Buffalo, N.Y., is shrinking. Like others Rust Belt cities, it lost its manufacturing base and—with it—more than half of its population since 1950.

But throughout the region, one community is growing: refugees. From Iraqis in Detroit to Bosnians in Utica, Afghans is Schenectady to Burmese in Buffalo, a new wave of immigration is reconstituting the working class—and the cultural landscape—of these former industrial powerhouses.

Buffalo is home to 4,000 Burmese refugees, the city's fastest growing immigrant group. They are filling vacancies on the West Side, one of the city's most blighted neighborhoods, where many homes have an "X" spray painted over their paint-curled facades, the mark for demolition. Housing is cheap but jobs are scarce, and only 10-15 percent of new arrivals speak English.

I propose a digital color photography project telling the story of the Burmese community in Buffalo. How are they surviving in a city that still has not recovered from the collapse of heavy industry thirty years ago? Is it possible to be upwardly mobile in such a place? What political and cultural traditions do they bring, and how will these shape Buffalo's future?

I shot a short documentary for nine days in Buffalo this fall. I would like to return for a month this August to profile three Burmese refugees using the fly-on-the-wall reporting skills I learned from spending four months last semester intimately profiling one woman living in a residential hotel.

This project follows a tradition of documentary photography examining social inequality in America, from Dorothea Lange's Depression-era portraiture to Milton Rogovin's forty-year chronicle of Buffalo's industrial workers. Today, the power of their photography as social critique has been muted by nostalgia for an idealized America built by honest hands and honest struggle—a narrative that excludes today's newest immigrants. I hope to restore critical power to this tradition by documenting the new faces of Buffalo's West Side, the very neighborhood Rogovin once photographed.

I have already made many contacts in Buffalo and identified fixers: Anna Falicov, who has written an ethnography of Buffalo's Burmese community, and Law Eh Soe, a recent Burmese refugee and photojournalist who chronicled the pro-democracy uprising in Burma two years ago.

The series will be printed as a book with text and packaged online as a series of audio slideshows.

Vanessa Carr
November 2010