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Faces of Hidden Violence
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Faces of Hidden Violence

In New Bedford, Mass., Mayan immigrants have been consistently targeted as victims of violent crime. Most of them are undocumented, and as a result, do not speak up.

Photojournalist Mary Beth Meehan spent more than six months gaining trust with members of the community and learning their stories. She said of her project: “This work is an attempt to visualize this situation, to understand who these people are, and to raise their stories – so that they might be seen and heard, and so that something might be done.”

The photos and stories about the victims were published in the Boston Globe, along with an interview with the town police chief. Police initially implied that the crimes occurred because the victims were drunk on payday. Mary Beth’s work prompted meetings between community groups and officials, who are now working together to reduce crime against the Mayan immigrants. She is continuing to follow the story, with updates on her blog.

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Mary Beth’s Story Behind the Story

During my IJJ fellowship I was introduced to Luis Argueta, and his film about the notorious Postville ICE raid. I began thinking about the 2007 ICE raid in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and I left the fellowship wondering about the residual effects on that community.

Yet when I got to New Bedford and began talking to people, I learned about a more pressing issue: that Mayan Guatemalan immigrants were routinely being robbed in violent attacks, that they were suffering profound injuries, and that the problem was ongoing.

Santos, a survivor of the civil war in Guatemala and now, a brutal robbery in New Bedford, Mass. Photo by Mary Beth Meehan.

Initial conversations with police implied that the victims were to blame for their “extreme intoxication” on the night of payday. Yet I began hearing that the attacks were happening in broad daylight to people simply walking home from work, riding their bicycles to a friend’s house, or doing their shopping. Most were workers in the city’s fishing industry, and many were parents – in some cases children were present at the time of the attacks.

It was clear that there was no real energy at City Hall, in the police department, or in the larger community toward addressing the problem. I became motivated to meet the victims and tell their stories.

In many ways, this was one of the most difficult projects I’ve ever worked on. The very reason that I was so motivated to pursue this work – that there was a grave problem happening to an “invisible” population within our community – was what made it so difficult to address. Victims were in most cases undocumented immigrants, and were afraid to report the crimes and their injuries to police. They were equally afraid to talk to a journalist, much less to be photographed and identified.

I am a photographer, and felt it was critical to portray victims as human beings within the community. The social service workers who first educated me about the problem were my primary “gateway” to meeting victims, which became both a blessing and a curse. While they were eager to raise awareness they were also – understandably – protective of victims, wary of making them ever more vulnerable. It took many weeks of my showing up, having conversations, and effectively convincing people of my intentions before first introductions were made. Once I had the “blessing” of one community advocate, in particular, I was able to meet victims, and they began to tell me their stories.

Because I worked digitally, I was able to show people their portraits on the back of my camera, giving them the chance to decide whether they felt comfortable with the way they would be portrayed. In most cases, at their request, I obscured peoples’ identities and changed their names.

Still, many were so nervous to cooperate with me. In some cases I went to agreed-upon appointments only to be stood up; one person went through with having her portrait made, only to reject it once she saw it on the back of my camera. I had never given a “subject” this much control, or worked this collaboratively before. Yet it eased my mind to know that people went away from our meetings with some sense of control – the last thing I wanted was for my work to create more fear in them.

My week at IJJ gave me a much richer and more complex understanding of the issues a community like this one faces, and the ability to think more critically about the problem as a whole. Especially working independently as I do, contact with IJJ fellows and advisors became essential. Dianne Solis was especially helpful and generous with her time. She helped me understand the national issue of “payday robberies,” the local implications of pursuing the story, and she helped me think through nuts-and-bolts issues like how to get access to police reports.

Once I began photographing, Phuong Ly advised me to set up a blog and post the images and narratives as I went along. This made me uneasy – as I’d never published something that wasn’t “done” before – yet posting images and texts as I began allowed me to 1) get advice and feedback from other fellows and journalists, 2) show the work to community members in New Bedford to gain their trust and cooperation, and 3) send the work to various publication outlets for consideration. It was through reading and spending time with my blog, entitled “Seen/Unseen,” that the Sunday Ideas editor at the Boston Globe decided to run the piece.

A selection of portraits and edited interviews were published in a full center-spread in the Ideas section of the Boston Sunday Globe, as well as an online gallery of images and stories. (It took months of waiting for an available full-color spread in their schedule, as they wanted to prioritize the photography in the display.)

Readers’ responses have ranged from shock at the issue to anger at the local powers-that-be, to disbelief. One person wrote: “I want to thank you for making me cry this morning with your work in New Bedford,” and then proposed a New Bedford-based
reading of a play he’d written about the Guatemalan civil war. A couple of readers talked about having broken hearts and being “brought to tears,” and have pledged to send victims financial support.

Since the story ran, a conversation has opened up in New Bedford between an immigrants rights group and the city about establishing a bus route for fish house workers on late-night /early morning shifts. The story sparked meetings between community groups, the police department, the mayor’s office, and the law school at the local college, with new initiatives proposed to help curb the problem. And I have noticed that a new reporter has been put on the issue by the local paper, and has published a couple of stories since my piece ran.

Unbelievably, though, the reporter did his first story through a ride-along with the police. He wrote that, during the ride-along, “The Standard-Times approached eight Central Americans and asked to speak with them about the problem of violence against immigrants. All refused.” Then he quoted the owner of a Mexican restaurant as saying “A lot of the people don’t want to talk to police because they believe the police won’t do anything.” So the local reporter never found a way to speak with – or tell the story from the point of view of – a victim.

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