December 04, 2019
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When I look at this picture, I have a little more hope for the future

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Skipping as he goes, a 2-year-old boy named Prince makes his way through the temporary shelter for asylum seekers at the Portland Expo.

PORTLAND, Maine — My cameras are heavy. I usually carry two and they each weigh about six pounds. That’s why he struggled to pick it up.

The little boy, Prince, never did get it up to his eye but his finger found the shutter button. He aimed it, too, and took a picture of me while I was taking a picture of him. I only saw the blurred image later, while editing shots for the story.

The photo struck me, hard.

It was only a split second of time, recorded in pixels and electricity, but it’s that kind of unexpected human connection that keeps me in this business. I suspect it always will.

[As deadline to leave nears, asylum seekers in the Portland Expo wait for new lives to begin]

I met Prince in the Expo last week while working a story about asylum seekers with my colleague, Nick Schroeder, and a French-speaking interpreter. We had an hour, at lunchtime, to find some folks willing to talk to us and be photographed. We wanted their side of the story amid conflicting narratives coming from politicians at City Hall.

It’s been a divisive story all summer. The legal asylum seekers, mostly from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, started arriving in June. The city set up a temporary shelter for them at the Expo and has slowly been finding them housing. But a deadline is looming. Everyone has to be out of the Expo when the Red Claws basketball team comes back on Aug. 15.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
A sequence of photos taken by Bangor Daily News photographer Troy R. Bennett show a 2-year-old boy named Prince asking to see one of his cameras and then taking Bennett's photo. The boy is one of hundreds of people who have come to Portland seeking asylum, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. 

Prince and his mother, Sephora, are two of the roughly 264 people still waiting for a place to live. They were just finishing lunch when we met them. The Expo was sweltering and loud. Sephora looked tired.

I sat near her while she talked to Nick and the interpreter. I was hoping she would agree to being photographed. While I waited, her little boy, Prince came up to me, interested in my cameras.

It’s universal. No matter where kids come from, they want to look at my equipment. My cameras have always been my passport into other people’s lives.

[Government persecution, bandits and crossing the ‘Mountain of Death’: Migrant families describe perilous journey to Portland]

I didn’t have his mother’s permission to photograph him. Instead, I took a picture of myself making a funny face and showed it to him on the back of the camera. He laughed and immediately started pressing buttons.

Prince found the zoom control in an instant. Then, he amused himself by zooming in and out on my nose and laughing. I pointed to my real nose and named it. He then pointed to his own and said something that might have been “nose.”

He laughed some more. I did too. It was our only common language.

About then, Nick asked Sephora if pictures were OK. She said they were. I photographed them together and then Prince ran off with some other kids.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Prince, 2, and his mother Sephora, 35, sit at a table in the Portland Expo. They're both seeking asylum in the United States and face an uncertain future.

I asked his mother, through the interpreter, how old he was. She said he was 2. I held my hand a few feet off the floor, looked astonished and said, “Wow, he’s so tall.”

No interpreter was needed. Sephora beamed and said, “Yes.”

She then told the interpreter, “He’s going to be a boxer when he grows up. His father was tall, too.”

While Nick continued the interview, I went looking for Prince. I saw him making his way down the rows of cots lining the basketball court in the Expo. He was alone, headed my way, singing and skipping.

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I made some more pictures of him. When Prince spotted me, he held out his hands for my camera. I hung one around his neck. That’s when we took photos of each other. Prince then put my camera on the floor and joined a group of children racing around the giant room.

That was it. I’ll probably never see him again. He won’t remember me when he grows up.

But I’ll remember that random moment for a long time. Meeting people like Prince and his mother are what make my job — and my life — worthwhile. They remind me it’s a privilege to be a journalist, to be trusted with a stranger’s story and then tell it to the world.

When I look at the pictures Prince and I made of each other, I have a little more hope for the future. Maybe there’s a place up ahead where nobody is running for their lives, where politicians aren’t bickering, where there’s enough of everything for everybody, everywhere. Just maybe.

I don’t know anything about Sephora’s and Prince’s asylum claim or if they will be allowed to stay here. It’s a question I cannot answer but I wish Prince and Sephora the best.

[As Portland surges with newcomers, here’s a look at the process of seeking asylum and why it’s different this time]

As I picked up my camera from where Prince put it down, I saw a television cameraman from one of the Boston stations just a few yards off. He’d attracted a group of curious kids. They were chattering away, pointing up at his camera on a tripod.

He then swung it around, in a protective gesture, and turned his back on them. They melted away into the dim Expo.

Astonished, I muttered to myself, “Buddy, you’re missing the best part.”

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