The first photograph in a 50-image series celebrating the dignity and endurance of New Haven’s refugees and immigrants was unveiled on the side of a towering, empty architectural landmark in Long Wharf, reminding city visitors and residents alike that those newest to this country best represent the core American rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
On Tuesday afternoon local photographer Joe Standart revealed the 48-foot by 68-foot mesh banner photograph of a Guatemalan refugee named Paulina that is now hanging on the eastern side of the Pirelli Building, the 1969 Brutalist structure that stands on the same Sargent Drive lot as the furniture store IKEA and has been vacant for decades since the old Armstrong Rubber company left town in the 1990s.
The photograph is the first, and largest, public installation in Standart’s “WE ARE: A Nation of Immigrants” series, which will see upwards of 53 different photographs of local immigrants and refugees posted in public spaces and on the sides of buildings throughout the Green and Downtown. The photograph of Paulina will be displayed on the Pirelli Building until the end of June.
Standart and his small team of collaborators on the project expected the massive photograph to be mounted on the side of the Pirelli Building at 2 p.m. But at 10 a.m., Standart said, he received a text message from Broadway Illuminating, the company that handles public displays for IKEA, letting him know that they had jumped at the clear spring weather and had put the photograph up early.
Although he missed the big reveal itself, Standart stood in awe before the towering photograph of the young Guatemalan mother, staring confidently out at the camera as she cradles her infant child in a broad, red and black wrap.
“We have a lot to learn from immigrants,” Standart said as he reflected on the mission of the project, “in the sense of their perceptions of the United States as a place where the individual is honored and dignified; where they can be safe and work to whatever extent they want and achieve their dreams.”
“It’s all the things that are in our Constitution,” he continued. “The right to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; all of that, which I think Americans take for granted. I’m hoping that the immigrant voice can come out [through this project] and say, ‘You guys are lucky.’”
Although Paulina was not present at the photograph unveiling on Tuesday, Standart said that interested viewers will be able to watch a video-recorded interview with her soon on the project’s website. Standart and his team of collaborators will be posting nine different video-recorded interviews with various subjects featured in the series before the project’s formal opening on June 8.
According to the partial transcript of Paulina’s interview that is currently available on the project’s website, Paulina came to the United States four years ago as she fled violence and economic instability in her hometown of Ixchiguan, Guatemala.
“It took me three weeks to get to the United States from Guatemala,” Paulina said. “My nine year old son and I traveled by bus and the ‘Train of the Beast’ to get here. It was called the Train of the Beast because you have to ride on the top of the train, not inside, and sometimes people fall off because it is traveling at such a high speed. I am very thankful that we arrived safely.”
Standart said that he first met Paulina, and many of the other immigrants and refugees featured in the series, through the help of local immigrant advocacy groups like Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA).
He said he hopes that the giant portrait on the side of the Pirelli Building will attract new visitors to New Haven as they drive by on I-95. He said he also hopes that the composition of each photograph, highlighting the pride and endurance and self-respect of their subjects, will remind viewers of the imperative of treating all people “in a dignified way.”
“I can’t help but look at her and think of her struggles and her dreams,” Standart said. “The wat the child is sort of representative of the whole idea of safety, of motherhood, and of looking for a secure future.”
Standing a few feet away, Jeffrey Zeitlin, IKEA’s customer service manager, said that the massive furniture retailer was happy to support the city when when the city reached out and asked if Standart could temporarily use the side of the Pirelli building.
“Our hope is to see the Pirelli Building back in use,” Zeitlin said. “It’s a landmark.”
He said that he was not aware of any further developments with IKEA’s plans to convert the Pirelli Building into a hotel, as all property-related concerns are handled by IKEA’s corporate headquarters in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. IKEA corporate did not respond to email and phone requests for comment by the publication time of this article.
“But we do continue to be proponents of wanting to see the building come alive again and be fully functional,” he said. “It’s an iconic gateway to the city of New Haven and we want to continue to see it be there, but we would like to see it alive with people occupying it and making it a venue of whatever makes the most sense to be an ongoing benefit to the city.”