VISUAL ARTS | At Augsburg, photographs depict the Karen community “With Our Eyes”


Proving that art can bridge disparate cultures, With Our Eyes is a compelling series of photos that emerged from a collaborative effort between Augsburg College students paired up with high school students from the local Karen community. The young artists from both groups came together again on March 5 to celebrate the opening of the photo exhibit as part of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum held at Augsburg College over the weekend. (See related article: Nobel laureate offers advice for peacemakers at Augsburg College.) 

The Karen students dressed up in traditional hsay mo wah (light-colored dresses with colorful decorations) and hsay blo (men’s jackets with bright red stripes) and joined Augsburg students in proudly showing off their black and white photographs that lined the gallery walls. 19-year-old Thudoe Heh said she was excited to learn how to do photography, despite never really picking up a camera before this experience. She said she was surprised at how her own pictures looked after they were framed and hung on the gallery wall.

“I never thought it would look [as] good as it look[ed] today,” Heh said, beaming with pride.

The photo series provides intimate glimpses into the lives of the Karen people living in the Twin Cities, and also gives the viewer a perspective of the world coming from young Karen teenagers. Seven Augsburg college students were paired up individually with six Karen students from Arlington High School in St. Paul, many of whom had only moved to the United States a few years ago. Over five weeks last summer they were required to spend time together in and out of the classroom and also learning how to shoot and develop pictures from film. Instructor Susan Boecher said the arrangement helps push the class beyond just learning about photography, and expands their ability to communicate with others.

“Photography is a tool that engages the community and allows us to explore topics that are pressing,” Boecher said.

Group of people smiling

Many of the Karen, an ethnic minority in Myanmar, moved to the Twin Cities to seek refuge from the oppressive dictatorship ruling that country. Most of the Karen students involved in the project expressed they wanted to use the photo project as a way to bring more public attention to the local Karen community.

When asked why he decided to join the project, 16-year-old Hsa Pa Poh said he like meeting people but more importantly, it was an opportunity to show people through photos that “we are the Karen.”

The exhibit, which is on display through April 1, appears in Augsburg’s Gage Family Art Gallery and runs concurrently with Life on the Border, an exhibit of Robert Gerhardt’s photographs of the Karen in Burma. Gerhardt’s work is on display in the Christensen Center Art Gallery.