The mood cast by the photographs on the walls of the Bronx Documentary Center right now is somber. The Center’s gallery is hosting “Refugee Hotel,” an exhibition by photographer Gabriel Stabile, who spent four years, beginning in 2007, photographing the first nights in America of refugees relocated here from around the world.
The pictures of those first nights on the wall here—49 color photos in a collage, on one wall, and more than a dozen black and white photos, from communities where they resettle—are, above all, lonely. In so many, people appear in the singular, or not at all, suggested instead by unworn shoes or empty furniture. Where they do appear, they often look longingly out of frame. There are a few lighthearted pictures—teens who seem amazed by a Coca-Cola machine, a family huddled, in jeans and jackets, around a bathtub, peering in and, we presume, trying to figure out just how the damn thing works.
But by and large the message of the photos is repetitive: To be a refugee is emotionally emptying. The collection on display doesn’t say much more.
That’s too bad, because the eponymous book that Stabile and writer Juliet Linderman published last year, with many of these same photos, says a lot. There are many more pictures, for starters, and there is a feeling of linear movement through a story as one flips the pages. More than that, there’s the refugees’ own words: The book, a project of the Dave Eggers’ oral-history-as-human-rights imprint Voice of Witness, includes moving stories from refugees from eight countries, in their own words. The exhibit borrows a few quotes from these stories, but those quotes are unmoored; there’s no idea who said them, or where they’re from, or where they were sitting or standing as they spoke. This gesture toward universality has instead the feeling of generalized substitution, as if pretty much all these stories are the same.
The highlight of the exhibition is the slideshow. It’s a real, analog slideshow, in a Kodak carousel, that advances only when you press a button, a technology this visitor had completely forgotten how to use. (“Haven’t you seen one of those before?” asked Michael Kamber, founder of the Center. “That’s my generation’s Instagram.”) The carousel is perched in a wide windowsill, but the projection is tiny—four-by-six, perhaps. Clicking through these roughly 100 photos feels extraordinarily intimate, like sitting down with a stack of someone’s travel pictures and flipping through them, one by one, paper passing through fingers (which, if you don’t remember that, either, is a surprisingly different and more engaging experience than swiping at an iPhone.). The size, and the light, of the projection change the feeling of the photos dramatically (there are several in the carousel that also hang on the wall), sharpening light and shadow and making color gleam.
The last day of the Refugee Hotel exhibit is December 21. It’s worth a visit—the Center has created an engaging “scavenger hunt” for children, offering a list of items to look for in the photos on display. But spend the most time with the beautifully engaging slideshow, which is where most of the emotional energy in this exhibit seems to be.