ve done some work in Colombia and certainly been a role model for a big project in Colombia.
But I know it’s a personal dream that we would have outposts of Newest Americans around the country that we could actually have these sorts of partnerships between universities, professional media makers, that we would have them especially in post-industrial cities where they parallel Newark’s experience. But resource is always the big challenge. It takes a lot of resources and you’ve also got to have folks who are going to own this locally in order to make it work.
Ed Kashi: Yeah—
Tim Raphael: Yeah, however, I will say if there’s anybody who is watching now who is intrigued at all from anywhere in the world about doing this kind of work, we would love to speak with you about it. We’ve become really passionate about the opportunities this kind of work allows and the impact locally and beyond of doing this kind of work. So if anybody’s intrigued, please get in touch with us, we’d love to talk to you.
Julie Winokur: Yeah, absolutely.
Ed Kashi: Well, actually, Santiago Posa who’s in Ecuador, he’s asked, “Would it be possible to collaborate with Talking Eyes Media with photo stories from abroad?”
Julie Winokur: Absolutely. Let’s talk.
Ed Kashi: Yeah, so Santiago, whatever, give us your email address or, Julie, if you want to put an address in the chatbox …
Julie Winokur: I can put my email address in the chatbox and please, reach out to me.
Ed Kashi: Okay. And in the meantime, David Baraka, who is a returning attendee, hello, David. He’sasking, “Roughly how much time did you spend on developing the concept and structure before beginning fieldwork? How much did you change course or expand during fieldwork? And how much during the post fieldwork tasks like building the website?” So how much time did we spend? Tim, this idea had been germinating for years, I believe, right?
Tim Raphael: Yeah, in my mind there were two different models for this kind of work. One was the SevenUp! series of films that Michael Apted did in Britain. Because initially, the idea was that we would do something that was longitudinal where we would follow a certain group of students through their time at Rutgers and then out into the world. We moved away from that idea fairly early because of logistics and what seemed possible to do. But that film series to me has always been just an amazing model for how you can really understand larger social developments by focusing in on the stories of certain select people.
The second model for this in my mind is a brilliant project that was done in the borough of Queens in New York. It’s called Crossing the BLVD, Crossing the B-L-V-D. And if you don’t know it, I encourage you to check it out. And this was done by two friends of mine who live in Queens, live along Queens Boulevard which at that time, and I think still is, the most diverse stretch of highway in the United States.
And through photography, oral history, music, audio, and theater, they developed a book, they developed a series of radio stories for NPR, they developed short music pieces and a touring exhibit. And that model of working in multiple media and multiple formats in order to tell complex stories that would benefit from a variety of different modes was something that was definitely on the forefront of my mind as we began this project.
Warren Lehrer who is one of the two people who started it along with his partner Judith Sloan. Warren is one of the sort of most revered graphic designers in the United States, but he’s also a fabulous writer. Judith works in oral history and theater and radio. And again, bringing a bunch of different skillsets together to figure out the best way to tell each individual story is something that’s been on the forefront of our imagination around this project from the very beginning.
Ed Kashi: Yeah, and I would— Oh, go ahead, Jules.
Julie Winokur: Go ahead.
Ed Kashi: I was going to say, to answer David’s question directly also, this idea had been germinating, I think, in Tim’s amazingly insane mind now for years— Brilliant mind. And then I think he and I had a year or two maybe had talked about it and then Julie came in and then really thankfully we were able to get the initial funding from the university to get the first three years going.
In terms of each story within the project, generally, the germination period, would you say, we’re kind of weeks or months maybe. It really depended.
Julie Winokur: Months to years. I would say months to years. It’s rarely weeks.
Ed Kashi: Yeah, and then in terms of changing course or expanding during fieldwork, how do you guys answer that one?
Julie Winokur: Right. That’s an interesting one because as a “collaboratory” we have many participants but we have very few full-time folks. So I think it’s an interesting one because it’s definitely got a flexibility, A fungibility. So the Talking Eyes Media staff is small. We’re three people. Tim’s Rutgers team at any given time is probably about four people. And so we have like a core. We meet once a week. We have editorialmeetings.
We have many projects going on at the same time so there’ll be many projects in development, some of which take months to do and some of which take years to do. And so I think part of why it’s also a bit slow, some of it is the nature of the stories, some of it is the nature of how many fully engaged people versus a lot of collaborators who kind of parachute in and do something or who is teaching a class that’s ongoing that breeds something. So it’s an interesting one because I think the project thrives from the fact that there are so many variables involved.
Ed Kashi: Yep.
Julie Winokur: But we also don’t churn out media at the level of a publication, like somebody who’s just an editorial publication. We don’t have that kind of bandwidth.
Ed Kashi: Go ahead, Tim. Go ahead.
Tim Raphael: To be clear, none of this would’ve happened had we not gotten some major financial support and resources from the university at the very beginning, and that’s because of a visionary chancellor that we have at the university who really got what this project was about and recognized its value to the university and the city. We were also lucky enough early on to get a rather large grant from the national endowment for the Humanities. And because of that, it allowed us to do some long-term planning so that we could start stories without a certainty that we could actually conclude them. So although our track record’s pretty amazing, stories we’ve begun we’ve probably finished four out of five. We also have had stories that we’ve worked on for quite a lot time that, for whatever reason, we haven’t been able to finish.
Another piece of the project that’s essential is that without the classes with students, without a research and development lab that those classes provide, it would’ve been much more difficult for us to develop a number of the stories.
And then also, out of the enthusiasm of those students for the project, we have gotten interns and fellows who we’ve been able to give academic credit to for continuing to work on the stories. So our team, while our core team is small, our collaborators number in the multiple dozens over the course of this project, probably close to 100 at this point.
Ed Kashi: And also the chancellor you referred to is Nancy Cantor, because her name should not go unmentioned. She’s amazing.
Julie Winokur: Yeah, yeah.
Tim Raphael: Right.
Ed Kashi: Not only because she supported us, just because she is amazing, period.
Julie Winokur: Yeah, she’s a visionary. One last thing, the website was another question in that multi-part question. The website you’re looking is the second iteration of our website. We had a website that we launched with. We initially decided we would have a magazine basically, an online magazine. So what we did was we waited until we had enough stories and then we would publish a next edition of this magazine.It also meant that we had stories sitting for a while that we didn’t publish until we had enough and that wasn’t really serving us.
And, as we had more and more and more material, we were afraid that the older material was getting buried because it had been in issue one and we’re now up to issue six. So what we ended up doing was a complete overhaul of our website, that took an entire year. Just to kind of have a reality check for anybody else whose interested in doing this kind of work, it was a year in the making and we engaged a phenomenal team of web designers and coders, a group called IntraCollaborative who developed the site that we have now. So that was a big lift.
Ed Kashi: Folks, there’s a few more questions and I know we’re going over—
Julie Winokur: We’re over.
Ed Kashi: … but we are allowed to go over, but I hope you folks seem to be staying so carry on with questions. From Anne Hwang, I hope I pronounced that correctly, in Houston, she’s asking, “How do you engage communities you work with.” She hasn’t looked in detail yet but there seems to be intimacy in our projects. “Do you first spend time with the communities? How long? Then how long does the storytelling work take to capture enough content,” this is important, “without taking too much time from these communities that are often very busy?” It’s a very important question. She’s asking this because she currently doing a participative photography project with a small Congolese community in Houston. This is her first project and she started with them before COVID. Sorry, long question but it’s a very interesting, important one.
Julie Winokur: Yep.
Ed Kashi: And it came to a stop. But basically, I think, the gist of her question is how do we engage these communities? How much time do we spend? And how do we make sure we respect their boundaries, I guess, their needs? And it’s a question that I have dealt with for 40 years, and in some ways, as someone who goes out in the field and does this work, it’s never been harder in a way to address those very real and good concerns that Anne, you bring up. For us, I think because so many of the stories emanated out of this “collaboratory” idea where you had students and faculty who were already kind of in a sense captive, if you like. Sure there were folks who didn’t want certain things photographed or filmed or we couldn’t get access to certain situations.
But that’s just part of doing this work. It’s always this sort of push and pull or you sort of push gently, most of the time it’s gently, to see if you can get access. And then you need to respond when either the door opens, maybe it opens a little bit, maybe it swings wide open which is always the best scenario. But more often than not it very quickly starts to close because to do this work is a somewhat unnatural process for people. They might be like, “Yeah, I don’t mind being filmed or photographed, or my family gave permission for you to come over.” But then once it begins, for many people it’s like, “Ha, I didn’t realize the kind of level of intimacy or the amount of time that you would need.”
So part of doing this work is constantly, constantly navigating that line where you hope you never inconvenience or, of course, never hurt people who are allowing you into their lives. But at the same time you need to…Push is the wrong way to put it but it’s really you need to keep on asking because otherwise, you will not have enough material to tell their story.
Tim Raphael: I think it’s really important, though, in our case to mention that we have certain advantages with this project which is that we’re most often invited in to tell stories. And that happens in large part because we have students and the communities that they come from are raising these issues with us. Whether it’s in our Newest Americans classes or whether it’s through the internships and fellowships that we run. And so there have been cases where we’ve sort of started with a blank slate and in a more traditional journalistic process said we want to tell this story and who can we interview, who can we deal with?
But generally speaking, we have access and trust based on our students but also based on the organizations that we collaborate with independent of the storytelling. That’s given us the opportunity to do stories that I don’t think other people would have been able to do first of all. Secondly, that doesn’t guarantee, as Ed said, that halfway through the process someone or many people will suddenly decide,”No, this isn’t actually what we want to do.” And we’ve stopped some stories because of that.
Ed Kashi: Yep, yep.
Tim Raphael: We also provide as many options as possible in our storytelling, especially in communities that are vulnerable, for anonymity or degrees of anonymity in the storytelling. And we have absolutely had experiences where we have needed more time of the people whose stories we’re telling than they were willing to give and we have had to back off and either put the story on hold or just stop doing it altogether. But there is this wonderful synergy between the classroom, the community engagement work that we do because the center that I run is as much an advocacy organization as it is a scholarly one. And because we live in the region, right? We’re telling stories that are largely focused on where we live and where we know people and where we have a certain degree of intimacy and trust.
Ed Kashi: Yep, so-
Julie Winokur: And to me the most important thing, it’s about listening to what the folks you’re documenting are saying, what’s important to them, what they want, and what they will get out of this because there has to be value to them. If you’re doing it as an outsider coming in because you think you know what’s needed then you have to have a rethink and you have to really kind of re-gauge your entry point so that you can listen first and speak second, if that makes sense. And I think that that’s the strength of our approach, is that there is a lot of absorbing of information, processing it. And I have to say even in a situation like with the film on environmental justice, The Sacrifice Zone.
This was not a particular community or group of people who wanted to let an outsider in to tell their story. And it took a lot of time and a lot of trust-building to get to the point where they really felt like they were full collaborative partners in that process rather than people being exploited by an outsider. And if there’s a big difference and there’s a dynamic, there’s a whole exchange and a genuine— It starts with you. You genuinely want to collaborate with these folks? Or do you feel like you are coming in as a savior of sorts?And there’s a big—
Ed Kashi: Also, I want to build on that and I’ll then move on and, Anne, I hope we answered your question. You know, it’s never been so many more communities now and so many more individuals are hyper-aware of this process. I can tell you that because 30-40 years ago, even 20 years ago, you didn’t confront the same level of scrutiny, if you like, from people whose stories you would tell. And this is a very welcome and positive development, even though it might make our jobs harder because it means that people out there are having more agency in allowing or enabling their stories to be told.
So there’s another question, not connected, by Kent Fairfield, “How do you handle releases for immigrants in the projects in case some are undocumented?” So how do we handle getting releases for undocumented immigrants and, “Have you struggled with this with recent detainees even if they’re released not yet documented?” How do we deal with the releases and that whole idea of official permission?
Julie Winokur: We do get releases from everybody first of all. We have to because there’s no way we’re going to share people’s images, voices, et cetera, without a formal release form. I think the exercise of release form is especially important because it also alerts the other person to what it is you plan to do, that you’re not just having a moment with them, that you are capturing something to be shared publicly. And so they do absolutely need to have eyes wide open. We’ve had a number of people who will reconsider or choose not to participate because when they’re thinking about their image being out on the web or wherever— and absolutely would never push somebody to do something they’re not comfortable with that could jeopardize their status.
But I will say that also we’ve been on a bit of a roller coaster because we were feeling so confident at the beginning of the project that things were moving in a positive direction with DACA, with potential for some sort of reform and there was an empowerment that undocumented people were feeling in terms of being vocal and being visible, that it could be an asset to changing the dynamics. Under Trump, it became something really different and there was a lot more fear, warranted fear. And I think our attitude also changed in terms of as we were working with people and thinking about stories and thinking about never jeopardizing somebody with our best intention.
Tim Raphael: Exposing-
Julie Winokur: We don’t want to expose them unintentionally. So I think that it became a very different exercise during the Trump administration in terms of the stories we told, honestly, who we were showing.
Tim Raphael: It’s worth mentioning-
Ed Kashi: I want to move on-
Tim Raphael: Sorry, Ed, no, no, no. I think actually it’s worth mentioning this because I think, full disclosure, we’ve had many conversations and actually arguments about to what extent the release form needs to acknowledge and name all the possible harms and hazards that could occur. And generally speaking, the world of journalism has sort of ignored those for many, many years. I know in the work that I’ve done in oral history work with people who are undocumented, people who have been detained, I’ve been sensitized to those issues by lawyers and advocates in terms of the levels of inadvertent harm that can occur.
Julie in her work was somewhere in between the two realms, and so we’ve had to really think this question through, to what degree do we have to actually have a statement in addition to the release saying what all the uses might be. We have to provide a statement of purpose, intent, and of potential hazards. And so we’ve gone through this a number of times and amended our release a few times. And it’s something that, as Julie said, it changes depending upon the political climate. And so my feeling always is if you’re going to do this kind of work with communities that could potentially be vulnerable, to err on the side of really spelling out all the potential harms that could occur by exposing yourself in this kind of forum or format.
Ed Kashi: Yeah. So, Laura Procter is asking, “Is there a participant in particular whose story really stuck with you?”
Tim Raphael: That’s a hard one for me because many of our stories have been told about students of mine and so there are people who I’ve had relationships for a decade whose stories we’ve told, and Marisol’s story is one of those. I think all of them—
Ed Kashi: Yep, you didn’t know them as subject. You knew them as full-bodied human beings.
Tim Raphael: Yep. Yeah, and Marisol has become somebody who’s very much a part of the NewestAmericans family, is involved in story development. We consult her all the time on different issues. We’ve had her on Instagram Live events. She’s somebody who’s our sort of go-to person around DACA and the impact of undocumented legislation, et cetera. But there’s so many people.
Julie Winokur: Yeah.
Tim Raphael: For me, it’s one of the great joys of the project that I look at the subjects of our stories, and I can’t think of a single person who I don’t have admiration, respect, and often a kind of great love for.
Julie Winokur: Yeah.
Ed Kashi: Yeah. Julie, you want to …
Julie Winokur: Yeah, for me it’s Maria Lopez Nuñez just because I’ve spent so much time with her and gotten to know her really well. She is the protagonist of The Sacrifice Zone film. I’ve watched her evolve over the three years that I’ve been spending all this time with her. I’ve watched her grow into a leadership role and be something of a— She’s intense and blindly on a mission at any expense. And I’ve watched her as she refines as a human being, become somebody who actually can understand and navigate with people better. And I don’t know, she’s really moved me because I’m so impressed with the level of activism that she has made her life, and to make a difference in her community.
Ed Kashi: Okay, we have time for one more question because they do keep on coming but we have time for one more. But before that one question I also want to shout out to Arky AR in Cambodia. Thank you so much for tuning in and I don’t know if it’s a man or woman but, “I would love to collaborate. Please let me know how to reach you via email. Thanks.”
Julie Winokur: I put my email in the chat, anybody who’s interested, my email’s in the chat.
Ed Kashi: And Jorge did ask about having a print version. I responded online that we would love to do that but it’s funding is the issue. Okay, last question from— Well actually I think that’s it. Okay, I’m going to end with thought from Ted Ostrowski, not a question, it’s a thought. “This is an eye-opening Zoom. The fundamental issues and navigating through the issues which can be applied outside of the U.S. I’m in Canada. We have issues which need exposure, especially intriguing is the text messages to people highlighted.”
Anyway, that’s it. Thank you, Ted. So folks … Yeah?
Julie Winokur: I did have one thought as a sendoff. I was thinking— Thank you everybody for joining us today and please be in touch. As you can tell we’re all very personable and we love collaboration. And I was thinking as a sendoff I wanted to play our music video because we even dabbled in a music video as our sendoff because who doesn’t want to leave a stimulating talk without kind of feeling like dancing. Sothis is a former Rutgers University student who wrote a fantastic, what we believe is an anthem for undocumented folks in the United States if not everywhere. And it’s very uplifting. So may I sign us off with that?
Ed Kashi: Yeah, after this video we’ll sign off so thank you so much everyone for joining in and please check the VII Foundation website and VII Photo website for the upcoming VII Insider talks. Thank you everyone and please take care. Go for it, Julie.
Julie Winokur: All right, here we go.
[Music video “For My Immigrants” plays]