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Yearning to Breathe Free

Photographer John Gevers documents Fort Wayne’s immigrant population

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader

2009-11-09


Although it is not always apparent, the Fort Wayne community truly is a plurality of culture, ethnicity, and origin. Often, one can find newspaper articles speaking of the quickly growing Burmese community, which is reported as the largest community outside of the present-day nation of Myanmar. However, Fort Wayne is also home to sizable populations of many other groups that do not get similar amounts of coverage in our media. John Gevers, photographer, videographer, and storyteller, would like to change that with his current project, "Yearning To Breathe Free."

John Gevers, director of photography and owner of New Media Brew, has been giving a voice and context to the lives of others with projects like the 2007 Telly Award winning "Faces United" project, or "Facing HIV/AIDS" an exhibition meant to put a clear face on the abstraction which any disease can become in popular culture, and thus dispel many assumptions associated with it. Gevers' personal goals in any project that he takes on are to affect change, and to break stigma involved in the human condition.

"Yearning to Breath Free" is just such a project, based upon the untold stories of the many Northeast Indiana immigrants and the conditions and tribulations they have endured during their journeys to the United States and those which have happened in their time being here. Gevers' focus and compassion allow him the perspective necessary for this documentary. "We have so much to learn from cultures that look so different from our own," he says. And his goals are nothing short of a cultural change; he wants people who see the documentary to "find peace between all of the cultures calling Northeast Indiana home."

With the United States' culture evolving more rapidly than ever, the need for this kind of honest introspection into our subcultures and ethnic communities grows and becomes demanding. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has taken an interest in Fort Wayne's unique mixture of culture, and has noted the importance of these cultures by working with Arts United for a few years now to help the assimilation process for these "New Hoosiers" through funding to make our arts organizations more culturally aware and diverse.

Currently, Fort Wayne and the surrounding area has very large populations of Burmese, Pakistani, Laotian, Vietnamese, Salvadorian, Mexican, Bulgarian immigrants and refugees (or as Duang Nwe Aye, a 16 year old Northside student who Gevers interviewed, says, "New Kids"). When one realizes that among these populations, there are still strong cultural differences based upon ethnicity, and religion (Christianity, Buddhism and Islam all currently large segments of Fort Wayne's Burmese population), the diversity nearly becomes palpable. As a direct result of this immigration and diversity, Fort Wayne is now home to more than 77 languages. "I want to be inclusive, but cannot be", Gevers admits, knowing that because of our area's diversity, he can only hope to create a compelling bid for others to explore and understand these rich cultures further.

"Yearning to Breath Free" is currently taking the form of a frequently updated website, with John Gevers' photography, and videos and transcripts of his interviews. The documentary examines the lives of a dozen refugees and immigrants, giving a clearer view of Fort Wayne and Northeast Indiana's ethnic and cultural diversity in a post 9/11 world. "I'm no Michael Moore", Gevers says, and adds that he also is "not an expert at all." He means that he is not going into this project with any agenda, and honestly cannot, because he has little idea what will come out of these interactions. While slowly learning how to accommodate his subjects, Gevers has had to use multiple translators, and slowly gain their trust over weeks and months.

Gevers' first post of "Yearing to Breath Free" gives us an intimate look at a Muslim Sunday School graduation in Fort Wayne, which included a great number of Burmese refugees. Gevers explains that even though he was not speaking their language, or taking part in the religious aspects of the event, he was made to feel extremely welcome and was able to experience this deep community. In Gevers' second post, we meet Mi Nar (pronounced Me Nah), a 99 year old woman who is also a Burmese refugee who has lived in Fort Wayne for less than one year. This is the roller-coaster ride that Gevers takes his viewers on with each glimpse into "Yearning to Breath Free". One cannot expect to predict the next interview or cultural event that will be posted, and will be astonished by each new story found in the process.

In addition to Gevers' broad, ambitious, and humble endeavor, he is exceedingly innovative in his use of his audience to assist him. By visiting his "Yearning to Breath Free" blog posts and adding to this dialogue by leaving comments, after reading through and listening to the transcripts, and watching the videos, Gevers' audience has the ability to ask questions of repeat interviewees, and give him suggestions and feedback all along this beautiful journey.

Stay updated on the "Yearning to Breath Free" documentary by visiting the website www.newmediabrew.com, and clicking on the link in the bottom right hand corner.

"Facing HIV/AIDS" with be exhibited at the Jeffrey Krull Gallery in the Allen County Public Library, November 21, 2009-January 10, 2010.

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