Good Life

Visiting exhibit shines spotlight on refugees in Berlin

German photographer Daniel Sonnentag has volunteered at the ICC Refugee Camp in Berlin for two years and photographed his young friends there.
German photographer Daniel Sonnentag has volunteered at the ICC Refugee Camp in Berlin for two years and photographed his young friends there. Photo provided

A picture is worth a thousand words — so it stands to reason that at least a few of them might be in German.

A collection of photographs titled “They Have Names” will tell the stories of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees living in Berlin.

Beginning with a reception to be held at 5 p.m. Nov. 3 at Webster’s Bookstore Cafe, the images will be displayed at more than 20 different locations around State College and University Park.

“They are kids just like yours or mine, and I think that’s what we’re trying to get across,” said Penny Eifrig, who co-created the project alongside German photographer Daniel Sonnentag.

The two met while volunteering at the ICC Refugee Camp in Berlin.

Eifrig and her family split their time between Germany and State College, and she had been regularly sharing snapshots from her experiences with friends back in the United States.

Those pictures were selfie-level quality at best.

“The kids would take my phone and start taking photos,” Eifrig said.

While those pictures may not have been gallery ready, they were effective in convincing people to donate money to buy the children fresh socks and underwear.

Eifrig initially approached Sonnentag with an idea for a coffee table book.

The photographer was interested in providing a counterpoint to the typical depiction of refugees by highlighting the vibrant and playful personalities of the children and families he had befriended at the camp.

“From the beginning, I knew that these pictures had to be used, to (be) made public to show the people out there what I found, because it was such (a) contrast to what most people have in their mind when they think about refugee children,” Sonnentag said.

He is aiming for something that goes beyond voyeurism, images that tell the story of a person and resist the temptation to become the latest entries in the “suffering strangers” series.

If more times than not Sonnentag comes down on the other side of this hurdle with a strong portrait in hand, he thinks he may stand a chance at conveying the scope of his experiences over the past two years with the world at large.

That’s the power of the right image.

“It’s quick. Instant. You see a face of a person and you know right away if you like this person or not. These first impressions can turn out to be wrong but the face and the personality its image transports is the door to the bigger story,” Sonnentag said.

Eifrig’s daughter, Saede, is a student at Haverford College and helped get the word out about “They Have Names” on social media. She also spent time volunteering with her mother at the camp in Berlin.

Saede thinks that people have responded to the warmth radiating from Sonnentag’s images.

“Instead of sympathy or sadness, a quick look at one of the portraits feels like friendship and invites viewers in to learn more about the individual beyond the first impression. For most of the portraits, it is the child’s pure happiness that shines through and connects to people,” Saede said.

A Kickstarter campaign funding the production of a “They Have Names” photo book will run through Sunday. Proceeds from the more than 260-page tome will lend continued support to the refugees.

Beyond the book, Eifrig hopes that the exhibit will continue to expand its reach.

“We’d love to have it be a traveling exhibit. We’d love to have it go nationwide,” Eifrig said.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready

“They Have Names” exhibit locations

State College Municipal Building, Webster’s Bookstore Café, Schlow Centre Region Library, the HUB-Robeson Center at Penn State, Art Alliance Gallery Downtown, Foxdale Village, Appalachian Outdoors, Studio 2 Photography, Rapid Transit, amazon campus, Woodrings Floral, The Growing Tree, Nittany Valley Optical, Connections, McLanahan’s, Singing Onstage, The Corner Room, Bill Pickle’s Taproom, Chumley’s, the Downtown State College Improvement District, the State College Presbyterian Church, Panorama Village, the Delta Program, HUB-Robeson Center and Walker Building