Tammy Law‘s Permission to Belong tells the story of a group of Burmese refugees in Australia, the UK, and the USA, in refugee camps and as they’re resettled and struggle to find their place, far from home and in an unfamiliar culture. The book itself is an interesting object and has one of the more unique designs I’ve encountered.
Permission to Belong is a sort of box, with a heavy lid that opens to a large photograph of an apartment building. The left side unfolds again to show simplified maps of Myanmar and Australia, and England and Norway. A small card hides behind the map of Myanmar and Australia and provides a brief overview of the Burmese migration and aim of the book.
The right side of the photograph is the cover of the book itself. I’m not sure how to describe the binding… It’s more or less smyth sewn, with loose quarto pages that unfold, and pages of various sizes that tell the stories of people via interviews or written statements. There is sort of pattern, but it’s difficult to describe and really has to be experienced.
Many of the photographs are spread across two pages, sometimes with a 1/3 page spread in between with a typed statement from one of the resettled refugees, other times interrupted by half-page written statements, backed with portraits. Often, one half of the photograph comes out of the book as part of a four page quarto that unfolds to reveal a large picture of their current home, with photograph of their former home in Burma, or maybe a refugee camp, projected onto a fence or front door or car cover. At the very end, a final four-page fold out reprints two pages from a 1966 pamphlet “Ethnographic Survey of Burma,” pages 45 and 46, featuring a discussion of the Japanese invasion in 1941, and a timeline of events from 7 December, 1971, to 15 May, 1942, when the last British forces left Burma and the country was subsumed into the Japanese Empire.
The interviews and written statements are moving and revealing. As someone who lives in an immigrant community, I recognize the confusion and struggles many of the subjects express. As hard as it is for me to navigate my community, with all the cultural difference and unintentional faux pas (on both sides), I’m at least living within 20 miles of where I grew up. Most of my neighbors are 10,000 miles from home, more or less, and they struggle to maintain a sense of cultural identity in a little bubble here in this strange land.
Still, I sort of envy my neighbors: they come home to their culture, something familiar; I have to leave home and go out into the world to get back to my culture, and struggle some to maintain my cultural identity and practice, while simultaneously encouraging my darling, adorable wife to practice and maintain hers.
I don’t know the struggles of refugees, either in camps or resettled, but I have some small idea of what it is to be a stranger in a strange land.
Law developed Permission to Belong during the 2017 Photobook As Object Workshop held by Yumi Goto and Jan Rosseel at Reminders Photography Stronghold, and it definitely is an object. It feels fragile, despite being obviously well made and stable, and fiddly, almost frustrating to navigate, much like trying to navigate a strange place and culture. It just works, and works well, capturing a small bit of the experience of immigrants in an intimate, tactile way.
Overall, I rate Permission to Belong 4.5 stars.
This first edition of Permission to Belong was limited to 95 copies, of which my copy, received back in February 2019, was #13. It appears to still be available direct from Reminders Photography Stronghold, but for how long? If you have interest in refugees, migration, and the struggles of resettlement, especially in the age of border walls, child prisons, and mass deportations, don’t hesitate.