Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Karen Arango, Photographer, Tells Her Story




“Who are they?” My mother had asked my father, “Stay in the car and be calm, everything will be okay”, he said.



Colombian Mountains (photo: Jeffery Cornwell)


As the men approached the car, everyone panicked. I did not know what was happening; with one and a half years of age I was too young to be aware. We were taken up in the mountain, guns were pointing at us and the men kept saying disgusting comments about raping the women in my family. My sister crying, my brother scared, my mom praying, and my dad waiting for a miracle to happen, all while the delinquents discussed where they would throw our bodies after being assassinated. We couldn’t speak, or defend ourselves, all we could do was stay together and wait for it to be our time to die; we had been kidnapped.

This happened in the early 1990’s, when the war and delinquency was at a peak because of the Pablo Escobar movement in Medellin, Colombia. We used to live two blocks away from his home and every time a bomb would go off I would cry, the sound was overwhelming, the walls and windows of my home would slightly shake, just as a mild earthquake. This war took many lives; my brother even told me that he would see dead bodies along the street on the way to his school in the morning. In Medellin we always had to be alert, we knew the delinquency was high, and kids would get kidnapped and taken into prostitution often. We couldn’t trust many people. My mom had to fire a babysitter because she tried to abduct me while I was still a toddler; thankfully, my mother stopped her before she got on the bus to leave with me in her arms.

While growing up, I felt that I was different from my friends at school. I suffered from anxiety and was easily frightened by loud sounds, thunder, arguments, and yelling. I was often called a crybaby by my siblings, I think they are supposed to do that anyways. Everyday, as I came home from school my mother always asked me if a man had touched my private parts, this was to make sure no man tried to take advantage of me and for me to know that I had to say something in case it happened.

When I was about 7 years old, I remember going home from school in the bus. The strong gasoline smell of the bus made me nauseous and as the bus stopped at a red light, I saw a face filled with dirt, sadness, and hunger. It was a young girl, soliciting money as her mother did the same. I stared at her and she noticed me, we made eye contact for a couple of seconds. The light changed to green and the bus took me home. Our visual interaction sparked a quality in me I didn’t know I had. I had felt compassion for this girl, her sadness had overwhelmed me.

At some point, due to the dirty business of one of my distant family members got in, my family began to get threats from criminals. My dad had to gather a lot of money from his company of industrial machinery, which was a disgrace to the economy in my family, to pay delinquents, drug traffickers, and scammers or they would kill us all. Our life surrounded by scams, threats, and insecurity gave my dad no choice but to immigrate to the United States, where his family would be safe, and have a better life.



Abkhazian refugees living in Tbilisi, play in the refugee building granted by the government


As we arrived here, I felt lonely. I missed seeing the kids playing on the streets and I thought people were very isolated, always hiding inside their home. The language barrier didn’t help to make friends; it was easier to connect with kids who spoke the same language as I did. If I found someone who was also from Colombia it was as if I had found gold. We could talk about similar customs, food, and tell stories of our lives back home.

Shortly, after moving to the United States my parents separated; my mother was not willing to take any more of my dad’s male chauvinism. She was in a place of freedom and she could raise her children without worrying about the safety issues we had back in Medellin, or the fact that my dad would take us away from her. Due to the expiration of our Visa I was not able to go back home to visit my father, and he did not come back to visit us until seven years later.

I witnessed my mom work three jobs, and not make enough money to pay the rent. Some months, she would have to borrow money from friends. She was tired, we were surviving, and I was getting an education, still sensitive to loud noises and getting nervous easily. At times, I had to stay home alone after school; my siblings were also in school and my mom was working, I would be scared that immigration would come to take me and deport us back to Colombia.



Xiomara is 9 years old. Her mother and father are from Peru.
Her mother was deported when she was 3 years old.


As a child that was used to having many luxuries, including art materials, it was challenging to not have these things anymore. It was more important to have food on our plates, and a roof top over our head. We got used to the life in the United States, I slowly learned the language and my interest in art still sparked. I remember getting a set of colored chalks for a birthday once, I barely used them and I didn’t want them to be gone. Then, I began using disposable cameras that my sister would buy, and my mom had some professional cameras they had brought from Colombia.

When in high school I began to reflect about my future; I knew I wanted to be somebody and get an education. After trying different things I decided that I would do photography. My mom supported me, she always told me I could be whatever I wanted. My dad did not find out until my second year of college, he still had the old school mentality that you could not make a living with a career focused in art. My mom had been my hero and my inspiration to be the best I could. In my mind, if she had raised three kids alone in a foreign country, then everything done with a kind heart and hard work was possible.

While in college, I found my interest in art and it was a time to discover myself and what triggered my passion to take photos. The subject of culture, people and stories highly intrigued me, and I realized the great influence my past experiences had on my art. I got drawn into helping others in need, and my art took another level. I was motivated to stand out from my other classmates, and took opportunities I never thought possible.

The first time I had the chance to go back to Colombia and see my family I decided to go alone. I was already overcoming my fears and timidness, or maybe the love to see my family again gave me the courage to go back to the country I had left twelve years ago. I remember day-dreaming that one day I would arrive home from school on my birthday, and I would find all my family: aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings waiting for me as I arrived.



David, outside my uncle's home



During that trip to Colombia, I met David, his nickname was “Gamin”, slum dog in English, and the direction of my artwork took a turn. One morning, David and I ate breakfast together. He seemed quiet, shy, and he was thin too. My aunt sat next to me as I ate my arepa, or corn cake, and she began to tell me his story. “He works around the neighborhood, for a couple of coins” she said. “He helps your uncle with some errands. Your uncle gives him work to do because he has a mother and a younger sibling and they are extremely poor. He works so they can have food to eat, but he never knows if he will have food to eat the next day”, she continued. My family would give him food and money, it was the least they could do. As she was telling me the story David would look at me with guarded eyes. As my aunt finished the story I could feel the tears coming, I held them in, I didn’t want him to feel bad. Therefore, I looked at my empty plate, got up to take it to the sink and I said to my aunt out loud, “Thank you”. I was thanking her for my food, but at that point, I couldn’t hold my tears anymore; I was thanking God for giving me the wonderful life I had.

The first time I traveled overseas to Europe, through a college program, it completely opened my perspective in the world. I learned about how much I enjoyed learning about people and lifestyles. I was already working on my “Miss Behave” series, about girls who are born in the US of Latin American parents. I began to take on projects that were related to my past experiences, either with immigrants, refugees, and the abused. As my projects kept evolving I realized that as I learned about people’s stories they were being a reflection of who I was and it became a healing process for myself.



Georgian Refugee sits at her home while her daughter tells the story of how they
immigrated to Georgia on foot for a month


I could say with certainty that my past has very much helped shape my future, who I am and what I do today. My experiences in early childhood made me scared, timid, and anxious; as I matured I realized that if I did not take risks and do things myself no one else would do them for me. I decided to overcome my shyness, and my noise trauma. I learned to be more trusting, sometimes more than I should, but I became a better person than who I could have been if I had not determined myself to overcome these barriers. Photography was one motivation for me to do this; it pushed me to be social, open minded, and my ability to sympathize with other people’s feelings helped me get closer to the subjects in my photos.



Georgian vendor in the outskirts of Tbilisi


I realized that if my craft was not used for a good cause either to inspire or help others it had no purpose. Then I discovered that by telling stories and by photographing people in the most dignifying way; I could allow the viewer to connect to the person in the photo, the way I was able to do it. For the first time, I felt I could express myself and share my experiences with others and through others. All that anxiety became my fuel to explore beyond, and I became curious of the all I could experience through the use of my camera.

This is Week 45 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Karen's story today. Kudos to Karen who was recently selected for 2016's 30 Women Under 30. To connect with Karen and see more of her work, please visit the following links:

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