HIGHLAND PARK, NJ – Her short-cropped hair and well-pressed dress are clues that the woman in the passport photos was a high school or college student. The fact that she never went back to the photographer and paid for this sheet of prints suggests she gave up on a dream.
James R. Long salvaged them and those of others during his time as an art teacher in Ghana with the Peace Corps about 20 years ago.
“Unclaimed,” a show running at the B. Beamesderfer Gallery on North 2nd Avenue until the end of the month, is one man’s attempt to honor uncompleted journeys preserved in black and white. And if not honor them, in a way, complete them.
“So, getting a passport is the first step in a long process toward getting a visa to come to the United States,” Long said. “There was little hope in Ghana. For many, the dream was to come here for a better life.
“There was a photographer there that would take photos for passports and he had a stack of these that people had not gone back for, unclaimed. I was thinking about what that meant that they never went back to claim these photos. The fact they never went back to claim these photos, you would have to assume they didn’t even get past the stage of getting their passport. You would have to assume they never made it here.”
The images were printed in a Warholian repetition of four, with two upside down and two right side up. Each gives a clue as to the identity of the face staring back.
There’s a young woman with eyes as big as a full moon over the Gulf of Guinea. There’s a young man with matching scars on both cheeks, which likely means he was sick as s child and a medicine man cut his face so the evil spirits would not recognize him.
The photos are encased in frames built by Long, a sculptor at heart and an art teacher at the Greater Brunswick Charter School by trade. The frames were made to resemble metal bars and they hint at a more recent immigration emergency at the Mexican border and the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe.
“We were seeing these images of kids in cages at the border,” said Long, a New Brunswick resident. “I can’t help but to feel that played into it, too.”
Other passport images of young men and women from Ghana have been etched into glass cubes and rendered three-dimensional. Long carried over the metal bar symbolism when he created stands for them. Out front are two enlarged images hanging in the gallery window.
To bring everything full circle, the sale of the images will help African students get an education through Africa’s Tomorrow.
“A friend of mine started a not for profit, he helps students from different countries in Africa come to the United States to get an education. The idea there is they take that education back to their own country and the proceeds to this go to that. The sale of this is helping them escape poverty and get a better way of life.”
The B. Beamesderfer Gallery is located at 6 North 2nd Ave. in Highland Park. It is open Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.