WW: Why did you choose to photograph the belongings of Iraqi refugees?
Jim Lommasson: What We Carried is the flipside of the soldier stories. I’ve been hearing from soldiers about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many of the soldiers came home and had a completely opposite view of why they went there. Some of those people who originally went to fight for America have now come back and are ready to overthrow the government that they originally went to fight for. That’s such a dramatic, 180-degree worldview change. I thought, I really need to hear from the people in those countries who were caught in the crossfire, and I knew there were a certain number of Iraqi refugees coming to Portland.... I feel like we don’t know these people, just like we don’t know the soldiers that we send to war.
How did you go about depicting their stories?
I started thinking, what if I didn’t photograph people and I photographed the things that they brought with them? When you leave, you don’t often have the opportunity to rent a pod and put all of your belongings in it. You leave sometimes with a kid under each arm, a passport, a family photo, a Quran or a Bible, and you’re off to Jordan.... So people showed me their family photo or whatever, and I photographed it on white, made a print and gave it back to them and asked them to tell me why this was one of the few things they brought with them.
What was your experience in letting much of the project out of your hands?
Every time I get back one of these photographs that an Iraqi has done something to, it just blows me away with their sense of freedom.... A 60-year-old anthropologist brought her books to reconstruct the history of Iraq going back 60,000 years. She painted this beautiful ancient calligraphy over the picture of the book that I had photographed. How amazing, how humbling.
Who are these people? Why did they leave?
Most of the people I’ve interviewed have been in Oregon for less than four years. People have left because life is just so hard in Iraq.... [One refugee,] Samir, he painted portraits for Saddam.... After Saddam was gone, he did portraits for American soldiers. He wanted to get out of Iraq, so he ended up going to Turkey. It took him five years of paperwork to try to get out of Turkey.... So he paid some smugglers to smuggle him out in a shipping crate. They put him in the crate, screwed it down, gave him a can of oxygen, and he was theoretically going to be shipped to Italy.... It’s hard for me to breathe just talking about it.
SEE IT: What We Carried is at Launch Pad Gallery, 534 SE Oak St., 427-8704. Oct 7-29.