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'What We Carried': Photographs of what refugees bring when they flee Iraq and Syria

'What We Carried': Photographs of what refugees bring when they flee Iraq and Syria
Iraqi refugee Shmeiran Odesho brought her Hello Kitty notebook, which friends had filled with remembrances. It's part of Jim Lommasson's photography exhibition "What We Carried: Fragments & Memories From Iraq & Syria." (Jim Lommasson)

What do you pack in a single meager suitcase when fleeing a war-ravaged homeland?

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That question marks the genesis of photographer Jim Lommasson’s traveling exhibition, “What We Carried: Fragments & Memories From Iraq & Syria,” at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles through Aug. 5.

Since 2010, the Portland, Ore.-based Lommasson has met with about 100 refugees in their U.S. homes and photographed a treasured object brought from Iraq or Syria. Each item is etched with emotion and story: a deceased mother’s eyeglasses, dominoes, a carpet created from a father’s old neckties.

A carpet created from a father's old neckties serves as a reminder of a mother who could make something from nothing.
A carpet created from a father's old neckties serves as a reminder of a mother who could make something from nothing. (Jim Lommasson)
Dolls made the soul-crushing journey from a war-torn homeland.
Dolls made the soul-crushing journey from a war-torn homeland. (Jim Lommasson)

Lommasson gives an archival print, surrounded by ample white space, back to the items’ owners. They write their reasons for choosing the object.

A 15-minute documentary accompanies the 57 photographs. Subjects include a Hello Kitty notebook and Barbie dolls clutched by girls embarking on soul-crushing journeys. Those and other common items help to bridge cultural divides and dismantle stereotypes.

Viewers are forced to wonder: What would I take?

Scholar Haifa Habib brought an anthropology book purchased along Baghdad’s Mutanabbi Street, a historic book market obliterated by a car bomb in 2007. Her Arabic script decorates the photo: “Alas is today similar to yesterday? Despair, sickness, and foreignness, will my tomorrow be just like my yesterday?”

Haifa Habib fled Iraq with an anthropology book purchased at Baghdad's historic Mutanabbi Street market, which was bombed in 2007. "Will my tomorrow be just like my yesterday?" she wrote on Lommasson's photo of the book.
Haifa Habib fled Iraq with an anthropology book purchased at Baghdad's historic Mutanabbi Street market, which was bombed in 2007. "Will my tomorrow be just like my yesterday?" she wrote on Lommasson's photo of the book. (Jim Lommasson)
Detail of Lommasson's work featuring coffee cups from Baghdad, a refugee's reminders of happy times with Dad.
Detail of Lommasson's work featuring coffee cups from Baghdad, a refugee's reminders of happy times with Dad. (Jim Lommasson)

These are mnemonic objects, totems that help to recall what was left behind, which for many was, simply, everything. Preservation of bare scraps of identity become vital.

Paired with a tiny flag pin: “How can I describe you, Iraq? My soul is missing your air.”

A tin can turns sacred — used by a mother to make ice for cold drinks on blistering desert days. The owner terms the seemingly worthless hollow can as “an Iraqi icon,” so happy and dear is his simple memory. “I felt like I had to make room for it in my small suitcase,” Rafat Mandwee writes on the stark photograph.

Rafat Mandwee's milk can, which evoked memories of cold drinks on hot desert days and how his mother would reuse empty cans to make ice.
Rafat Mandwee's milk can, which evoked memories of cold drinks on hot desert days and how his mother would reuse empty cans to make ice. (Jim Lommasson)

Lommasson’s eye treads lightly, presenting the items without artistic comment, yet imbuing each with tactile depth via low-grazing light that tempts viewers to reach out and touch.

“People often give me credit for humanizing the refugees,” Lommasson said of his collaborative work. “But the way we ‘other’ them and demonize them, it’s us that needs to be humanized.”

See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.

A refugee's cellphone photos are reminders of good times — and the friends he had to leave behind.
A refugee's cellphone photos are reminders of good times — and the friends he had to leave behind. (Jim Lommasson)
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