When photographer Angie Smith visited her parents in the picturesque northwestern town of Boise, Idaho, approximately five years ago, she had no idea how it would lead to a future photography project. While she was there, Smith began to notice a growing presence of refugees in Boise.
Boise has a surprisingly large number of refugees from Bhutan, Sudan, Somalia, and more. Smith says that she would often see refugees walking to and from the grocery store, laundromat, or other common places in town.
“Idaho is one of the last places you’d expect to see refugees,” she says. “There’s a visual contrast between the backdrop of Boise—which is a mix of beautiful, lush outdoor locations and classic suburban new developments—and these refugees, many of whom wear traditional clothing.”
To Smith, this seemed like an ideal photo story. But she didn’t expect the roadblocks she’d encounter. Smith started reaching out to organizations in Boise but had little luck in making solid connections.
“Refugees’ lives are very sensitive, and some of them could be in danger, so a lot of the organizations wanted to keep their lives private,” she says. “Even back then I knew it was going to be a really important project.”
Discouraged by her inability to gain access to the communities in Boise, Smith stopped pursuing the project and went on with her life.
A year or so later is when a breakthrough came. Smith tore her MCL on a skiing trip and returned to Boise to recover. While she was there, she met a Congolese refugee named Rita, and the two became fast friends.
Rita opened doors for Smith that had previously been closed, and Smith began the slow and time-intensive process of building relationships with many of the individual refugee communities. According to Smith, the Congolese community in particular is robust, and she says that they are some of the most welcoming people she’s encountered.
Smith says that she began to offer the refugees the opportunity to have a formal family portrait taken, something that many of them would not have had access to before. With the help of a writer named Hanne Steen, she also began interviewing her subjects after photographing them to document their story.
“We would not only talk about their past, but their present lives, what it was like to adjust to life in America, what it’s like to live in Idaho, how they envision their future and how that has changed,” she says. “There’s an almost emotional and spiritual exchange that happens. After I photograph someone, they become my friend. I’ve gotten to know the most incredible people through this process.”
She says that at the time, refugees didn’t dominate the news the way they do today. Few people understood their plight and struggles or even understood the concept of being a refugee.
Smith says that she wanted the portraits to show the contrast between Boise’s surroundings and the distinct style of each refugee.
“I think people often have this perception that Idaho just has potatoes and white supremacists, along with a few other stereotypes,” Smith says. “I wanted to highlight the beauty of Idaho, but I also try to photograph the refugees wearing some article of clothing that they used to wear in their home country. I want the pictures to be a real representation of who they are.”
For Smith, who is currently raising money through Kickstarter to fund future iterations of the project, this project has also been incredibly rewarding on a personal level.
“Every aspect of working with the refugee community has brought me joy and a greater sense of connection and community,” she says. “My hope is that people will feel that same sense of inspiration and heart expansion. I want it to bring people together and change people’s perceptions of refugees. I want the pictures to show the diversity and the incredible contributions that the refugees are making to the Boise community. I want people to invite refugees into their lives.”
To support Angie Smith’s work on refugees in Boise, donate to her Kickstarter project.