By Michael C. Butz
• Lives & Creates Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood • Degree BFA in Photography from The University of Akron
Photographer Shane Wynn isn’t just a storyteller, she’s an advocate for those whose stories seldom get the attention they deserve.
“All of my work surrounds protecting people’s right to dignity, safety and access to opportunity,” says the 42-year-old Wynn.
And her art doesn’t whisper, it shouts. Each of her large-scale portraits is a life-like 6 feet tall by 4 feet wide, and each series of portraits is installed in high-traffic locations around Akron.
For example, “Overlooked,” can be found on the Towpath Trail Bridge over Route 59 in Akron. Those portraits depict empowered women set against the backdrop of underutilized spaces in the city. The women and spaces share an unfortunate quality: neglected potential.
Another series, “Pride in Our Neighborhood,” consisted of portraits of residents of Akron’s Summit Lake neighborhood, which Wynn describes as a “marginalized population,” and was positioned along the Towpath Trail there to connect residents with Towpath users.
Wynn’s most recent series chronicles the journeys of immigrants and refugees now residing in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. Her interest was piqued by a desire to learn more about the cultures and countries represented by the ethnically dressed pedestrians she’d see along the neighborhood’s East Tallmadge Avenue.
What she found were refugees from Bhutan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, immigrants from Mexico and Italy, Hmong asylum seekers from China by way of Laos, and multiple people originally from Myanmar (Burma) who came to America from a refugee camp in Thailand.
Wynn’s portraits of these families – again 6 feet by 4 feet, this time installed throughout North Hill – group older family members, many of whom still dress in a manner traditional to their country of origin, with younger, more assimilated family members whose style is modern American.
Wynn met with each family and found there were seldom one-word answers to “Where are you from?” In many cases, like that of the Myanmar natives, the circumstances surrounding their journeys were harrowing.
“The daughter said, ‘The soldiers tried to kill us. They didn’t want us living on their land,’” she says. “There was no place for them to go, they saw a lot of people die, and with all its simplicity, (that response) really drives home why people are refugees and have to find new lives.”
As the daughter of a first-generation Austrian immigrant, the topic hits close to home for Wynn. Through this portrait series, she hopes to shift the narrative on immigration.
“I’m aware of people’s pushback against immigration. It’s a complicated conversation, but that’s why I do the work,” she says. “I understand the negative connotations associated with immigrants and refugees; I’m trying to counter that with positive representation.” CV
Lead image: Shane Wynn. Photo courtesy of the artist.
North Hill Portrait Series: Trolley tours of Shane Wynn’s North Hill portrait series showcasing immigrants and refugees are scheduled for 2 and 3 p.m. Dec. 1. Each tour is led by the artist and will depart from The Exchange House, 760 Elma St., Akron. For more information, visit facebook.com/exchangehouseakron.