Monday, December 17, 2018

December 2018 Meet Our Artists: Pamela Kerpius

Our Members, Fiscally Sponsored Artists, and other program participants represent a wide range of career stages and disciplines. We love them - and, as fellow artists, we're always inspired by them. With this monthly feature, we hope you'll feel the same way!

Name: Pamela Kerpius

What do you do? I am the founder of the humanitarian storytelling organization, Migrants of the Mediterranean. It is a historical storybank of migrant journey stories aimed at bringing humanity back to what has mostly been called a political crisis in the Central Mediterranean. I write their stories so they don’t get lost. I write their stories so there is a historical record. I write for each migrant I meet so they can be seen as a person, not as a faceless figure on an inflatable boat or as a statistic in a newspaper.

What are you proud of? Reuniting with someone I have interviewed. There’s something unsure in an encounter with a stranger, and in my case, with migrants I meet just briefly on the island of Lampedusa. I never know if I’ll see them again. I share my contact information with each person I interview for their journey story, but it is up to them to stay in touch.

The truth is, I hear from many people almost immediately after they gain access to a mobile phone. But it is never short of a surprise when I finally find them in-person again in those new transfer towns and cities during their asylum proceedings. It seems like a thing of magic that you would find such a special person again after they have endured so much; so much in our individual lives diverge. And yet, there we are together. To find someone months or a year after that very fragile first meeting on the island––where maybe it has just been hours or days since they were rescued at sea––is a moment of magic. I am proud to have shared so many warm moments like these with the people who deserve it most.

What inspires you? People. I am fascinated by where people are from in a general sense. "Where are you from?" is a fundamental question I ask of anyone new I meet.

For the work and writing of Migrants of the Mediterranean, this question becomes crucial. It reveals the first layers of a migrant’s identity in a space where they are otherwise given one as an “invader,” a stereotype migrants suffer by many people right now in Italy, Europe, and also here in the US. When I ask that question to migrants as I meet them, their eyes light up. They feel a sense of dignity and pride, and they are reconnected to the humanity that each of them has had stripped away during the course of their journeys, and especially while they were trapped in Libya, tortured and enslaved.

Finding out where people are from opens us to the world. I am from New York City, and suddenly I have a sense of West African, East African, and Middle-Eastern identity. People have brought that to me so that I can bring it to you.


What are your goals? The goal in the end is to diminish fear of the other and to really learn to see people. In a lofty sense, the goal is to spread an eagerness to understand humanity, to seek it out. It seems to me all the answers to our problems are there. You can learn a lot by looking into a stranger’s eyes, and it is almost always divergent of what motivates us in the course of the average daily grind.

But to be more precise, the goal is to document the fragile journey stories of the people who have made the crossing through the Sahara desert, Libya, and then the treacherous Mediterranean Sea––to create a historical document. The people who have done this have a perspective on the world that practically all of us will never know. They cannot unsee the things that have been inflicted upon them. They will never wake up to a day that does not reintroduce moments of terror from that journey in their mind’s eye. This is quite something. Each person who did this continues living with that normalcy, and it is not normal; none of what they suffered is okay.

I would like to bring these stories to light, because in doing that people are able to see their pain and be relieved of it through the act of sharing it, not just with me––but with us, the listeners, who are their neighbors in fact. That pain is something we can share together. It creates empathy and understanding, of course, but just as important, it brings to light the textural history of their lives that we need to know so that we can live together better. We are here together. We have to learn to do that with softness and understanding. With these stories, I can inform people in the media, the arts, in public policy and in academia. These are the influencers who will create the foundation of how we live going forward, and who will help us articulate what we value. To be able to share the concrete details of a migrant's journey and their current quality of life after arrival is an incredibly rich source from which to work in order to create that. The truth is in there.

Of course, I also plan to write a memoir––so there are many goals in the works!

Do you have any advice for your fellow artists? You must trust your gut. Migrants of the Mediterranean is still a new and fledging organization, so it is with a bit of hesitancy that I answer this. But one thing is quite clear to me as I continue the work and writing of these journey stories, reunion stories, and the personal essay writing that accompanies it all, which is that to be successful, you have to believe in the thing you are doing. You have to trust your gut and go.

I have a background in academic film history, and then professionally in advertising. If you look at that alone there would be no reason to think I should be meeting and then writing about migrants from the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, and then doing it as a document of one of the most fraught moments in world history. But the moment I saw what was in front of me, I acted. There was no plan, no structure, not even a website at first; but I knew what I witnessed was bigger than my singular life, and without any pause I gave voice to it. I trusted my gut. It remains the first thing I have to go on, and it is right.

How does The Field help you? I am eternally thankful for an organization like The Field, because it gives me an opportunity to function as business at a time when it is administratively and fiscally impossible for Migrants of the Mediterranean to do so on its own. One of the biggest incentives for donors is to be able to receive a tax deduction for their contribution––and the process of providing that is not a simple one! That The Field does this on my behalf while at the same time supporting my vision helps me immensely.

It helps me stay financially afloat, it encourages donations to help me reach my next goal, and it ensures my incredibly generous donors will get the tax breaks they deserve. I thank The Field so much for their representation.

Click to enlarge images.
All content © Pamela Kerpius / Migrants of the Mediterranean

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 Migrants of the Mediterranean

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