When Home Won't Let You Stay - Feb. 12 - March 25

Webpage banner showcasing two images from When Home Won't Let you Stay

When Home Won't Let You Stay: Stories of Refugees in America is a photography exhibition by documentary artist James A. Bowey consisting of contemporary color portraits accompanied by first-person poetic stories that provide new perspectives on the often hidden lives and compelling experiences of refugees in our communities.

Date and time: Thursday, February 12 to Thursday, March 25
Location: First floor


One photographer, 18 remarkable images. Meet the creative force behind our current exhibit.

For more than 15 years, photojournalist James A. Bowey traveled the world on assignment capturing stories and images of people faced with some of the most cataclysmic events of our time from the war in Bosnia to Hurricane Katrina. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Time Magazine and by the Associated Press, among others.  Bowey is also an educator and was on the faculty at Winona State University from 2008 to 2015 where he won the national WOW award for innovation in higher education.

Today, Bowey continues his exploration of human rights and social connection through photography and storytelling including When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Stories of Refugees in America, an exhibit of 18 of his compelling portraits on view at the library through March 25. We talked with Bowey from his home in Chicago to learn more about his photography and technique for capturing stories that extend beyond a single frame.


How do you approach your work and photography? 

Throughout my career, I have talked to people in the most vulnerable moments of their life and the relationship and the connections that develops in those encounters is extremely important…It’s all about trust. I am there to serve their story. It is not my story but what I can do is to help their story find an audience, give it a structure and turn it into something with a positive impact.


So how do you find refugee stories here at home?

The primary way I find them is through good, old-fashioned journalism and shoe leather. I have a rolodex, make phone calls, send emails and reach out to agencies. Sometimes they are people I just meet out on the street. I have discovered when someone is a storyteller, they meet people who have stories to tell. It’s serendipity, they find each other.  


Describe your technique in capturing these beautiful images

All of the photos are taken in an environment using light, shadow and a composition that leaves just enough space around the subject matter to allow people to use their empathetic imaginations to fill in the story. When our empathetic imaginations fill in those details, it brings out an intimacy and opportunity for one-on-one connection with the subject.


Tell us about the short lines of text that accompany each photo

My technique is I interview and talk to someone for hours and then I go back and look for those narrative moments that tell their story. In one case, it was 10 words from a 30-minute interview…The purpose of this project is to bring us to that place of ‘I can’t imagine’ but in fact, we can imagine. The language and images together allow us to share in the experience and reclaim our empathetic imagination.


What do you want viewers take away from the exhibit?

That empathy is rejuvenating and that when we engage in stories of other people what we really learn about is ourselves. Stories of refugees, in many ways, are the guideposts to how we want our world to be…This is a project of hope and a project of renewal that allows us to experience that sense of connection with others and imagine the possibility for our shared future.