The photography exhibit “Visualizing Translation: Homeland and Heimat in Detroit and Dortmund” brings together the work of two photojournalists depicting scenes from everyday life in two very different neighborhoods: Theon Delgado, Sr., working in Southwest Detroit, Michigan; and Peyman Azhari, shooting in North Dortmund, Germany. The exhibit, which opened on October 4, is on display at the Ann Arbor Downtown District Library until November 30, 2021.
On October 9, both photographers joined us online for a panel discussion moderated by two of the exhibit’s curators, Kristin Dickinson and Alan Chin, and hosted by the Ann Arbor District Library. Scroll to the links at the bottom of this article to watch the full recording of the panel discussion, or read on for some highlights.
The conversation offered an enriching look behind the scenes of Peyman’s and Theon’s artistic processes. It also shed light on the curatorial logic behind putting these two projects in conversation. As Peyman described it: “Imagine Theon and me as two musicians… We both play the same instrument, but coming together, [we make] new sounds.”
As the exhibit’s title suggests, curators Kristin Dickinson, Alan Chin and Karah Shaffer hope that the resonances and productive frictions between these two projects will spark meditation on the fraught and complex concept of “homeland” (in German, Heimat), while bringing to the fore the various ways these photos represent place, migration and translation as lived phenomena. As you’ll see if you visit, both Theon’s and Peyman’s photos show their subjects at home, at work, or in dynamic street scenes vibrating with color and movement against backdrops of multilingual signage, graffiti, striking murals, and immigrant-owned businesses. Both collections highlight the radical pluralism of these two neighborhoods located 4,000 miles apart, yet sharing in common a high rate of ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity, accompanied by a contentious reputation as a “bad” or “dangerous” part of town. Through a series of intimate audiovisual portraits, both photographers offer subtle counterarguments to these categorical stereotypes.
In supplement to the photos, the exhibit also features audio interviews with and stories about many of the people who appear in the images, focusing on their conception of homeland or Heimat, and recorded by the photographers themselves. Visitors to the exhibit in Ann Arbor can scan a QR code next to each photo to listen to this audio material in their choice of three languages (English, Spanish and German).
During the panel discussion, Theon and Peyman spoke about establishing trust with their subjects, a challenge inherent to their work and one that both photographers take seriously. As Theon explained, “A lot of times, being a street photographer, approaching someone with a camera in your hand [can be] a little off-putting for folks. They believe that there is some other intention behind it…other than just art, or documenting the scene itself.” Instead of immediately trying to take a picture, Theon often starts talking to someone before even getting the camera out: “You let them see you…and you build that trust, and that opportunity to ask them for their image.”
Peyman, too, tries to minimize the presence of the camera and instead focuses on building a human connection with the person on the other side of the lens. It helps that he shoots on a small, vintage Leica. Sometimes he even covers the Leica logo with a piece of black tape, giving it the appearance of an amateur or toy camera. Other times, he prefers to remain completely out of sight, like “a ghost with a lens.” Peyman found that many residents of North Dortmund were especially skeptical of a stranger with a camera. In some cases, he used everyday props to appear less threatening, like carrying a shopping bag or walking a bicycle.
Ultimately, like Theon, Peyman discovered that sharing some of his own story could help encourage people to open up to him and his camera. As a young child, he fled his native Iran for Germany with his family to escape the violence of the First Gulf War. He speculates that many of the people he photographed and interviewed for this project were more inclined to trust him simply because he does not look ethnically German, but that offering up more details about his past further helped establish common ground around a shared history of forced migration. When conducting the interviews that accompany the photos, Peyman explains, “I wanted to know… Where did they come from? What did they have to give up?” To break the ice on this sensitive topic, he continues, “I could tell them about my story…so that we had something in common, because I also had to flee my country. So they did not feel…that I’m a stranger anymore.”
In one of Peyman’s photos, a man stares out the front window of a translation office, his face just visible between lines of lettering pasted directly onto the glass, advertising the agency’s services: “…translations….all languages…” reads the fragmentary message in German. What Peyman learned in the interview was that this man, named Party, was once a tank driver for the Iraqis during the First Gulf War—ostensibly the enemy of Peyman’s family and the reason they had to flee Iran. But Party, conscripted against his will, deserted the Iraqi military and fled to Germany. At the translation office where he now works, he helps other recent immigrants complete the paperwork that might let them, too, call that place home.
The exhibit “Visualizing Translation: Homeland and Heimat in Detroit and Dortmund” will be on view through November 30, 2021, in the 3rd floor gallery of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library. It is free and open to the public.
Learn more about the exhibit:
Click here to get more information about the exhibit, including a look at some of the photos, on the Translating Michigan website.
Click here to watch a video recording of the virtual panel event on the AADL website.