The Last Bus Home

Breakthrough on aisle three: A photo from "American Family" (above) by Quito Ziegler (pictured below)

As a New York native, Quito Ziegler doesn't exactly embrace the outdoors. Instead, she photographs vast Minnesota landscapes and duplicates them on poster-sized sheets of paper using a set of Livestock Markers. In one picture taped to her apartment wall, a sky glows neon pink, clouds are saturated in rich purple, and the roads are paved in ocean blue. "I've never understood nature and the whole appeal of it," she says, resting her legs on a bright-pink love seat decorated with a furry red pillow. It looks like a longhaired beast that she snapped in nature and colored in with one of her markers.

As a photographer, Ziegler is mostly concerned with capturing human emotion, a story a rusty silo or barren tree can't tell. She has a face full of freckles and a head of dark, ringlet curls, and she chirps excitedly and at length about any subject. Despite her teenage looks and enthusiasm, Ziegler turns 28 next month. She plops her teeny frame on her olive-green couch and places her mini Mac on her lap. "I tried to arrange these photographs by mood," she says. "I'm not sure if it works." A slide show featuring six immigrants of various ages and backgrounds who live in Minnesota flashes on the screen. From outside, snippets of multilingual conversations and a melting pot of food scents wave through her open windows as horns blast and bass thumps from nearby parked cars.

Since last fall, Ziegler has been photographing her subjects as part of the upcoming Minnesota Freedom Ride, an extension of last year's national Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. The IWFR's cross-country journey by bus united more than 1,000 migrant workers from 10 different cities and culminated in a New York City rally aimed to encourage lawmakers to enact policies that support immigrant rights in the workplace, a fair path to citizenship, and family reunification. Ziegler was asked a couple of weeks prior to the event to come along as a photographer and teach riders how to use the cameras they were given. "I knew by the middle of the first day that this was going to be about a whole lot more than me taking pictures," she says. "Everything felt very big to me."

Ziegler enjoys finding out what happens when control gives way to spontaneity. During a photography trip to Bangladesh a few years ago, she didn't have a place to stay for a few nights, but figured, like any invincible post-collegiate wanderer on a tour of the world and herself, that an opportunity would eventually present itself. She met a man on a boat who brought her to his remote village. Immediately, families and children began lining up against a thatch house, posing in sunglasses and bathing suits, some of them multiple times. One little girl rushed to get dressed up for the occasion: In Ziegler's photo, the girl wears gold hoop earrings, a knee-length baby-pink dress, and a touch of red lipstick that looks like a Kool-Aid stain. The Bangladeshi images hang above photos of Ziegler's Long Island family, who pose for the camera with the ocean as their backdrop. They're on the other side of the world, but their expressions and poses somehow mirror the subjects in Ziegler's Bangladesh photos.

Ziegler, a Macalester graduate who interned under local photographer Wing Young Huie, wound up living in New York after the original Freedom Ride. After a messy breakup, she decided to do something more with the photos she had taken and began pelting the Freedom Ride organizers with e-mails. "I wanted to do something with these photographs that could further the movement," she says. She also wanted to build a bridge between old and new Minnesota, and to put the photos back into the place they originated--something she learned from her mentor Huie, whose Lake Street USA exhibit displayed nearly 700 photos along the titular street.

The organizers agreed to continue the project, and the group has since been reorganized. They're now concentrating on changing local immigration policies and supporting the Dream Act, which would allow high-achieving students from illegal immigrant families to receive in-state tuition rates instead of paying international-student fees. And with American Family: Stories Behind the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, Ziegler will place the photos she's taken over the last nine months on the outside of the Freedom Ride bus as it rolls through a five-day Minnesota tour in an effort to educate people on immigration issues. The Rally for Immigrant Rights, where the photo exhibit debuts, takes place on Saturday, October 4 at Government Plaza in downtown Minneapolis.

With the upcoming rally on her mind, Ziegler rearranges the photos, grouping them by individual instead of by mood. She flashes through images of Seef, a Somali immigrant who works as the news anchor on Somali community TV. "I was the first American he'd ever had over," she says. In one photo, Seef covers his face with his hands as the TV camera lights cast ominous shadows on the wall behind him. In another, his family looks on as he cradles his preteen daughter in his arms like a giant sack.

Ziegler stops on photos of Lu, a Filipino immigrant who works in the dish room at the Mayo Clinic even though Ziegler suspects he could be nearing 80. He stands on a step stool and laughs along with a co-worker as they scrub down dishes in one photo, and then closes his eyes as he reads from the Bible in another. Ziegler describes him as the granddaddy on the original Freedom Ride, and imitates his way of turning ordinary words into elongated, romantic prose.

She passes through photos of Hesbon, a Kenyan who emigrated here in 1997. His wife finally received her immigration papers in 2000, but their children didn't receive travel documents until this year. Ziegler went along for their reunion at the airport where she photographed them as they excitedly snapped pictures of one another. The kids are bundled in thick down coats as they pose for the camera at the baggage claim, their faces a mixture of apprehension and overwhelming excitement. "It's about what happens in people's hearts," Ziegler says. "That's why I took these pictures. I think the greatest artists try to react to the world."

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