Surviving in Sonoma

There are “before” and “after” photographs here that few people in the world have seen.

One pair shows a huge Cambodian family in Pnomh Penh seated proudly for a portrait, and then its sole survivor of the Pol Pot regime a few years later.

Another set juxtaposes four Jews in Germany before they were deported to concentration camps with a photo of three of them in 1990, their faces heavy with the past.

A third documents a Japanese-American couple, being married in a Buddhist temple in California decades ago, then silver-haired and loving, despite the fact that during World War II they were forced into a U.S.

internment camp. All these pictures are part of the Sonoma County Survivors Project, a photography and oral history exhibition on display at the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Rosa, California this spring. The brainchild of photographer Phyllis Rosenfield and writer Lisa Slater, the project features approximately 60 photographs, and text in which the survivors tell their stories.

By bringing together three disparate groups of people-Eastern European Jews, Japanese-Americans and Cambodians-each of whom has suffered unique persecution, the Survivors Project is testimony to the fact that oppression is possible under any government, in any time and place. Through Rosenfield’s black-and-white portraits-and the families’ old photographs that she has restored-each atrocity has a face.

Rosenfield and Slater began the Survivors Project five years ago, when the State of California began a new school curriculum on genocide and human rights. Initially, the team planned to photograph and interview only Holocaust survivors, but expanded their project when it was noted that the local population included many Cambodians and Japanese-Americans.

Lisa Slater explains: “We had one group who was oppressed here a while ago, one who was oppressed far away a while ago, and one now whose oppression is still going on.”

Yet the exhibition also communicates hope. Survivors are shown grocery shopping, playing with their grandchildren, cooking dinner-looking like anyone else in America. They are living their lives, speaking in voices that at one time were silenced, cultivating their private gardens. Genocide, racism and cruelty may exist everywhere, but, as documented by the Sonoma County Survivors Project, so does the will to survive.