Photographing the Immigrant Experience: Pablo and Roxana Allison's Uncovering the Invisible

By Pippa Oldfield 
Head of Programme at Impressions Gallery

One of photography’s many capacities is its potential to draw attention to overlooked lives, in order to raise awareness and, sometimes, prompt action. From Lewis Hine’s Climbing into the Land of Promise (1905), recording arrivals at New York’s Ellis Island, to Dulce Pinzón’s The Real Story of the Superheroes (2012), re-imagining Mexican migrant workers as US comic-book characters, photography has repeatedly been used to visualise the immigrant experience. Exposing hard living and working conditions, these photographic projects have often sought to reveal an underclass isolated from the mainstream and provide evidence for compassion and reform.

Uncovering the Invisible has a subtler, but nonetheless compelling, agenda in choosing to highlight native Latin Americans who have comfortably integrated into British life, yet are nonetheless cognizant (sometimes troubled) by the complexity of their expatriate experience. Roxana and Pablo Allison draw on their own ambiguous status as dual citizens of Mexico and the UK, a status that offers a doubly-rich heritage, yet one fraught with anxieties: Where is home? How can my roots be identified? When I am in one place, why am I always longing for the other?

The Allisons’ understated portraits, made in everyday settings, dignify their subjects. A feeling of ease and intimacy prevails between photographers and sitter, whilst the interplay of image and caption, asserting the subject’s name, profession and opinion, allows their individuality to emerge from behind Home Office statistics. Whilst a handful of subjects meet our gaze directly, most gaze off into the distance or close their eyes, as if visualising the madre patria, their mother country.

Common themes emerge: a nostalgia for the homeland; an enhanced interest in one’s heritage and culture; pride in Latin America’s long history of liberation; the sense of belonging to a diverse yet united continent; and the perceived openness of the UK to embrace and absorb different cultures. Most of the people depicted have realised their dream of a better life, and comment positively on their integration into cosmopolitan London. Yet some attest to lingering language barriers, to the pain of being split from their family, and the challenges of the immigrant experience. 

The diversity of ethnicities and countries on display testifies to the multiplicity and heterogeneity of ‘Latin American’ as an identity. The images dispel the clichés of Latinos as hot-blooded revolutionaries or as economic refugees working in low-status sectors such as cleaning and catering: most of those depicted have careers in banking, academia, teaching, or the voluntary sector. Dressed in plaid shirts, yoga pants or cardigans, many of the subjects might indeed pass for ‘invisible’ amongst their native British colleagues. Only radio presenter Nelly Mosquera adopts what, to British eyes, might constitute a stereotypically vibrant Latina style, her hot pink ruffled t-shirt and artisan-made jewellery contrasting with the humdrum brick of a London backyard, as she gazes out of the picture frame, carried back, perhaps, to her native Colombia. 

Using Format