Understanding Migrant Grief through photography
By Helia Mokhber
Posted on February 23, 2022
Venezuelan Canadian professional photographer and visual artist Mirna Chacin immigrated to Canada in 2011 with her now-wife in hopes of finding a life of equality and inclusion. She recounts the decision to leave Venezuela in pursuit of a more accepting environment, saying “We’re aiming for a better life […] we’re aiming to be free and have equal rights.”
Despite finding safety and comfort in the inclusivity that Canada offered and experiencing what she called a “kind of honeymoon with your new homeland,” Chacin struggled with finding her purpose. She achieved great success and recognition in Venezuela, receiving awards such as First Prize in photography by UNICEF Italy and The Francisco Hung’s Gold Medal. Upon finding herself a newcomer in a new country, she had to start from scratch.
“You have a previous life, you were known, you have some success in your home country. And then nobody knows you. And you exit a comfort zone—a comfort zone that is no longer there,” Chacin said.
Though she did not realize at the time, she began experiencing what most newcomers struggle with at one point: migrant grief.
“Over time, you start to see that you are not just homesick or depressed, but you are grieving because you have another life. And when you came here, everything stopped. There is not a continuation with the life you bring to the new country, there is no pause, and you continue. No, you have to start over from the beginning.”
A new beginning
Chacin turned to her passion, photography, aiming to understand her experience and feelings. She began taking photographs of everything around her new home—the lakeshore, the beach, the people. Finding striking similarities between her new home and her hometown of Maracaibo, she began to understand that she was experiencing migrant grief: grieving the life she left behind. Fortunately, this revelation also began her journey of finding comfort in these similarities and working towards making Toronto a new start.
She said, “I embraced Lake Ontario like my second chance to have a beautiful lake in my life.”
“What you have here is now your new home […] I realized I was convincing myself that this is the new home I have to embrace, and I have a second chance to do everything I didn’t do before.”
This experience gave rise to her wonderful photography exhibition, Where The Sun Rises—symbolizing a new dawn, a new beginning, and a new life. From the acceptance of grief came a journey to finding a sense of belonging.
Chacin became more engaged in her community and volunteered for the Mennonite New Life Centre of Toronto (MNLCT)—an experience she fondly recounts as it helped her recover her self-esteem and find a sense of belonging. She began to see and feel her contribution to the community. She noticed that most of the pictures on the centre’s website were stock images that failed to reflect the true reality and lived experiences of the clients at the centre. Instead, Chacin suggested that she take photographs of the clients to reflect the faces and stories of the community and began the MNLCT’s Image Bank Project.
From this project, Chacin gained a sense of belonging as she related to the stories she was capturing.
“I saw myself in the mirror of the other immigrants. And every time I went to their events, they were talking. I recognized myself in their words and that made me cry all the time because I say, oh, everybody feels somehow the same as me. They are struggling, they are starting over and their stories were always inspiring. That made me feel that I belong.”
Chacin no longer feels a sense of alienation and lack of comfort in her new home. She describes herself as “two persons in one, as a Venezuelan and a Canadian.”
Defining her greatest success as finding this sense of belonging, Chacin continues to immerse herself in her community. She has shifted the focus of her art to community-based projects with increased engagement with the audience, as is reflected in her latest ongoing art project, Elegy for Souls on Hold as part of ArtworxTO, City of Toronto’s public art program.
After being unable to return to Venezuela after her sister’s death, she found a striking parallel between the experience of immigrants losing a loved one back home without having a chance to say goodbye, to the lives lost in isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her latest ongoing project is a poetic memorial art installation that uses different new media elements to collect personal stories and help communities in the process of loss and grieving during pandemic times. Inan augmented reality installation, the audience can share portraits of those they lost during the pandemic.
Advice for newcomers
When asked to share any advice for newcomers hoping to find their own sense of belonging in their new home, Chacin emphasizes the importance of volunteering and joining local communities. These communities and centres create a welcoming atmosphere that allow newcomers to become familiar with others who share similar experiences, allowing for a sense of familiarity and belonging.
Specifically for newcomers hoping to find a sense of belonging in the art community, Chacin suggests joining local art networks and organizations such as the Neighborhood Arts Network, Toronto Arts Foundation, and Arts Etobicoke. She also suggests applying for arts community mentorship programs that provide immense support as artists navigate finding opportunities to grow in a new environment.
You can find outmore about Mirna Chacin and her work at: www.mirnachacin.com
You can also check out her latest exhibition at: https://www.artworxto.ca/artwork/elegy-for-souls-on-hold
To learn more and participate in the memorial project, visit: https://www.mirnachacin.com/submission-form