‘Unaccompanied’ gives a glimpse into the lives of immigrating children

By Jordan Perkins, Staff Reporter

The exhibition includes a Chicago flag mural, which was created by children at a Heartland Alliance shelter. Jordan Perkins

Stuffed animals brought into the country by immigrant children are among the personal objects depicted in “Unaccompanied,” a campus exhibition by Jonathan Michael Castillo, a 2019 photography alum and adjunct faculty member.

Castillo’s exhibition at the C33 Gallery, 33 E. Ida B. Wells Drive, takes a look at a specific population of immigrants: children of varying ages arriving in the country by themselves.

The exhibition is funded by the Diane Dammeyer Columbia Fellowship in Photographic Arts and Social Issues and shows images of the Heartland Alliance’s children’s shelters in Chicago, occupied by children who arrived in the U.S. unaccompanied by parents.

The fellowship was created in 2014 by Diane Dammeyer, a 1999 photography alum, to fund work from photographers that highlight human rights and social issues. The fellowship partnered with the Heartland Alliance, a human rights organization, from 2019 to 2021 for Castillo’s exhibition.

While studying photography at Columbia, Dammeyer was on the Heartland Alliance’s board of directors and took photos for the organization, eventually combining the work she was doing with the Heartland Alliance with her coursework. Dammeyer said doing human rights work made her realize the access she had to social issues and people in need, which inspired her to start the fellowship.

“I saw many benefits in photographing real life that the other students didn’t have … and I wanted others to have that same benefit,” Dammeyer said.

Mark Porter, the senior exhibition coordinator for the Department of Exhibitions, Performance and Student Spaces, said the team at DEPS focuses on featuring exhibitions that raise awareness of current issues in the country.

“[‘Unaccompanied’] just has such a strong value, and it’s really important for people to see,” Porter said. “It has so much power because it shines a light on the difficult immigration policy in this country.”

Pictures of crafts made by the children supplement the photos of the shelter. Jordan Perkins

From the start of his fellowship in 2019, Castillo said he wanted to cover the topic of immigration in his work, and he was able to visit the different Heartland Alliance children’s shelters in Chicago.

Castillo said upon starting his work with the Heartland Alliance, he had to get creative with the photographs and the story they were going to tell, since he could not photograph the children living in the shelters for legal reasons, saying the children are a “vulnerable population.”

Castillo started to find the crafts the children made in the shelter, as well as letters they wrote to staff, and said those objects were a helpful visual component.

Accompanying the shelter photos on the walls of the gallery are pictures of crafts the children made, such as piñatas ranging from cartoon characters to different animals, plus paintings and drawings of outdoor settings and beaded bracelets.

The mural of the Chicago flag in the gallery was created by children living in the shelters. Castillo said the mural provided another opportunity for the children to be visibly represented through this exhibition.

“Once the mural and paintings came in, I realized that was another way I can get the kids involved and have their influence seen more in the work,” Castillo said.

Castillo said he hopes people viewing the exhibition understand that children arriving in the U.S. by themselves are from all over the world, and the immigration experience is not monolithic.

“There’s all kinds of different motivations,” Castillo said. “I want people to see the exhibition and break some of those stereotypes.”

The gallery runs through Monday, Nov. 29 and is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test from the past 72 hours is required for entrance.