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The Next 400: Artists work to bring unity during racial strife

Updated: May. 7, 2021 at 7:28 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - As our country deals with heightened racial tension, two Cleveland photographers used their craft to unite people.

“Part of our mission statement is to uplift the human condition and I don’t think there’s a better way of doing that than people to people, minds, and hearts,” said Herb Ascherman.

In 2019, Ascherman came up with the idea to bring photographers who identify as Black, white, or other together to shed their differences and get to know each other. Little did he know, that following year, there would be months of social unrest following the death of George Floyd.

“We were months ahead of the social disruptions that racked this country because we are conscious of what Cleveland is in terms of its diversity and its divisiveness,” Ascherman added.

Ascherman called on fellow photographer Randy O. Norfus to help bring this project to life.

The two got 55 photographers of all races to participate in the “I Identify as” exhibit which is part of the 2021 Cleveland Photofest.

“We have to be proud of the effort we made because, despite all of the social mishap that’s happening in this country, we could communicate with people who saw the benefits of our idea,” said Norfus.

Two photographers involved in all of this were Georgio Sabino and Maria Perme.

“I identify as an African American, Spanish, French, Creole,” said Sabino.

Meanwhile, Perme is a white woman from Lake County.

“There were no people of color, or African American, what have you around,” said Perme.

Perme said during her two-month photo journey with Sabino, she learned what life is like for a multi-racial Black man in America.

“It’s been up and down for him to fit in in different places and for him to move in the world,” Perme added.

Sabino said understanding those who are different from you is crucial to helping ease the racial tension in the U.S.

“If you’re not ever going to wear someone else’s mask, how will you ever emphasize with another culture. So when I think of how we pull people together that’s one way of how we can do it,” said Sabino.

Perme and Sabino came into this project as strangers, but are now friends. “That’s what makes the world so beautiful.. that we’re all different,” said Perme.

Ascherman said that right there shows unity really can be achieved through photography.

“We have 55 people who left their boxes, who entered an unknown environment who put themselves open in front of someone that they had never met... from an entirely different background,” said Ascherman.

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