Prem and Mana Bhattarai were among the thousands of people the Bhutanese government stripped of their citizenship during the early 1990s, forcing them to leave their homes and flee the country. They met in a refugee camp in Nepal, where they spent two decades and had their children, before suddenly being resettled in Winooski.
The resettlement of refugees in Vermont has been a controversial issue from the beginning. But it inspired photographer Michelle Saffran and writer David French to collaborate on an art exhibit that would focus on what for them is the root of the issue: humanity.
“Anything that can give faces and voices to the people in this challenging situation is worth doing, I think,” French said by phone recently.
“To connect with the deeper humanity there and not get carried away with the fact that these people came from a different place,” Saffran said about its inspiration.
And there were no two people better suited to tell the story.
French has spent half his adult life living outside the United States, and Saffran has been capturing moments in family life throughout her career. Their combined experiences became the perfect combination for collaboration.
“A New American Family,” a panoramic exhibit in text and photos, is currently on display at the B&G Gallery in Rutland through May 4.
It’s the product of having spent a year with the Bhattarais, who welcomed them into their lives and were willing to open up about their experiences. The exhibit includes photos of the family and tales in their own words about their journey.
“The idea was to tell the stories of a remarkable group of people,” French said. “And in Rutland there’s been a rather complicated experience, welcoming (refugees) or not, and seeing them integrated into the society.”
“We had thought of doing two or three families as a comparative experience, but it turned out to be so engaging to have the one family,” he added.
“I wanted to do a project where I could get to know people more in depth,” Saffran said, “something where I was working with people in their homes. That (was) the inspiration for this project, plus the politics at the time, and so much terrible talk about people from other countries. It made me feel we need to put a human face on these people that were getting a bit demonized.”
“I’m really interested in the role of the photograph to just confirm that we exist and to make sense of our past,” she added.
French’s text included historical research about where the Bhattarais came from, woven into what the family had to say about their own experience. He and Saffran had decided before beginning the project about some of the information they wanted to include — how they got to the refugee camp, how long they lived there, what did they do there.
“But, as far as the pictures, I really just wanted to show their lives,” Saffran said.
Piecing together the exhibit, French says, was “a process of discovery of how to negotiate slightly varying points of view to see how we could come up with a final product.” From pages of interview transcripts and a year’s worth of photos, they strung together what felt like the most important elements of their story.
“Partly to affirm within the community the importance of the stories of people like this who have been through this extraordinary experience,” Saffran said.
“(It’s) an introduction to a wonderful family who are enriching the local community,” French added. “It might be fun to just come and see who they are, and what they’re up to.”