The Agony of the Refugee

Times Staff Writer

Cambodian children in a refugee camp frantically chase a truck delivering food. A Guatemalan boy, wistfully peering from a bus, sees the hills of his homeland for the first time in five years. A cooking pot-helmet her only protection, a frightened African woman flees strafing Ethiopian MIGs with her daughter in tow.

Blown up to wall-size proportions, these images and more than 50 others are part of “Forced Out: The Agony of the Refugee in Our Time,” the new exhibition at the Municipal Art Gallery that one photojournalist calls “a redundancy of horror.”

“There are probably more refugees in Los Angeles than in any other city in the Western world, so it seemed to me that this exhibition could really be of service here,” said gallery director Edward Leffingwell about the exhibition. “As a community gallery, we should be drawing from the information in the community in which we live.”

According to Leffingwell, who is co-curator of the exhibition, “Forced Out” is humanitarian but not political. The attempt is merely to present, through large-scale photographic murals, a “global picture” of refugeeism.

“We wanted to give the person that comes here, not necessarily a pilgrimage, but a feeling of moving through the landscape,” said Leffingwell. “The goal is to impart information, and also to humanize--to make it about real people.”


“We try to take the viewer to the emotional, the experiential and the factual (world of the refugee),” added co-curator Carole Kismaric, on whose book of the same title the exhibition is based. “It’s going to feel compelling; it’s going to be engaging. One hopes it will affect (viewers) to such levels that they will carry it with them.”

The exhibition contains 60 8-foot-tall photographic images, ranging from 7 to 20 feet long. The pictures--many of which are mounted on scaffolding to give a sense of the transient quality of refugee’s lives--depict such subjects as the destruction of homes and villages, people being forced to flee from their homeland, life in refugee camps and the terrors of being deported or unwillingly returned to one’s homeland.

Next to the photographs are additional panels that carry the words of actual refugees as they describe their situations--seeing family members killed, fleeing their land, surviving in the camps, not having a permanent home.

“There’s a redundancy of horror in it,” said photojournalist Kevin Barry McKiernan, whose photographs are included in the exhibition. “You see so much sameness from country to country--someone is forcing them off their land to go to some alienated place with maybe only part of their family. With the images so big, you get a flash of what it might be like to be on those buses, and not have any idea where you’re going to.”

Kismaric said she hopes the exhibition--which also includes a mounted declaration of human rights and a 30-minute slide show with government and U.N. statistics--will make the subject of refugeeism more accessible to a general audience. In addition, she hopes the show gives “individuals who have been refugees . . . some feeling that this country has some understanding for what they’ve gone through.”

Several of the photographers whose works are included in the exhibition, however, want them to do more than just expand awareness about refugeeism. They hope that the show will prompt people to take action to help the refugees’ plight.

“We need to be much more expansive and open to other cultures, and that includes caring about these millions and millions of people that have lost their homes throughout the world,” said photographer Debra Denker, who has worked extensively in Afghanistan and Pakistan and calls herself a “social documentarian.”

Denker added that she hoped some of those who see “Forced Out” will be prompted to join a human-rights organization, such as Amnesty International, or another group that works to help refugees.

“I don’t think (the exhibition) will move people to act on a mass basis, but if it moves 100 or so people to take action, then I think it makes a difference,” Denker said.

Photojournalist Irene Fertik agreed. “What’s important is using my images not only to celebrate what has to be celebrated, but to change what has to be changed,” she said.

But Fertik admitted that “Forced Out” might not prompt the response she would like. “I’m a little cynical about its changing minds because we all have been inundated with photos,” she said. "(The exhibition) is all about trying to make a difference, but I don’t know if images can do it anymore. But you’ve still got to try.”

McKiernan, who has made about 20 trips to Central America since 1982, agreed that “it’s pretty hard to puncture the numbness factor” that people develop from seeing pictures of refugees on television and in newspapers and other media.

“But some people might look at the sheer monumental size of some of the pictures and see them as larger than themselves, and some of that might come through. I think, for a moment at least, maybe it will get through,” he said.

For Leffingwell, who has worked on the exhibition with Kismaric for more than a year, an important part of helping the show to “get through” to viewers was to create a simple and inexpensive exhibition that would be easy to move from site to site.

The mammoth images are produced on panels of clear Mylar, a material that Leffingwell said cost only about half of that needed to produce a standard photograph. In addition, he said, the images will have low insurance costs and take up only a few crates when the exhibition travels. (After it leaves the Municipal Art Gallery on Nov. 5, it’s scheduled to go to New York’s P.S. 1 Gallery in January, then to Washington, San Francisco and Montreal).

“I want the exhibition to have as few elements as possible so it’s modest and not confusing,” he said.