Agawam Public Library Exhibit Highlights Mark Chester’s Photographs of Massachusetts’ New Americans

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Photojournalist and Springfield native Mark Chester is the son of immigrants.

With a family that immigrated to the United States from Belarus, he knows the multicultural fabric of our country well.

This is partly what inspired him to undertake a photographic look at the newly naturalized citizens of Massachusetts.

An exhibition of more than 30 black and white framed photos from his collection, “The Bay State: A Multicultural Landscape-Photographs of New Americans, is exhibited this month at Agawam Public Library.

The photos were taken at work or at home, capturing glimpses of the lives of new citizens on their journey to the American dream. During the continuation of his project, Chester photographed more than 300 people who now reside in the Commonwealth, including those living in Springfield from Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

The footage captures a cardiologist at a veterans’ hospital, a doctor in an operating room, a tango instructor and a Taiwanese chef whose citizenship documents were proudly framed in the restaurant, said Chester, a 1963 graduate of the Classical. Highschool.

“They are amazed and honored,” he said. “It felt like I had traveled all over the world without leaving the state. I appreciated that people reacted positively to this subject and four years later I had enough photos to print.

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The flash of inspiration for the collection came in Chester in 1979, he said. He was on a mission, taking photos of Ellis Island off New York, once the nation’s busiest immigrant processing center, to use to illustrate an essay in Charles Kuralt’s book, “Dateline America.”

“I thought to myself, as a first generation, with my family coming from Minsk, Belarus,” Chester said. “It’s exactly the same as when the first wave of immigrants came to the United States.”

His curiosity and desire were aroused again while working at the San Francisco Examiner on an assignment on the sister cities of Shanghai and San Francisco.

“During this mission, I took photos of the vice mayor of Shanghai and our mayor,” he said.

Chester traveled to China in 1987 to document daily life, later publishing the “Shanghai: In Black and White” collection.

His idea to focus on immigrant stories came up once again after he moved to Cape Cod in 2011 while reading a story in the Boston Globe, Chester said. In the article, former Governor Deval Patrick was quoted speaking about the enrichment and the impact that the immigrant population has had on the Commonwealth.

“I was curious about the different nationalities, and I started looking at the 2010 census,” Chester said.

His Bay State project is inspired by his previous “Shanghai: In Black and White”.

Chester has worked to meet and photograph people from the 180 countries represented in Massachusetts. He has attended naturalization ceremonies, including events at federal courthouses in Springfield, Fitchburg and Boston.

He also worked with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to connect with people in the pool of new citizens.

“I met families from Russia,” Chester said. “Out of the 54 countries in Africa, I met someone from 53 countries. … It was good to meet them all.

The Mark Chester Diversity Project soon became a nonprofit with sponsorship from the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, which Chester says legitimized and gave credibility to the project.

“These powerful photographs create a visual archive that celebrates the great diversity of Massachusetts citizens,” Agawam Library said in an announcement for the exhibit. “The photographs of these New Americans enrich the viewer by sharing the vast cultural resources and rich ethnic heritage of the Bay State’s 351 cities.”

The collection was first displayed in Waltham and has since traveled to more than 100 venues, art spaces and courthouses across the state. It is on display during regular library hours Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Sunderland Public Library also has a current display of some of Chester’s works.

From September to December, the exhibit will travel to various locations, including the Emily Williston Memorial Library in Easthampton. Additionally, a selection of over 50 photographs is part of the Springfield Museums collection.

Chester’s plans include printing copies to be given free to the 351 main libraries and their branches.

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