A war photographer’s effort to document America’s diversity starts with Venice

By Gary Walker

Séamus Conlan set up an outdoor photo booth near the Venice Skate Park Photo by Maria Martin

Séamus Conlan set up an outdoor photo booth near the Venice Skate Park
Photo by Maria Martin

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Séamus Conlan went to Africa to photograph the horrors of war but ended up using his camera to save lives instead.

In 1994, then 28-year-old Conlan was covering the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide when the staggering amount of unaccompanied children in refugee camps compelled him to rethink the purpose of his assignment.

One by one, he photographed the children — sometimes hundreds of them a day, each holding a whiteboard displaying a unique identification number. With assistance from UNICEF and the Red Cross, shipments of donated film from Kodak and another photographer who joined the cause, more than 20,000 of these photos made their way around camps and service centers, resulting in thousands of family reunifications.

In the spirit of “The Lost Children of Rwanda,” Ireland-born Conlan is taking on another unity campaign — this one a national photography tour to document the intrinsic power of America’s diversity.

And where better to find diversity than the bustling Venice Boardwalk?

Conlan, who lives in Marina del Rey, began his 25-city tour for “We Are One Voice” on Aug. 10 by taking black-and-white portraits of more than 70 volunteers at a pop-up outdoor photo studio next to the Venice Skate Park. Many of his subjects found the project by chance, and some recorded video testimony about their perspectives on  the value of diversity.

In the context of the current political zeitgeist — Donald Trump’s calls to ban Muslim immigration and build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border in particular — Conlan says a campaign in defense of diversity is both timely and necessary.

“Unfortunately there is a strain of extremism that has been a part of the discourse recently. This is a way of saying that we’re standing up for diversity and in Los Angeles we’re proud of it,” he said. “My dream is to showcase the diversity of America and how it helps us stand apart.”

Conlan came up with the concept for “We Are One Voice” several years ago while traveling from one war zone to the next and taking notice of what wasn’t there.

“You don’t find the same kind of diversity in other countries that you find here. I saw that in Africa and the Middle East,” he said. “Diversity is one of America’s primary strengths, and I hope this project shows that richness.

“I have lived in this country for quite a long time and I know how rich and diverse it is. It’s a land built by immigrants. And the diversity is so enriching and beautiful.”

Diversity isn’t confined to gender, age, race and ethnicity. During his hours-long Venice photoshoot, Conlan sought to capture not only the different faces of people who visit, frequent or live in Venice, but also the unique essence of Venice: skaters, surfers, artists, performers, tourists, immigrants, the homeless — you name it.

“Here in California you meet people from all over the world. You get to meet them and hear different stories and learn about different cultures. That’s what I think is cool about diversity,” said 21-year-old Marina del Rey resident Anthony Banks, who was hanging out at the skate park when one of Conlan’s two assistants asked him to become part of the photoshoot.

Sara Bores, a 22-year-old drama student who moved to the Westside from Spain last month, decided to embrace “a new experience” and become part of the project.

“Venice is so interesting with so many different people. I was curious,” she said.

Gaius Roberts, 32, was interested because he’s also a photographer and “because I like the message,” he said.

Olivia Ward, a 16-year-old New Hampshire native who often comes to Venice to skate, decided to have her photo taken after seeing others lined up outside Conlan’s makeshift booth.

“I’ve never really thought about it that much, but I know that there’s a lot of diversity in California,” she said. “And I think it’s very cool. I feel like everyone’s together and not judged for who they are or what they look like.”

For his part, Conlan worked under his canopy with the ease of a seasoned pro, engaging his subjects in friendly banter while frequently checking a monitor to his left, adjusting knobs, pushing buttons and making other adjustments while repeatedly firing his shutter.

“I took some beautiful photos of a young man in a wheelchair, of a blind person and some deaf people all in the space of about half an hour,” Conlan said during a break. “We’re trying to depict them all differently, but it illustrates the diversity of our community.”

Some of Conlan’s subjects recorded short testimonial videos related to the theme of diversity.

“A world without diversity is empty and boring,” said Danny Sifuentes, a clean cut middle-aged Latino man in a T-shirt.

“What diversity means to me is being able to be who I am without someone else’s judgment, and also not putting that same judgment onto others,” said Sammy Goodtime, a young skater with tattoos, a nose ring and heart-shaped sunglasses.

The equipment that made the shoot possible — professional microphones, video cameras and even a 44-foot production truck — came via “We Are One Voice” sponsor Blue Microphones, an audio production company based win Westlake Village.

“Séamus is an artist who is always doing something special, and we wanted to give him a chance to showcase what he’s doing. Photography is a tool for communication and storytelling and it has the ability to empower people,” said Blue Microphones VP of Communications Adam Castillo.

Conlan’s team printed and displayed poster-sized renderings of some of Conlan’s black-and-white portraits near the skate park on both the day of the shoot and the day after.

“This is a project that I hope will be inspirational. It’s about changing people’s perspectives,” Conlan said. “As the great John Lennon said, ‘Don’t be afraid of the things that you don’t understand.’”

Conlan has also posted several of the portraits and videos to a website for the project and social media channels — technology that didn’t exist at the time of “The Lost Children of Rwanda,” but speaks to the power of photography then and now.

After posting a portrait of a homeless young woman to Instagram, Conlan got a call from her brother. It turns out Lisselis Rivas had been a missing person since May.

“It was one of those wonderful byproducts of the project,” Conlan said. “I started to look for her and found a sister who is living here. When I told her about Lisselis, she broke down and was in tears. Later I met someone who sees [Rivas] every couple of days.”

Family and friends posted several messages imploring Rivas to return to them.

Rivas relayed through a friend, however, that she wasn’t ready to come home.

“But at least now her family knows where she is,” said Conlan, “and that she’s alive.”

Follow the project at weareonevoice.photo, facebook.com/weareonevoice1, or instagram.com/weareonevoice1.

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