Saratoga Springs, New York is a white and affluent town of 28,000 whose tourist economies are maintained by the labor of people who migrate to the US annually. “How to Tell a True Immigrant Story” is a poetic and participatory metanarrative that weaves together experiences of members of the Latinx immigrant community in Saratoga Springs as they respond to increased ICE activity and anti-immigrant sentiment after the 2016 presidential election. The film aims to expand understanding of experiences otherwise reduced to politically expedient constructs while marshaling the surveillance logic of 360 video to interrogate ways that documentary itself has potential to operate, like a border protection interview, to “make accessible” (Trinh T. Minh-ha) those who are otherwise marked other.
In the summer of 2016, while an artist-in-residence at the Skidmore College MDOCS Storytellers Institute, I began an ongoing, collaborative documentary engagement with a community of artists and organizers who work and/or reside at the Saratoga Race Course.
The Saratoga Race Course is one of the most lucrative thoroughbred racetracks in the U.S. In 2015, a study found that this city of 28,000 annually earns $237 million dollars through horseracing tourism alone.
The labor that supports this multi-million dollar industry is led by people who migrate every year on H2B visas from their home communities in Mexico and Central America to Saratoga Springs.
For six to eight months every year, this community works and lives in an area closed to the public called the “backstretch.” Though Saratoga Springs’ high-end economy immeasurably relies on immigrant communities, there remains a chasm of understanding maintained in part by the geographic segregation of residing at the backstretch (and by an unabashed racial hierarchy).
In 2016, I began working with Krystle Nowhitney Hernandez, oral historian and Deputy Director of the Saratoga County Equal Opportunity Council, and with a community of artists who work and reside at the Saratoga Race Course, most of whom are originally from Mexico.
Our collaboration holds that the work of creative community can be a vehicle for raising consciousness, imagining new possibilities for social relations, and exploring one’s own ever-evolving identity. All members of our collaboration, including Krystle and myself, are all immigrants or first-generation ourselves. As such, stories of cultural crossing are of both personal and political interest.
Our first project was a performance ethnography that occupied an elite art gallery in downtown Saratoga Springs and filled the space with the sounds, textures, and gestures of hot walking.
Of the jobs available to the migrant labor pool at the track, hot walking is one of the lowest paid and referred to as requiring less skill (though one would argue that anyone who can manage a horse for any amount of time is entirely skilled in a sensitive craft). The job of a hot walker is to cool down the horses after workouts and races. For thirty minutes after every exertion, the hot walkers walk the horses in circles, lead them to water, lead them to baths. From the outside, this labor appears both meditative and constraining. Tranquil and challenging.
Knowing our audience and the stories we wanted to tell, we created an installation and performance that would bring together two rather segregated audiences but in a way that does not reify patterns of “knowing” but asks the audience to use the participatory walking exercise as an invitation to embody knowledge. We also wanted to create a space in which the rules of the space were not entirely clear, in which audiences would need to sit with the sensation of not knowing or not understanding, an experience that we felt mirrors the process of entering communities and cultures not one’s own. To create this sense, we did not alert the audience in any of our promotional materials to what they would experience within the gallery space, and we even kept the door closed to the gallery until the walk began.
Here you see the program for the event. This is all the information people had before entering. No complete definitions, no direct translations, and really expecting the audience to do the work of decoding, which is work that immigrants have to do daily if not moment by moment.
Nearly 100 people filled the Spring Street Gallery for this one-time pop-up event, and the work we produced together led to two more years of collaborations, including the 360º film, “How to Tell a True Immigrant Story.”
Ten years ago, Ele Martinez crossed the border from his hometown of La Sabana in Oaxaca, Mexico, into Texas and made his way up to upstate New York where his uncle lived among a small but thriving community of indigenous Triqui people. Since the 2016 elections, the Triqui community in Saratoga has declined significantly.
In this short film (07:00) produced and exhibited in 360º video, Ele reflects upon the disruptions of literal and figurative border-crossings and the ways in which his roots continue to inform the new life he is successfully building for himself in the U.S.
Reflecting Ele’s experiences of holding multiple histories, locations and communities across locations at once, the film includes “flat” HD video shot and shared by Jake DeNicola and Bernardo Rios while filming with Ele in Oaxaca.
In 2005, filmmaker Deb Rudman released a film documenting Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s (PHS) City Harvest program.
Through this program, inmates of the Philadelphia Prison System receive training in gardening and basic landscaping along with valuable life-skills. 250,000 seedlings are then transplanted and grown in 140 urban farms and gardens throughout the city, as well as in the prison’s onsite garden.
In 2015, Deb decided to begin shooting new material to commemorate 10 years of growth and to illustrate the remarkable expansion of the City Harvest program throughout Philadelphia, growth that is an inspiring testament to the power of city-wide, nonprofit collaborations; social service support; educational programming and entrepreneurial support.
As part of the Termite TV Collective alongside Debbie, I wanted to support the effort to edit this bounty of material that Debbie was collecting of City Harvest’s expansion. I integrated the project into my Digital Editing course at Georgia State University. Students in the course worked alone or in small teams as assistant editors to log and organize all the material. We held in-depth conversations about the themes of the film; relevant background contexts; and structural options. From these conversations, students developed insightful rough cuts of scenes to which Debbie gave feedback in video chats and Google docs.
One student from this class, Petra Goettel, was then brought on to work over summer 2019 to finish the edits. Petra’s contributions took the film from a collection of tightly-edited scenes to a full film with beginning, middle, and end; thematic throughlines; smooth transitions; and emotionally engaging content.
We are editing this film now and aim for release in January 2020. All participating students will be credited as Assistant Editors.
An ongoing collaboration with immigrant rights organizer in Stockton, California, Luis Magaña, to preserve the stories of Bracero farmworkers in the San Joaquin Delta region while investigating the ways in which Bracero histories inform today’s policies and experiences of immigration.
In 2013, I was living in San Francisco and obsessed with an astounding mural which honored the lives of people who risked or lost their lives crossing the US-Mexico border. In San Francisco’s gluttonous building boom, this mural was being covered brick-by-brick day after day, (re) erasing the stories that the mural had helped bring to light.
My research into the provenance of the mural led me to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the youth advocacy group, 67 Sueños (67 Dreams). Together we wanted to preserve the spirit of the mural if not the mural itself, to publicly honor a history of emigration from Central America and Mexico to the US and some of the struggle contained therein.
Our team, which included my filmmaking partner, Andrew Bateman, partnered with Luis Magaña in 2013 on a California Humanities “Community Stories” grant to record video oral histories with Bracero farmworkers living in and near Stockton, California, a port city about 70 miles east of Oakland and deep in the fertile lands of the Central Valley.
Our oral history project resulted in several outcomes. Firstly, the Bracero oral histories were so successfully executed that Luis screens these short films in classroom and community events as a way of demonstrating. Secondly, the youth activist-participants of 67 Sueños received training in media production as they served as production apprentices. The youth also took what they were learning from the oral histories and partnered with a muralist to create a traveling mural, “Abuelito Fue Bracero” (Grandpa was a Bracero) that illustrates Bracero histories and contributions.
Between 2013 and 2016, we continued to work with Luis to extend the work and values that undergird the mural: preserving farmworker histories both as a means of honoring the contributions of people whose sacrifices have contributed to the standard of living in this country; while also opening space for dialogue about ways these histories inform, influence and help us make sense of our current moment. This kind of historical context can help to dispel the myth of meritocracy, framing current economic struggles within the broader landscape of US-Mexico relations.
An example of a documentary piece that emerged from our ongoing collaboration follows:
Documentary (DOC) 150: Introduction to Documentary Storymaking is the first course in the five-course consortial LVAIC Documentary Minor. In the Fall 2018 section of the course, 16 students enrolled from the three institutions in the consortium: Muhlenberg College, Lehigh University, and Lafayette College.
The students ranged from sophomores to seniors. Some were serious students of media production with plans to complete the Minor in Documentary Storymaking, while others are housed in distant disciplines and are hoping for a fun, (maybe easy) creative elective.
I designed DOC 150 to build on my interests in decolonizing documentary practices and on an earlier community-based documentary production class designed by Aggie, which included a partnership with Allentown nonprofit, Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild (POWER) Lehigh Valley (then POWER Northeast).
This year, I partnered DOC 150 with community nonprofit, the Allentown Coalition for Economic Dignity (ACED), a subcommittee of POWER Lehigh Valley. A storytelling partnership with DOC 150 was a mission-fit for ACED. As an organization of researchers, organizers, and educators, ACED aims to ensure that the steps taken to address community development are representative of community desires. ACED does this by creating opportunities for community dialogue, soliciting community input, and delivering that input to city officials to push for strategies and solutions that will serve the community and will address rather than exacerbate racial and economic inequities (ACED, n.d.).
The course’s partnership with ACED was made stronger through the support of a Mellon Community Engagement grant from Muhlenberg College, which allowed for the hiring of a teaching assistant, Drew Swedberg, and classroom support from Assessment and Outreach Librarian at Muhlenberg College, Jess Denke. Jess and Drew are also lead organizers of ACED and thus served as powerful bridges between community and classroom.
Over the course of the semester, DOC 150 became a space through which students could enact documentary principles toward supporting ACED’s work to lift up community voices and inform policy decisions. Students dove into this work with great enthusiasm, even though half the class lived as far away as Easton. We started the semester studying critical pedagogy, documentary histories, documentary authority, and documentary risks. We discussed the differences between a charity and justice framework and analyzed the differences between storytelling that reinforces the myth of the individual and storytelling that instead draws our attention to systems and structures that shape the individual. We guided students in thinking about their own “location” (Coles, 1997) relative to the issues and to the communities with which they would be engaging.
Their first assignments asked students to document each other to practice listening, interviewing, and making story selections. We watched these short, edited profiles as a class so that students could experience and reflect upon how it feels to have one’s story in someone else’s hands and available to the public. Next, students worked in small teams to produce short profiles of a person, organization, or issue that demonstrated the ways in which issues of development were intersecting with their own lives. For example, students made pieces about a nonprofit at which they had volunteered and about the ways that their own universities were gobbling up neighborhoods in expansion efforts. In this way, we were hoping to disrupt the facile documentary impulse to “make a film on/about the ‘others’” (Minh-ha, 1991, p. 60) and, instead, to foster in students a sense of themselves as cohabitants of the same ecosystem with regards to the issues even if affected by the issues differentially.
With a foundation in questions of vulnerability and responsibility, we moved into studying those specific issues facing Allentown’s urban core. In addition to readings, screenings, and conversations with community representatives, students engaged with the issues by way of a video editing exercise. The class’s teaching assistant, Drew, had shot several interviews with community members and organizers in Allentown reflecting on how the City’s development efforts were affecting long-term residents. Students were tasked with editing together interviews with visual material (what is customarily called “BRoll”) into a two to three minute short video that could have a beginning, middle, and end; engage audiences with the issues; and add to the dialogue without reinforcing myths or stereotypes. Students worked in small groups of two or three, each team editing from the same collection of recorded video material. We watched all the edits as a class to understand how the same video can be shaped differently in different hands. Drew and I then selected one version that most successfully met the project criteria to open a public forum hosted by ACED at the public library.
Acclimating to the issues and community perspectives by way of pre-existing / already-shot video material allowed us to work out some of the student’s questions or confusions in the safe space of the classroom, before entering into the community. In editing these interviews, students inquired into the highest priorities for ACED, data and informational contexts for further framing the issues, and relationships between images, interviews, narrative structure, and audience. In one conversation, for example, we wondered what information to include in the videos if the primary audience for the short films were City officials versus community members, two constituencies with different needs and perspectives. Due to the inquiry-based model of classroom discussions and the diligence with which students worked, the winning video that screened at the ACED public event was inspiring and generated robust community dialogue. This helped to reinforce our relationship with ACED, securing their confidence in the students’ thoughtfulness and sensitivity.
For their final projects, students worked in teams of four to pursue stories of relevance to ACED’s efforts. Story possibilities were gathered by Drew, who surveyed community leaders for ideas. Four stories were produced: a profile of an intentional, mixed-income housing community; a profile of ACED itself; a profile of young bikers who enact their freedom and vision for the city through city-wide rides; and a profile of a community activist who aims to protect the social fabric of neighborhoods she has known nearly all her life. Students were guided throughout every step of their process. They did preliminary interviews without cameras in order to gather information and start forming relationships of trust with people who would be featured in their documentaries. They wrote reflections after each conversation or shoot and the course instructors would comment on their reflections and questions. Students also practiced being accountable to each other in that they were responsible for evaluating team members’ participation and contributions.
Due to a grant from the Lehigh Valley Engaged Humanities Consortium (LVEHC), we were able to support a public forum at the end of the fall 2018 semester to include a screening of student works. The December 13th event included a viewing of the four student films, spoken word poetry, step performances, and community testimonials and political action. After each performance or screening, an ACED organizer would introduce an issue or effort, point the audience to a place in the room where they could take an action—sign a petition, register their personal perspective, send a postcard to City Council, etc. It was an evening that brought together a wide array of perspectives, leveraged those perspectives into action, and met ACED’s mission of complicating the stories told about development. City officials, members of the Allentown Police Department, organizers, educators, and Muhlenberg College faculty and staff attended the event, forging coalition and inviting new stakeholders into ACED’s mission to lift up community voices and push Allentown towards development efforts that are dialogical rather than destructive. The films produced through this collaboration will be available for viewing on the newly released LVEHC Digital Archive.
In 2013, London’s Iran Heritage Foundation (IHF), in partnership with the British Museum, launched the first-ever US tour of the Cylinder of Cyrus the Great. This cylinder is a clay tablet inscribed with cuneiform in which King Cyrus the Great in 539 BC celebrated his victory over Nabonidus to take control over Babylon. Inscribing a tablet with a victory statement was a common practice at the time, something like an inaugural address, but what set Cyrus’s tablet apart from rulers before him was that he promised a more benevolent rule in which people would be free to worship as they pleased.
Throughout the 20th century, the Cylinder has held a contested space in the Iranian self-narrative, located somewhere between the “first human rights charter” and a nationalistic relic. The executive director of IHF at that time, Haleh Anvari, had a bold idea to bring the Cylinder out of its venerable and academic museum context and to use the tour as a way of shining a light on the vast experiences and perspectives of the Iranian diaspora, as reflected in the Cylinder.
For my part, I wanted to explore the cylinder as serving dual purposes in developing certain national and/or pesronal mythologies.
While making this film, I was preoccupied by two images. One of which I discovered while browsing through the unique community library and public experiment, the Prelinger Library. The library is primarily a collection of 19th and 20th century historical ephemera, periodicals, maps, and books much of which is in the public domain. The library specializes in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.
In 1979 at the height of revolution & one month before the king of Iran fell, activist students stormed the US embassy to expose US intervention in Iranian affairs. Those working in the embassy tried to protect the classified documents housed there by shredding everything.
You can see a scene of this recreated in the 2012 US produced film, ARGO, directed by Ben Affleck of all people.
These shredded documents, it is said, were then pieced back together by carpet weavers or young people and published for the world to understand how the US was interfering in Iranian affairs.
I was intrigued by this image and others like it of reassembled, re-constructed State Department documents. I was interested in the factual history here, the machinations of the US authorities to steer the revolution toward something amenable to US interests. But I was also intrigued by the image as visual metaphor, an invitation to read between the lines
And I saw here some visual symmetry between these paper shards stitched into cohesive sentences of political machinery, and the Cylinder itself. See the parallels below.
Two incomplete documents stitched into complete (or seemingly complete) narratives. You can see the symmetry really well if you flip the cylinder image vertically.
So this was my departure point. How do these two “artifacts” speak to one another? What resonances are there between these two moments: the moment in which the students of 1979 discovered themselves and their country through the probing eyes of the US state, and this current moment in which our community is being asked to see ourselves through the Cylinder, held up as a symbol of the best in Iranian values. What are the various narratives that impose themselves on the Iranian nation-state, by what political or sociopolitical interests are these narratives motivated, and how do they ultimately shape how we see ourselves as political subjects? These are the questions behind the film that I contributed to 7Sides.
The 7Sides film is more than a collection. It is one film spoken through 7 different voices. It’s a film whose language is best understood as a whole. The collection in whole is thought-provoking, sometimes elegiac, sometimes scathingly critical and always necessary conversation led by leading scholar-artists in the Iranian American community.
Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, Vol. 41 No. 3, November/December 2013; (pp. 19-25
There may be no image better equipped to illustrate Jesikah Maria Ross’s body of work than that of a bridge. In an era of constant flux in which once-stable disciplinary borders are shifting, a bridge might be exactly the technology we need for treading unstable ground.
jesikah’s work pulls from the Challenge for Change model to bridge communities, causes, and creative approaches. Read about jesikah’s work in this thought-provoking interview below.
Saratoga Springs, according to long-time busker and city dweller Thomas Nosal, is a magical, mysterious, bubbling spring of activity. People travel from miles away to luxuriate in a Saratoga summer with its lush greens and its mineral springs and its thoroughbred, racing horses.
“Yeah, it’s good here,” says Cristina (name changed). “But it’s also dangerous.” Cristina works a farm on the outskirts of town. She’s been there about 17 years, happily. But in the last two years, she’s felt afraid to leave her house. “We can’t just pick up and go to the cinema, to the beach, to the store,” she says. “Because of the immigration authorities. You never know where they’re gonna be.”
These are the voices of two very different Saratogas — one that twirls in red-and-white gingham, and another more labyrinthine, a series of walls obscuring safe passage.
Saratoga Springs and surrounding communities are predominately white and affluent while its workforce is mostly communities of color who are not originally from the U.S. These two constituencies are geographically sequestered — those who emigrate annually on H2B visas to work the horses, for example, live at the stables where the horses themselves are housed — as well as segregated by an unabashed racial hierarchy. Over the last year, Saratoga County has been a hotbed of ICE activity. The town is so racially homogenous that from restaurants to parked cars and ice cream shops, anyone who is not of the white, upper-middle class elite is an obvious target for profiling, for questioning and paper-checking.
This year, responding to increased ICE activity, racial profiling, and xenophobia across Saratoga County after the 2016 election, our collaborative partnered with the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council and the Skidmore MDOCS Documentary Studies Collaborative to participate in Brookline Interactive Group (BIG’s) first-ever national cohort, “Immigration in Full Frame.” This project brings together filmmakers, activists, and media arts organizations from around the country to produce a collection of 360-degree shorts that document an array of experiences pertaining to immigration in the United States.
We believed that 360 as a medium might uniquely create space for authentic encounters between two communities who are entwined, but who know each other only from a distance. We also believed that such contact is essential for fostering critical, compassionate dialogue about the issues urgently facing immigrant communities in Saratoga and beyond.
To begin, we held listening sessions with Saratoga County residents who work in agriculture and horseracing and who are labeled, if only implicitly, as “immigrant other.” We asked the routine documentary questions: How long have you been here? Why did you come? What do you do for work?
I myself have been asked these questions in countless immigration interviews, sitting next to my tireless mother as she fought for nearly two decades to secure our permission to live and work here in the United States. I know the feeling of coming from somewhere else and being reminded of it, made to answer for it. How then were our questions offering something different from the immigration interview space if central to both is: “Who are you and why are you here?”
Certainly the context of the documentary interview intends to be more generous than the boundary-erecting immigration interview. But as Trinh T. Minh-ha writes, the knowledge-making face of documentary works to “make accessible” those who are seen as alien. “Without their [documentary] benefactors,” Minh-ha writes, such communities are “bound to remain non-admitted, non-incorporated.” Here, the language of documentary is adjacent to customs control, both seeking admissions, incorporation; both reducing a full personhood to the sum of its borders crossed.
With its panopticon eye, 360 video can, if unchecked, reinforce some of documentary’s most damaging inclinations, its tendency toward what Godmilow describes as the “titillation of difference.” At the same time, with every shot pre-visualized, pre-planned, and directed, 360 is dressed in its own constructedness, calling our attention to the act of looking. The viewer is both invited and implicated. As such, it can be a space for deconstructing discourse, for interrogating realism, as well as for privileging experience over exposition.
Inspired by artist Nicky Tavares’ experiments with collage in the VR space, we shifted our 360 project away from the expository documentary toward a performative tapestry of felt experience sewn together in critical analysis.Through a combination of emotion, abstraction, and texture, we hoped to quiet the categorizing mind and leverage the sensory dislocations of 360 video to impel viewers’ bodies upon the gears of incorporation. The poetic as radical.
To begin, we returned to our interview recordings and wrote a script adapting or borrowing lines directly from community members. But in this script, rather than seek to convey “immigrant” data, we sought shared visions, collective voice, poetry.
We fashioned the piece as a metanarrative that could implicate documentary’s unintentional slippages toward the dehumanizing and instead illuminate the lives of complex, multi-dimensional, and creative people who have traversed rivers and skyways and the rugged hills of being.
The structure of the piece became an interrogation room in which the nature of the interrogation is left intentionally ambiguous. It could be either a customs interview or a documentary one. In this room, a (non-actor) member of the community is met with questions drawn from the greatest hits of doc interviews. And while each question begins as something information-gathering, it launches the scene into a more meditative contemplation.
In the Freirian tradition of “carrying out transformation with the people affected by oppressive systems, rather than for them,” we worked with community members throughout the process.
Most of the participants were students in this year’s Estamos Aquí (We’re Here) photography workshop — a space for Saratoga Springs’ Latinx immigrants to document and share their experiences of living and working in the area. Given the overlaps in people and goals between Estamos Aquí and the 360 video, conversations about the 360 video project would organically surface in the workshop. In these conversations, we could offer context, answer questions, schedule interviews, hear ideas and leads, and foster a climate of participation and collective visioning. In this workshop and outside of it, community members helped rewrite lines, performed in the film, helped produce particular scenes, and offered their spaces and stories to enrich the immersive potential of the piece.
The narration for the film, like the film and the process of its making, aims to be a tapestry of voices and experiences. The voice-over narration, for example, is interwoven with verse written by Roga ’74, a poet, artist, organizer, and dear friend of this collaboration. And every conversation with community members was something that might inform or infuse the script. Speaking casually with the son of a photography workshop participant, he told us that his Spanish name meets with a plethora of reinterpretations in the U.S. “People call me by different names,” he told us. Arresting in its intersections with identity, power, and incorporation, this statement became one of the foundational lines of the film’s contemplative narration. The line is narrated, in fact, by the same young man who first spoke it to us.
Upon completion — a finishing process which will include design collaborations with artists Nile Livingston and Adam Tinkle — we have plans to share the film widely. Our first audience (among the many audiences with whom we wish to share this piece) are the community members themselves who courageously shared their stories with us, even if anonymously. Not only do we want to make sure that the community members approve of our choices (given the risks of exposure), we also believe that the project is first and foremost for them. The project existed as a deeply meaningful process before it was ever product, and film is in this way an archive, an illustration of what transpired among us. Watching it together can be an opportunity to reflect on our process, discover new “revolutionary wisdom,” and dream next steps, including ways to share the film and possibilities for future collaborations.
But the film is also an intentionally structured, reflective statement meant to intervene in local, regional, and even national discourse. 360 video also offers opportunity to experience one’s self and one’s space anew, a perceptual reshuffling which can expand how Saratoga Springs sees itself while also asking all of us to think about ways our own practices might reinforce othering. We plan to work with our partners in Saratoga to plan exhibitions that bring together diverse (and even distanced) constituencies to experience the piece, discuss its implications, and plant seeds for a more inclusive sense of collective identity and shared outcomes. We will work in a similar fashion with our national partners and collaborators including BIG, New Media Advocacy Project, and Groundswell to share the film and its process widely.
I don’t mean in this reflection to enshrine a series of “best practices” for 360 video. Every project calls for different approaches, different formal concerns. What I do hope can resonate here is the notion that our methods matter. If our methods towards justice reify the exact social relations that uphold the structures we wish to change, we are no step closer to liberation. This film, I hope, is less about “immigrants” and more about the ways we are all implicated in constructing “the immigrant,” about what could come to light beyond the shadow of this construct which is at once ever-expanding and constricting.
I’d like to thank our invaluable project collaborators, including but not limited to: media artist Emily Rizzo; multimedia artist Nicky Tavares; storyteller Ele Martinez; poet Roga ’74; Ana Cruz; EOC staff Krystle Nowhitney Hernandez, Joan Odess, Irma Rivera, and Ana Zaragoza; actor Matt Bagley; and the entire staff and community of the Skidmore MDOCS Storytellers Institute including Jordana Dym, Jesse O’Connell, Adam Tinkle, and Sarah Friedland.Many thanks also to the Brookline Interactive Group, New Media Advocacy Project & NMAP editor Michael Braithwaite.