By Gwenn Friss, Cape Cod Times
Long before immigration policy became a touchstone in presidential debates, Woods Hole-based photographer Mark Chester was interested in the people and cultures that make up Massachusetts.
The son of a Russian immigrant and a world traveler himself, Chester has volunteered for several years to document special events at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition in Boston.
A few years back, he took on a herculean task: To find and photograph two people – a man and a woman – from each of the countries that have naturalized citizens living in Massachusetts.
“I have 178 countries with 350 people. I call it my ‘Noah’s Mark.’ The whole idea of the project is to show the faces of people who make up Massachusetts,” he says during an interview at his Woods Hole studio. “It’s not geopolitical, but it is timely.”
Photographs from Chester’s ongoing “The Bay State: A Multicultural Landscape, Photographs of New Americans” can be viewed in exhibits statewide, including one that continues through Oct. 30 at Falmouth Museums on the Green.
Chester says he needs to raise $50,000 to $60,000, so he can sell copies but also provide one to each person who is in the book (“It’s their project too,” Chester says.) as well as libraries, schools and other community outlets. He plans to donate any profits from sales to the nonprofit Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. Coalition officials are collecting private donations and corporate sponsorships online at www.miracoalition.org or at the office on the ninth floor of 105 Chauncy St. in Boston. Donations should be noted as being for the “Mark Chester project.”
The coalition’s executive director, Eva A. Millona, says Chester has generously given his time to documenting the advocacy group’s work. “In addition to being very artistic and talented as a photographer, it is his sense of working with immigrants, of telling the stories of people who really love this country and of their successes, that makes this project so important,” she says.
Chester says his interest in doing the project was piqued by the 2010 census showing the wide variety of countries of origin for Massachusetts residents. From there, it was a matter of finding those people. Department of Education lists showed countries of origin and current communities, but no names, so the photographer had to work through community groups to find people from those countries.
Chester became a regular on the Lakeville-to-Boston commuter train, on his way to citizenship ceremonies where – thanks to immigration lists – he would know which countries’ immigrants to expect. But, once again, there were no names, so he would have to work the crowd, calling out the countries as he passed up and down the aisles. “I learned a lot about geography,” Chester says.
The photographer has it a little easier when he attends citizenship ceremonies conducted by U.S. District Court Judge Rya Zobel, who is in charge of scheduling judges to oversee the sessions. A German immigrant who took her own citizenship oath in Brooklyn on Dec. 6, 1949 – and oversaw her first ceremony 30 years later to the day – Zobel asks people to stand as she calls their country, and to remain standing until everyone is together as a group.
She begins nearly every welcome with the words, “My fellow immigrants …”One of her speeches, from a 2012 ceremony at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, is included in Chester’s book.
“She’s so real as she gives the address,” Chester says. “Afterward, she walks down the aisle and shakes hands with the immigrants.”
It was at a citizenship ceremony that Chester met Ivan Rambhadjan, who had the distinction of being born in Suriname, a sovereign state on the Atlantic coast of South America.
“He was very charismatic. My wife liked him right away so she brought him to meet me,” says Rambhadjan, director of operations for Cape Cod Community Media Center in Dennis Port.
With the exception of his cousin in New York, Rambhadjan has never met a U.S. citizen from his birth country. Although reticent about attention, Rambhadjan says, he agreed to let Chester photograph him for the project.
“I think because he was passionate about what he was doing, and I could relate to being passionate about the work. And I kind of related to his dilemma. … I knew that it was not easy to find someone from Suriname.”
Mark Schmidt, executive director of Falmouth Museums on the Green, says visitors have reacted positively to the 50 framed 8-by-10 black-and-white photos hanging at the Palmer Avenue museum.
“I think they are just kind of intrigued that there are so many different recognized ethnicities (in Massachusetts) and that he has made it his purpose to photograph at least one naturalized citizen from each of them,” Schmidt says. “And there are definitely locals up on the wall.”
Chester theorizes that the state’s combination of hospitals, colleges and high-tech companies may account for why Massachusetts has naturalized citizens from so many of the world’s 196 countries, as identified by the United Nations.
Having spent most of his professional life as a freelance photographer, including a stint in Shanghai, Chester says this project has put a lot fewer miles on him.
“I’ve been traveling the world without leaving the state.”