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Photojournalists document the reality of immigrants entering Germany, U.S.

Students and members of the Brandeis community gathered to hear two photojournalists speak about their personal journeys through documenting the lives of immigrants in Germany and Mexico.

Jacobia Dahm is a German photojournalist who is currently based in Berlin, Germany, moving back after being in the U.S. for over a decade. Her current project, which started in 2015, documents refugees along their migrant trail across Europe from all parts of Africa and other Middle Eastern countries.

Gisela San Martin is a Spanish documentary photographer who is currently based in New York City. She graduated from the Documentary Photography and Photojournalism program at the International Center of Photography and received her masters degree in journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Photojournalists have a different perspective than other journalists, as they capture the events as they happen. “We can never interfere with the picture,” Dahm explained during her presentation. “Photojournalists are mere observers, like a fly on the wall, just there to observe people and not interact,” Dahm said. “Staging a photo is untruthful, and we are telling stories as truthfully as we can,” said Dahm.

Dahm’s presentation focused on teaching people about the struggles that people immigrating have to face. As a photojournalist, Dahm followed four different groups of individuals, all from various backgrounds, for a few days, taking shots and capturing the journey they endured while immigrating. She went on to explain how doing this project helped her learn more about Germany’s underplayed immigration system, as well as the process in which it takes refugees to immigrate.

“Many of these stories are post-conflict stories, people having lost their home and their homeland, but they’re human just like you. I wanted to look at the human experience,” explained Dahm. Through her travels, Dahm also learned that many of the people who seek refugee in other countries, even Germany, are not necessarily granted asylum due to their situation. “A war in your home country is not a reason for asylum,” said Dahm. “You need to be personally targeted in order to obtain asylum.”

Dahm also noted that the German people noticed a shift in “warmth and good manners” as a result of the influx of refugees arriving in Germany. “We hope these stories make people understand that there’s no such thing as just an immigrant. There’s an individual that’s coming and bringing their family, and they want exactly the same things as we want,” explained Dahm.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, San Martin’s project was focused on the families that were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. She spent a majority of her time at “Friendship Park,” a section of the border that has been painted over by local artists, where family members from each side of the border are able to see and speak to each other. This area is the only official meeting spot across the entire border.

San Martin described the most touching part of the experience: seeing the interactions that the families could have. “They could only get their pinky fingers through the wire mesh,” San Martin recalled. A few times a year, “the door of hope” in Friendship Park was opened, relieving the border that separated the U.S. and Mexico. Over the watchful eyes of border patrol, five families were allowed to hug for three minutes each, some for the first time in decades. San Martin remembers the crowds of photographers at the door and struggled to take a photo while tears filled her eyes.

She also witnessed binational religious services between members of both countries and even yoga classes taught by instructors from both sides. “The wall has become a symbol for people who have gone through the struggle,” explained San Martin.

San Martin also wanted to highlight that the purpose of her narrative was to “let migrants know they are seen and important because they are often told they are not.”

The event, Picturing Immigration to Germany and the U.S., was part of the Campus Weeks events held by the Center for German and European Studies (CGES). Professor Sabine von Mering (WGS/GRALL/ENVS) moderated the event.

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