Photographer Harvey Finkle has documented immigration to the city of Philadelphia since the 1970s. His work has been hailed as “visual anthropology” that records successive waves of settlement, mostly in South Philadelphia, by European Jews, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Burmese, Mexicans, Central Americans, and other immigrants and refugees.

In his new book, Faces of Courage: Ten years of Building Sanctuary, Mr. Finkle chronicles the first ten years of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia—a coalition of twenty-eight congregations that works to build community across religious, ethnic, and class lines to end injustices against all immigrants, documented or otherwise.

The Asylumist recently caught up with Mr. Finkle, to ask about his career, his book, and the New Sanctuary Movement.

Asylumist: How did you get started in your career? And how did you combine your interest in vulnerable communities with your work as a photographer?

Harvey Finkle: I picked up a camera late in life. I was a social worker and I used to go to galleries and see abstract art. I liked it, but I didn’t understand much. Then I saw an exhibit of Harry Callahan’s photos and I decided that I wanted to do that.

I started by taking pictures of my kids. I walked the streets and took photos. These days, everyone has a camera, but in 1970, that was unique and got me my start.

In the early 70’s, I got involved with a grassroots group in Philadelphia called the People’s Fund (now Bread and Roses). They became a major fundraising organization in the city, and members included Black Panthers and Women United for Abortion Rights. Basically, they funded groups that the United Way would not fund.

I was taking a lot of pictures related to social issues and human rights, and in 1977, I met up with 14 Holocaust survivors in Philly. This was a difficult time in America—Nixon had recently resigned—but these people were very positive, very up. My interest was less in the Holocaust and more about how they put their lives back together. I interviewed and photographed them. They were a diverse group: There was the head of a union, a person who made artificial limbs, an opera singer. They talked to me about resilience and overcoming their past to build positive, successful lives.

After the survivors, I received a grant to take photos of new immigrants to South Philadelphia. They were Hmong, Lao, Cambodian, and ethnic Chinese people from Vietnam. They were being resettled in South Philly, which had long been a place for new immigrants. Before, from Europe. And now, from Indochina.

By exhibiting photos, my idea was for people to see that the immigrants coming to South Philly had the same needs and hopes as the people who came before them. They wanted to be safe, to send their kids to school, and to make a life. They wanted the same things immigrants always want. While I was doing that, I came across the New Sanctuary Movement.

I first learned about the New Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s. I was driving along listening to NPR and I heard a story about a couple on trial in Texas because they helped some immigrants across the border. I grabbed a friend, and we went down to Brownsville where I saw the trial and met up with people from the Movement.

Back in Philly, I started photographing people involved in the New Sanctuary Movement in places like the First United Methodist Church in Germantown. The concept of “sanctuary” is 2000 years old, and the idea of that was fascinating for me.

Besides immigrants, I was also taking photos of disability rights activists, homelessness activists, and members of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union.

Asylumist: Your work seems to focus on marginalized or persecuted communities. Why does that group interest you? And how do you think your work contributes to lifting up those communities?

Harvey Finkle: I have always been more interesting in photographing people who are vulnerable. But they are also active. They know what’s going on. They are smart and talented. The immigrants of the past are now the leaders of our country.

I think seeing their photos helps people feel better about themselves. Whenever I take photos of people, I give them a copy. They love it.

I was taking photos for the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, and through that work, I got to attend forums in different countries: Brazil, Venezuela, India. We did exhibits to show the other participants that there are poor people in the United States. They did not believe that. I think these exhibits helped build camaraderie.

We were also able to travel around the U.S. and network with other, similar organizations. Often times, people in those organizations did not feel connected, and they felt that they were the only ones in their situation. The photos helped build connections. It doesn’t change the world, but it is a little bit of a contribution.

Asylumist: Your book is about the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia. Can you tell us more about that?

Harvey Finkle: The New Sanctuary Movement helps prevent people from being deported. It is a spiritual movement, led by churches, to welcome immigrants. The churches allow immigrants to stay on their property where they are safe from ICE. But living in sanctuary is not easy. It’s not a prison, but it’s enclosed; you don’t leave. People in sanctuary at least feel they have a chance to get an immigration hearing. If they have a good lawyer, they have a shot to stay her legally.

While Trump was President, ICE was always chasing people. Immigrants in Philly were terrified. Since President Biden came in, things have improved. Two families in Philadelphia—one Mexican and one Jamaican—left their sanctuaries. One was in sanctuary for three years and the other for two years.

I have found that the people involved in the New Sanctuary Movement are very dedicated. Some have been active in the cause since the 1980s.

Asylumist: The book is called Faces of Courage. What do you mean by “courage” in this context?

Harvey Finkle: A lot of the people pictured in the book are challenging authority. Some are in very vulnerable situations. In that sense, it is a courageous act to stand up against the government.

The Dreamers are part of this effort as well. I remember one demonstration where Dreamers were protesting in front of an ICE building. I said to myself, What are they doing? Let people with papers sit in front of ICE. But they were putting themselves out there, and they were at risk. Some of the Dreamers are pictured in the book.

And by the way, the book grew out of an exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania. The photo captions were originally written by the people who ran the New Sanctuary Movement (in English and Spanish), and we used those for the book. Michael Matza—a journalist who specializes in immigration—wrote the forward and Adan Mairena—a pastor and activist originally from Central America—wrote the afterward. And then we had a book. I should also mention that all royalties from the book will go to the New Sanctuary Movement.

Asylumist: Tell me about the photo on the book cover.

Harvey Finkle: The photo is of a couple, Gerardo and Teresa. They have been part of the New Sanctuary Movement since the beginning. They are marching through the streets of their neighborhood in Philadelphia. It’s pretty bold because it exposes them to the possibility of being detained by ICE. They were marching to try to build support for the Movement and to steel up people in the neighborhood where many people are undocumented. They are trying to show that there are possibilities to oppose the system.

I like the look on Gerardo’s face. He is present, but distant. He is there, but he is looking out. There is a tranquility about him in a situation where you would expect him to be anxious. I also like that they are there together, as a couple.

Faces of Courage: Ten years of Building Sanctuary is available from Parlor Press. Royalties from the book will go to the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: