Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration, Photographs by Barbara Beirne. Courtesy National Steinbeck Center Museum.


Becoming American title bar

Archived exhibitions are no longer available for booking but are maintained as a virtual record of past Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) programs.

We truly enjoyed hosting Becoming American. The subject was a perfect fit and drew one of the largest audiences in our exhibition history. I personally spent time in the gallery on the last day looking into the eyes of the teenagers and reflecting on their courage and their struggles.
— National Steinbeck Center, Salinas, CA

Lili Shek, age 18. Photograph © Barbara Beirne.In many ways, ours is a nation of immigrants—hungry for freedom, peace, and the opportunity promised by the American Dream. The realities of that immigrant experience are most vividly read in the faces and words of young people who have made this journey.

Faithful to their native cultural traditions, but motivated to create a better life for themselves and their families, teenage immigrants have a unique vantage point from which to remind us what it means, and what it has always meant, to be American.

Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration features 59 riveting black-and-white images of young immigrants by accomplished documentary photographer Barbara Beirne. Each sensitive portrait is paired with excerpts from Beirne’s interviews with teens from Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. All of their stories are unique, and we read in every quote—and in every face—the individual struggles and hopes of “becoming American.”

>>Find out more about Barbara Beirne

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Exhibition installed at the Washington State History Museum

Contents 59 black-and-white photographs, labels with teenagers' commentary, text panels
Supplemental Educational and promotional resources, speaker list, bibliography
Size 200 running feet (60 running meters)
Category History & Culture
Security Moderate
Shipping Outgoing
Toured Through July 2011
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Tour Fully Booked

Dates   Host Institution Status
3/10/2007 6/3/2007 Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island Immigration Museum, New York, NY Booked
6/23/2007 9/2/2007 Cantigny Park Visitor's Center, Wheaton, IL Booked
9/22/2007 12/2/2007 National Steinbeck Center Museum, Salinas, CA Booked
12/22/2007 3/2/2008 History San Jose, San Jose, CA Booked
3/22/2008 6/1/2008 Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma, WA Booked
6/21/2008 8/31/2008 New Americans Museum, San Diego, CA Booked
10/17/2008 1/25/2009 Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA Booked
2/28/2009 5/31/2009 Durham Museum, Omaha, NE Booked
6/24/2009 8/30/2009 Museo Alameda, San Antonio, TX Booked
9/19/09 11/29/09 West Baton Rouge Museum, Port Allen, LA Booked
12/19/2009 2/01/2010 The Historical Society of Saginaw County and the Castle Museum, Saginaw, MI Booked
3/20/2010 5/30/2010 Oregon Historical Society, Portland, OR Booked
6/19/2010 8/29/2010 Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center, Fredericksburg, VA Booked
9/18/2010 11/28/2010 Central Florida Community College, Ocala, FL Booked
1/3/11 3/27/11 The Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, Moorhead, MN Booked
4/23/11 7/17/11 Charlotte Museum of History, Charlotte, NC Booked
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Related publications

Becoming American: Teenagers & Immigration
Exhibition Catalogue

Exhibitors receive limited copies of Barbara Beirne's 20-page companion book for educational use. Containing reproductions of 15 of the exhibition's photographs, with accompanying interview excerpts and introductory text, additional copies are available directly from the photographer at
Becoming American catalogue by Barbara Beirne
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Press release


Media only: Jennifer Schommer (202) 633-3121

Faces and Stories of Immigration Explored in New Smithsonian Traveling Photography Exhibition

“My parents’ sole reason to emigrate from Barbados to the United States was to give my brother and me more opportunities and a better life. They have made many sacrifices, and I hope to make them proud and never let them down.”— Ishmael Alleyne, age 17

Alleyne is one of 59 teenagers who participated in photographer Barbara Beirne’s study of recent immigrants’ experiences. In a new traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian, black-and-white photo-interviews—photographic portraits captioned by the subjects’ own words—offer a thought-provoking starting point for exploring immigration, acculturation and cultural diversity.

“Becoming American: Teenagers & Immigration” will premiere in New York City March 10, 2007 at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum—a part of the National Park Service’s Statue of Liberty National Monument. It will be on view through June 3, 2007. Developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the exhibition will travel around the country on a national tour through 2011.

“The young people presented in this exhibit give evidence that America, the land of immigrants, continues to attract courageous newcomers seeking freedom and opportunities,” stated Beirne. “These teenagers, who have struggled with the difficulties that accompany enormous change, bring with them the strength and determination needed to become an essential part of their adopted land. I look forward to watching their futures unfold.”

Beirne’s images capture first-generation immigrants and children of immigrants, revealing a diverse array of teenage responses to the immigrant experience. By photographing her subjects in their own communities—on a basketball court, at a place of worship, in a parent’s shop, at school and within their homes—she presents sensitive portraits, which give viewers an opportunity to better understand the complexity of the newcomers’ lives.

The accompanying narratives bring a vivid reality to the immigrant experience. Some stories are brimming with optimism: “Now I can go to school. This country is good,” proclaims Diana Ingabire, 15. Other comments reflect the hardships of being culturally different: “After the terrible events at the World Trade Center,” 16-year-old Sohale Mehrmanesh muses, “I’m afraid that all Arab people will be suspected of terrorism.” Many of the teens offer poignant observations about their new country. “I was surprised that there were so many homeless people living in this city. How could this happen in America?” asks Guinea native Mawa Fofana, 17.

Beirne’s interest in immigration began in 1999 with a photography assignment to document Kosovar Albanian refugees airlifted from overcrowded camps in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to military housing at Fort Dix, New Jersey. In time, Beirne managed to make friends with a few Kosovars who were relieved to find sanctuary in America, but the photographer admits that she was “overwhelmed with concern” about the immigrants’ uncertain futures in the United States. One by one, the newcomers moved out of the camp, leaving Beirne to ponder how they would adapt to life in this country. Attempting to answer that question and document the shared hopes and challenges of these youths, Beirne began interviewing and photographing immigrant teenagers from countries around the world

Barbara Beirne has worked as a documentary photographer for more than 25 years.  She has photographed in Belfast, Northern Ireland, India, Nepal and Ecuador. Her photographs have been widely exhibited in museums and galleries. Among her projects in the United States are photographs of women in Southern Appalachia. The images were featured in the well-received SITES exhibition “Serving Home and Community: Women of Southern Appalachia.” Beirne holds a masters degree in photography from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. 

SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than 50 years. SITES connects Americans to their shared cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science and history, which are shown wherever people live, work and play. Exhibition descriptions and tour schedules are available at

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