Harvey Finkle’s photographs illustrate the daily lives and capture the intense spirit of those members of our society who can often go unnoticed—the homeless child, the returning prisoner, the unpaid worker, the deaf culture activist, all find a place on the other side of Finkle’s lens. Scroll through the images on his site and you can’t help but come away with a broader vision of what it means to be an American.
A particular area of Finkle’s focus is immigration, and in 2000, as the “commotion” as he calls it, over the issue began to grow across the country, he set out on a long term project to document the lives of ten immigrant families making their way in their new world. Their countries of origin were dissimilar—Ethiopia, Jamaica, Indonesia, Guatemala, Lebanon, Peru, Russia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and India, but the experiences of assimilation profiled in his Philadelphia Mosaic series were in many ways the same.
Fifteen years later, the country continues its long conversation over immigration, and although still armed with his Leica M6s, Finkle’s continuing quest to document that conversation is more a celebration of what is going to be the country’s future. In his current work, he photographs families who live specifically in the South Philadelphia section of the city. The neighborhood has already been home to an array of immigrant populations in the two hundred years since the country’s founding, but those populations are steadily changing. The people raising their children in the red brick and stucco-sided row houses of South Philly are no longer coming just from Europe, they are coming from everywhere. And their arrival is proof that the country has not only become economically globalized, it is now ethnically globalized as well.
“I decided that I wanted to deal with the fact that here in South Philadelphia it was the original destination for Italians, Jews and Irish who had all come years before, and that by 2000 the new immigrants were no different in any way other than complexion. They wanted to be safe, to practice their religion, to educate their kids, and to make a buck… And at that point, any city you went to was ethnically globalized, so my thing was, let’s get over it and get on with life.”
Finkle’s photographs capture the moments in which an ancient culture slams up against a modern world, and show us what it means to try to acclimate to new experiences and traditions, while celebrating and protecting those of your former home. The images could not be more varied. In them, a young Lebanese man sports an I Love NY T-shirt, a Peruvian child stands on his front stoop, clutching a Batman action figure, a Sikh man in a white headdress hurls a bowling ball down a lane. Each of Finkle’s photographs stands alone as a singular American story, illuminating just what assimilation looks like, and even more than that, what it feels like. For those of us who know nothing of that experience, Finkle’s work gives us a glimpse into what we otherwise might easily have missed.