Saturday 22 July 2017

These Times Square phone booths are telling the stories of immigrant families

Aman Mojadidi hopes that “people can listen and connect to the personal story” of whoever’s on the other end of the line.

(Brian William Waddell/FT SET for Times Square Arts)
(Brian William Waddell/FT SET for Times Square Arts)

By Kameron Virk

An interactive installation in Times Square is putting immigrant voices front and centre.

Aman Mojadidi’s Once Upon A Place invites New Yorkers to enter one of three re-purposed phone booths, pick up the receiver and listen to people tell their own stories on why and how they arrived in America.

“I often think of the young man carried at the age of three on his mother’s back, across the Mexican border, who’s now an advocate for immigrant rights,” Mojadidi, who’s himself the child of Afghan immigrants, said about the stories that stuck with him.

The installation consists of over 70 people’s stories, lasting anywhere between two and 15 minutes, and Mojadidi hopes that “people can listen and connect to the personal story” instead of potentially viewing immigrants as a monolith.

He said: “Being born to parents who migrated from Afghanistan in the 60s made the subject (of immigration) a part of my life growing up. And it has been an ongoing theme, in various forms, through much of my creative practice. But I wanted to do an urban piece on migration in NYC, the city that is the international symbol of a place built, literally and figuratively, by immigrants.”

The stories were recorded over a period of months, as part of his residency with Times Square Arts, and are told either in English or the person’s mother tongue.

Messages are by people who’ve come from the likes of Bangladesh and Burkina Faso to Colombia, Russia, Spain and Yemen.

In addition to the recorded messages, visitors can also open the phone book inside each booth and read more about the storytellers’ communities, both in New York and in the countries they’ve travelled from, as well as leave some words about their own journey.

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(Brian William Waddell/FT SET for Times Square Arts)

Close to 800 languages are currently spoken in New York, a city where a third of the citizens are foreign-born.

Some of those who Mojadidi spoke to had arrived in the US due to social or political upheaval in their countries of origin, while others came to seek the opportunities the country has to offer.

Immigration is a hot topic not just in US but across Europe too, and Mojadidi hopes the “humanity” can be heard in every voice in his installation.

The three phone booths used for the installation were three of the last to be removed from New York’s streets and have been reinstalled especially for this.

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