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Amber N. Ford Turns Her Artistic Focus to Cleveland's Immigrants and Refugees 

click to enlarge A chalkboard in a New Orleans School

Photo by Amber N. Ford

A chalkboard in a New Orleans School

It is unusually hot out as I approach Amber N. Ford's studio near East 22nd Street and Superior Avenue. There is a woman shooting hoops on the roof of the adjacent warehouse. The striking visual shouldn't be such an unusual sight, but she is wearing a form-fitting dress. I take a moment to see if anyone else has noticed, but I am alone; face to face with the mystery of who this person might be.

In front of the up-and-coming Ford's photographic portraits, we relive this same experience: the familiarity of mystery and contemplation.

Ford has been working in her studio space since June 2017. It is a gorgeous spot with huge windows and white walls that reflect the magnificent natural light. She is already known for her ease in engaging her subject matter in a collaboration, in lieu of just sitting for a portrait. It is easy to open up to her exuberant personality.

In 2016, the photographer was awarded the Mary C. Page Memorial Scholarship for post-BFA travel. She visited New Orleans for a two-week stint during which she attended a National Geographic workshop and photographed the city and the people. However, she almost didn't apply for the scholarship, as she didn't know what she wanted to do or where to go.

"One of my teachers suggested workshops," Ford says, "so I looked up printmaking and photo workshops and found the National Geographic workshop. I wanted that experience and to photograph on my own. To try and capture NOLA in an image." The artist had never been there before, but one of her former classmates lived in the city for about a year. They drove down together and stayed for 10 days.

While in New Orleans, Ford attended a second-line parade, which happens on Sundays; it was one of her favorite experiences on the trip. But on the flip side of the elaborate costumes and extraordinary jazz is, of course, the great tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

"I met with someone that restores buildings and such and went to what used to be a school," Ford says. "It was eerie. Due to budget constraints, only the first floor was being restored. The second floor hadn't been touched since the hurricane had hit." There, written on the blackboard, was the date Aug. 25, 2005, the first day Katrina hit land. "It makes you wonder where all those people are. Are they okay? All the damage done to the Ninth Ward is staggering. It's super vacant now and will probably never be the same." All these things hadn't been touched in over a decade. Ford says she hopes to return and capture more images.

Back in Cleveland, however, Ford turns her focus to immigrants and refugees in Cleveland. The body of photographs in By Force & By Choice, which was previously exhibited at Zaina Gallery, is now at the Temple Tifereth-Israel. Ford pushes forward with the unfamiliar and dives deep into collaboration with her subjects. "Usually my subjects are family or friends. This was another way for me to push myself and not to stay in my comfort zone." The project started as a conversation between Ford and her coworkers, which pushed her to look up organizations that resettle refugees and immigrants. After a little bit of digging, she got in touch with the U.S. Community of Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) where she connected with the director who, in turn, helped put her in contact with families that were interested in having their stories told.

"I wanted to take single and family portraits and, for some, I printed those out and gave them to families. I wasn't interested in just taking their photo without giving back. I didn't want to have an unreciprocated relationship. It was my way of saying thank you, to give them a formal family photo."

Along with the exhibit inside the Temple, there are suitcases where one can put donated materials. "So for the upcoming winter we are asking for gently used clothing up until the end of the exhibition," she says. "A nice thing about this project is having people come experience the exhibition and open their eyes, just like I try to do with myself, and see how people want to get involved and donate or volunteer — to start a conversation."

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