Friday, November 6, 2009

The face of Darfur behind the wheel of a taxi cab

By Joe Maniscalco

An entire ocean and half a continent separates Brooklyn from the suffering and dying in Darfur, Sudan — but you don’t have to look that hard to see the human cost.

“The world is small,” says documentary photographer Damian Wampler. “There is no such thing as a far away country or a distant land anymore.”

To glimpse the reality of Darfur for a compelling new photo series included in a School of Visual Arts exhibition called “Surface Tension” (now on view through November 14), Wampler, 32, only had to train his camera lens on one Brooklyn cabbie named Omer Omar.

About four-and-a-half years ago, Omar, now 30, won a green card lottery in Sudan that allowed him to emigrate to the United States.Today Omar is one of over 300 Darfuri refugees residing in the Kensington section of Brooklyn.

“It’s good,” Omar says. “Here is safer than in Darfur. I found nice people here.”

As appealing as Brooklyn is, Omar’s thoughts are never far from the 20 members of his extended family back home in Sudan who rely on his modest taxi cab salary to help them survive.

“My family is not safe,” admits Omar, whose father passed away two years ago. “One brother, I don’t know where he is. Friends told me they saw him outside their village, but I haven’t talked to him in three years.”

The sad fact is, Omar says, “Genocide continues in Darfur. People die everyday.”

Wampler started out his “Darfur in Brooklyn” photo project documenting the lives of the greater Darfuri community in Kensington, but soon came to the conclusion that Omar alone could represent the “face” of the refugee population.

“The tragedy of Darfur is forcing people like Omar to move all around the world to live a life that isn’t theirs,” Wampler explains.

The Delaware transplant, SVA graduate and former Park Slope resident, calls his friend Omar “an accidental American.”

Through stark, but intimate photographs of Omar — some behind the wheel of his yellow taxi cab, others waiting on the slushed-covered streets of Brooklyn — Wampler finds a man driven by a love of family, and yet someone profoundly and sadly alone.

“What impressed me the most about this group of photographers is how fearless each one of them is in capturing their subjects,” “Surface Tension” curator Dan Halm says. “From technical know-how to emotional impact, they all move beyond what one comes to expect within the realm of digital photography.”

For “Darfur in Brooklyn,” Wampler says he made a conscious choice to venture far outside the usual boundaries of what constitutes normal photojournalism.

“I create mood pieces that show how I interpreted this man’s feelings instead of using the language of traditional photojournalism, in which the photographer assumes much more responsibility for the content of the image,” Wampler says. “I leave each picture open to interpretation.”

On most days over the four-month period Wampler spent with Omar, he says the two passed the time just hanging out and talking. “We’d drive around in the cab or he’d run errands. It wouldn’t be until the very end when I would take out my camera.”

Omar says he hopes people will see his photos and want to ask questions about what’s happening in Darfur. After all, Wampler says, “It’s not far away — it’s right here.”

Brooklyn in Darfur” is now showing at the School of Visual Arts as part of the “Surface Tension” exhibit. The show runs through November 14. Gallery hours are Monday thru Friday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.SVA is located at 209 East 23rd Street in Manhattan. For more information, or to purchase exhibited work call 212-592-2145.


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