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‘Quiet Heroes’ photo exhibit celebrates elderly survivors

The L.A. Artcore collection of black-and-white portraits, many of immigrants who fled war, is meant as a tribute to the subjects’ long lives and perseverance.

April 29, 2010|By Anna Gorman | Los Angeles Times

Their expressions are solemn, their smiles subtle, their postures proud. One clenches his fists in the air, another stares intently at the Bible.

There is a 96-year-old former Thai tennis champion who helped found the Wat Thai Temple in North Hollywood. An 88-year-old Polish woman who helped hide Jews during World War II. An 88-year-old Iranian professor who said, "Tragedy has made my softer skin hide behind a harder one."

Their photographs and stories are part of a new exhibit called "Quiet Heroes/Over 80." The exhibit at the L.A. Artcore Brewery Annex near downtown Los Angeles runs through Sunday. The photographer, Barry Shaffer, said he wanted to create a tribute to people who have endured war and conflict, left homes behind and survived in a rapidly changing world.

"They have lived long lives, they have emigrated here, created families, created communities," Shaffer said. "They have coined the ‘American dream.' "

There are 37 intimate black-and-white portraits — 34 of immigrants from around the world, including Vietnam, Australia, El Salvador and Armenia. There are also two African Americans in the exhibit and one Native American, a descendant of the original settlers who founded Los Angeles.

They include teachers, religious leaders, delivery people, civil servants, factory workers, authors and doctors. They are all from the Los Angeles area. Many have great-grandchildren. Eight have died since being photographed.

Shaffer said the project was his "naive" way of trying to find some answers about why there was still so much intolerance and conflict around the world.

"Who better to ask these questions than those who have experienced that?" he said.

Shaffer said that among the recurrent themes he heard in conversations with his subjects were the importance of strong leaders, faith and education.

Late last week, Nlongi Mfwilwakanda, 88, from the Congo, held onto his walker and looked around the room at the portraits.

"I see people who have fought to open doors of consideration and acceptance of one another," he said.

Mfwilwakanda recalled learning the alphabet by writing with his fingers in the dirt under a tree. In 1961, he said, he came to study at USC and met President Kennedy as part of a group of students from Africa. In the Congo, he worked as a schoolteacher and administrator, helping establish a network of Protestant schools.

Now, he lives in Pasadena and works as a minister.

Wearing thick glasses and a silver tie, Mfwilwakanda speaks often of the influence of faith in his life and said, "Every life should have a legacy."

"From Africa and writing on the ground to this position is a long journey," he said.

His daughter, Martine A. Mfwilwakanda, said seeing her father's portrait was touching to her.

"He taught me faith and perseverance," she said. "My father is like AAA for me. Every time I need advice, I call him."

Alisa Cohen, 83, was born in Ukraine and lived in Uzbekistan, Poland, Israel and South Korea before arriving in the U.S. more than 20 years ago. As a young girl in Uzbekistan, Cohen said, she didn't have access to soap, water, electricity or even much food.

"People were dying from starvation," she said. "All the food was going to the Army."

Even now, Cohen said, she doesn't waste anything, not even crumbs.

Cohen, who lives in Northridge and teaches piano, spends her free time square-dancing and doing aerobics. Seeing her portrait for the first time, she said she barely knew it was her.

"I never look in the mirror," she said. "I am older in the mirror. Inside I feel young."

With her gray hair pulled neatly into a bun, Cohen walked slowly around the room and read the words of those photographed. "These are people who went through very difficult lives," she said.

Shaffer and his wife, Barbara, a marriage and family therapist, began the project in 2006 and sought out their subjects at restaurants, community groups, churches, nail salons and street fairs.

"We didn't know who we were going to meet," she said. "We didn't know if they were rice farmers or self-made billionaires."

They conducted lengthy interviews, asking questions such as: Other than good luck and genes, what are the ingredients to living a long life? What life lessons do you apply to handle the hardships and obstacles of life? What advice do you have for younger generations?

Aroon Seeboonruang, 96, the former tennis champion from Thailand, walked into the exhibit with a cane. When he saw himself on the wall, he made a thumbs up and said, "I look handsome."

But then he turned to Shaffer and laughed. "That looks like an old man!"

"Something was wrong with the camera," Shaffer told him, smiling. "It had to be."

anna.gorman@latimes.com

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