GABRIELE STABILE: The Refugee Motel
April 26, 2010
I first met Gabriele Stabile in 2009, when he was the very last on a long list of photographers to present their portfolio for review. After hours of looking and talking about work, I remember being completely drained, unable to speak in coherent sentences any longer and feeling just terrible that someone would have to meet with me in this condition.
Fortunately, Gabriele appeared at the table, and his incredibly warm, understanding, and undemanding demeanor—as well as his stunning collection of images—both relaxed and reinvigorated me straight away. For his work on “The Refugee Motel,” Gabriele was recognized by Photo District News as one of the 30 emerging photographers of 2010. Seeing these photographs all over again, I had to reach out to get the story.
What was the inspiration to begin the “The Refugee Motel” project ?
Gabriele Stabile: In 2007, when I was studying photography at the ICP and reading the Times, I stumbled upon a story on the paper that featured an account of the arrival of a family of Ethiopian refugees in New York. Around that time I didn’t have a place to stay either, although I wasn’t fleeing war or certain death. But at some subtle level, I felt attracted by the idea of shooting a story on displacement.
I also wanted to photograph people on the verge of a huge change in their lives, on the cusp, between two kinds of uncertainty, past and future. I went to the hotel in the story and got kicked out right away as the Times story had caused a real media frenzy. But I got back and kept on coming back. What was a news story, became, for me a study on the surreal atmosphere that pervades these arrivals, and loneliness, dreams and expectations.
How do you connect with your subjects and gain access during what is such an incredibly transformative and vulnerable period in their lives ?
GS: I believe that despite the language barriers, and cultural differences, human beings are naturally inclined to be open and to communicate. Telling stories, the instinct of communication is what differentiate the man from the cow or the goose. So I exploit that instinct by showing them that I am genuinely interested in sharing those first moments of their new lives with them. Things that we give for granted like the furniture in a motel room, or electricity or the shower or the AC, are novelties for them, I help, a little, and they trust me. I may not be Cartier-Bresson but I have very good human skills—that and I’m a good soccer player.
There is a somber sadness and isolation that penetrates your photographs. What is it like to be with people and families who have had to leave everything behind?
GS: I agree, well, sometimes it gets pretty dark, but funnily enough not everybody has the same impression on those photos… I was having this conversation with Phil Bicker really recently. A photograph is the quintessential ambiguous medium. Winogrand taught us that, he said it so clearly!
In photographing people from around the globe, all of whom come to United States to make something better for themselves and their children, what quality has struck you about the human condition ?
GS: Old people couldn’t care less about America, they just can’t see it. They know for a fact that they gonna die far away from home. No matter how much war ridden and dangerous home is, is still home to them. This nostalgia, you can see it in their eyes. For some people it’s not newsworthy. Colleagues have criticized harshly my interest in this story, or my determination in making a book out of it, but to me it was well worthy, I felt like I was waiting for them on the shore of salvation.
You are from Italy, and while you are not a refugee, you too have chosen to make the U.S. your home. What are the similarities and differences from your perspective as a foreigner who has chosen to live in this country?
GS: It’s hard to say, I am a privileged traveler that decided to be based here. They come fleeing hunger, war, genocide, sometimes certain death. I woke up one morning and came on a student visa and started my life here (although among a few difficulties some of which are still actual today), while they can wait years and years to have their visa issued.
I once photographed a man that had waited seven years to talk to me in some anonymous hotel room on the road to LAX. But differences and discrepancies tend to blur when we are in their room, me with my camera, them with their few belongings, their dignity and their generosity. I believe it’s an act of generosity, to let me come so close to them, to their life. At that point we’re all guests of the refugee hotel.