The trail of humanity
Author: Cliff Collins
Posted: February 7, 2019

Photo exhibit displays artifacts from history’s worst nightmares.

JIM LOMMASSON '72 launched his photographic oral history of refugees after interviewing an Iraqi woman. When he asked her about a small family portrait in her living room, she told him, "When I left, all I could take was my daughter under one arm, my Quran and this picture of my family."

After Lommasson made prints of the photo for her, he asked her to write her story on the picture. "Once she did that, I realized this was the most effective means of storytelling I could do," he explains.

That revelation led to his current documentary and photography project, "Stories of Survival: Object. Image. Memory," which showcases more than 60 personal objects and artifacts brought to America by displaced people. 

The traveling exhibit was commissioned by the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in the Chicago area, where it was on display until Jan. 13. For the exhibit, Lommasson photographed the treasured objects carried by refugees who fled from the Holocaust and genocides or conflicts in Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, South Sudan and Syria.

SHOWN on plain white backgrounds, the objects explore the relationship between what refugees took with them, the objects' meaning to the original owner, and the items' subsequent significance.

"The objects reflect the lives of their one-time owners: childhood, home, culture and religious practice; but also war, violence, displacement and exile," he explains. Paired with each photo is the handwritten account by each survivor translated into English. The objects are as everyday as a teddy bear, a candleholder and a black suitcase, and as symbolic as a young mother’s cookbook and a wedding announcement.

"I believe in the power of images," says Lommasson. "One of the main purposes of the project is to put ourselves in the shoes of refugees." When the viewer sees pictures of familiar things people take with them, it leads them to think we are all more alike than different. He wants to coax viewers to contemplate, "What would you take with you if you had to flee your home suddenly?"

But he also wants them to go further: "I'm hoping people will ask, 'What am I leaving behind? Everything—friends, home, school, job, culture and history.' That's what the main takeaway is: to bond, have empathy and compassion, to feel in a visceral way leaving everything behind you and going to a place where you're not necessarily welcome and people don't speak the same language."

A PORTLAND native, Lommasson landed his first commercial shoot while in college, which led to "a good, long career as an advertising and commercial photographer."

However, he viewed the work as a way to "pay the bills," he says. His long-range goal was to do "meaningful" projects that shed light on human rights and social justice. For the past 15 years or so, most of his time and energy have gone into those ventures, which include multiple photo exhibitions and several books.


written by Cliff Collins, a Portland freelance writer.