The table is set, dinner is ready and you're invited — to a new exhibition of photographs showcasing immigrant families in Hamilton sitting down to their special meal of the day.
Opening on Friday at the you me gallery on James Street North, "Our Place" features 19 intimate portraits of Middle Eastern, South Asian and East Asian families in Hamilton, giving viewers a window into their suppertime rituals.
According to Mina Ao, who, along with Iranian-born photographer Masoud Eskandari, shot the pictures for the project, the aim of the exhibition is to create understanding between the different cultural groups that are represented.
"One of the reasons we wanted to do these communities together is that these immigrant communities, when they first come to Canada, they would be facing similar challenges of starting a new life in a new country," said Ao, who hails from Macau and came to North America to study in the late 1990s.
"But somehow there doesn't seem to be that much interaction between them."
The artists reasoned that focusing their lenses on dinnertime would highlight the commonalities between the groups, and hence, bring them together.
'[Dinner's] a time that means something to the participants and the viewers can easily connect to it.'—Mina Ao, photographer
"The details of the dinners could be different because of their cultural background, because of what they eat and what they put on the table. But I see that the purpose or the function of dinnertime for these families in many ways is just similar."
This theme — that people may appear different, but share fundamental human characteristics — is a current that runs through the entire collection. The family composition, how everyone's dressed, the décor on the walls — all of these vary from one photo to the next. But the ritual of eating together and conversing at the end of the day is something that everybody, no matter his or her background, can relate to, Ao said.
"It's a time that means something to the participants and the viewers can easily connect to it."
'A camera is a dangerous tool,' photographer says
"Our place" was born out of a previous collaboration between Eskandari and Bryce Kanbara, director of the you me gallery. Their 2012 photo exhibition "54/58," which juxtaposed portraits of members of Hamilton's Muslim community with those of the city's artists, had a similar goal: creating a dialogue between two disparate groups.
What does mealtime look like at your place?
For "Our Place," Kanbara and Eskandari enlisted Ao, a photographer with contacts in Hamilton's Chinese community.
Though the project was conceived in Spring 2012, Ao and Eskandari didn't start snapping the pictures until last January, in part because the process of courting potential photo subjects was a long and difficult one.
For some immigrants from the Middle East and Asia, especially those who've left behind less-than-democratic countries, having one's picture taken by a stranger is a scary proposition, Eskandari said.
"A camera is a dangerous tool," he said. "It's like a gun, it's like a weapon. With photographs, a regime can do many bad things."
Cultural attitudes surrounding privacy also posed challenges for the shutterbugs, he said.
"For Muslim people, the home is very private, more than for Western people. To go in there and take a picture and show it to everybody, that is something odd."
In addition, Eskandari said the process exposed him further to the barriers that immigrants face while trying to integrate into Canadian society. Many are highly educated, but are passed over for jobs in their fields because of a "lack of knowledge" among potential employers, he said.
Eskandari himself, who moved to Hamilton five years ago to have his children educated in Canada, said he's had to settle for menial jobs even though he was a university professor and graphic designer in Iran.
He said he hopes the exhibition will reduce this bias by making the immigrants appear less "other" to Canadian-born eyes.
"When you don't have any knowledge about something, it is strange to you and it will remain a mystery to you," Eskandari explained. "When you know more about that thing, you'll get closer."
He said the simple magic of the dinnertime photos — and of food in general — is that they represent a kind of shortcut to the intercultural understanding he craves.
"Western people are eating dinner and Middle Eastern people are eating dinner, too. Let's share this happiness with each other."
- What: Our Place: Dinnertime photos from several of the diverse cultural communities in Hamilton
- Where: you me gallery, 330 James St. N
- When: Aug. 9 until Sept. 14, with an opening reception on Friday, running from 7 p.m. until 10 p.m.
- Admission: Free
For more information, go to Youmegallery.ca.