After a planned exhibition fell through in 2017, San Antonio photographer Ramin Samandari thought – even hoped – there might not be a reason to show his Huddled Masses project.
Instead, due to the continuing relevance of immigration, the ancestry-focused portrait project has found a home at the UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC). Huddled Masses: Who We Are opens Saturday, Sept. 7, with a reception open to the public from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
The project is a collection of 300 portraits featuring people holding whiteboard placards on which they’ve written details of their ethnic heritage. In the wake of the last presidential election, Samandari was motivated to explore his own experience as an immigrant.
“Right from the get-go during the candidacy and post-election, there was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment coming from the White House. I thought about doing this project to talk about the history of this country,” he said, which was “made by immigrants.”
Samandari arrived in 1978 as an Iranian immigrant looking to attend medical school, then return home, “but things didn’t go that way,” he said. He moved to West Texas, where he lived for a decade before settling in San Antonio.
Huddled Masses was originally intended for a Tricentennial exhibition at Hemisfair, but funding fell through, and the project was only realized in limited form at the Luminaria contemporary art festival in 2018.
When he began the project, he was in a hurry to “get it out there,” he said, but thought that after one season of the new presidential term, “maybe the rhetoric [would] change, maybe go away. Unfortunately it didn’t go away, and only got more intense.”
Samandari derived his title from the Emma Lazarus poem gracing the tablet held by the Statue of Liberty, the most famous stanzas of which read:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me
But recently, Samandari heard a White House official reinterpreting the poem on radio. “He said, ‘Yeah, of course we want the huddled masses,’ and he added ‘those who can stand on their own two feet.’ That’s certainly not part of the poem, and not the intention.”
The Huddled Masses gained new relevance, and drew the attention of Christian Clark, director of public engagement at the ITC. Clark not only wanted to exhibit the project, but also acquired it for the institute’s permanent collection.
The 300 portraits, collected as large-scale, multiple-portrait prints, will be displayed near the entrance, as “a wonderful introduction to everything the ITC represents,” Clark said.
Samandari reached out through social media, and anyone interested in participating in the project could sit for a portrait. The location of Samandari’s studio in the popular Blue Star Arts Complex helped attract a diversity of subjects, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg; Shahrzad “Sherry” Dowlatshahi, the City of San Antonio’s chief of protocol at the Office of International Relations; and poet Naomi Shihab Nye.
Huddled Masses also served as an educational exercise for both the photographer and those being photographed, Samandari said. Some were reluctant to consider themselves immigrants, until conversation asked them to consider their ethnic heritage.
“They forget maybe their ancestors came from lots of different places. As new as this country is, there’s sort of a collective amnesia” that the nation was founded by immigrants, he said.
The photographer also learned important things about his community. “To me the most gratifying reward is that San Antonio is so diverse, and you can’t make any assumptions, looking at someone, where their ancestral origin might be from.”
Huddled Masses: Who We Are will be on view at the ITC during regular hours, following the Sept. 7 opening. Check the website for more information.