By Justin Baker, Contributor
Dr. Peter Szto is the man behind the exhibit on display in the Osborne Family Gallery at the Criss Library.
Szto, assistant professor and program chair at the Grace Abbott School of Social Work, came to UNO in 2004, and teaches undergraduate and graduate programs. He teaches courses on policy and mental health. He also takes students to China, and will be doing that next summer.
Szto decided to display the collection of photographs in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Grace Abbott School of Social Work. The photographs in the exhibit were taken in Guangzhou, China in June of 2005.
“It’s kind of like my ancestral home. My father was born in a little village outside of Guangzhou, my mother did her schooling in Guangzhou, even though she was born in a neighboring province, and then my wife is from Guangzhou,” Szto said. “There are deep roots.”
Historically, Guangzhou is known as Canton. Though every major city in China, like Beijing and Shanghai, is dealing with an influx of immigrants, it was especially prominent in Guangzhou at the height of the phenomenon in 2005.
“The economic reforms started there earlier, in the early 80s, so it has had a longer experience with the floating population,” Szto said.
The exhibit is meant to be viewed from right to left, like Chinese calligraphy, and is separated into 10 typologies.
“I wanted to do it like their journey into the city. So the first one is their arrival, and then they try to make ends meet, so they’re selling. Over time, some begin to struggle, and you can see the effects of making (it) and not making it,” Szto said. “From first arriving, there is a lot of hope and optimism, then life takes over.”
There is also a separate section of larger photographs where migrants have written in chalk on the sidewalks, which provides more context to each of their situations.
Szto has favorites of the photos on exhibit.
“The dancing ones I really like,” Szto said. “Just the shapes of the figures, and they’re so different from the other pictures. The other pictures are on the harsher side of human life, but those are more about dignity, and leisure.”
Another one of Szto’s favorites depicts a shirtless boy sitting alone next to a busy sidewalk with a tin in hand, and if you look in the corner, you’ll see there is a girl about his age staring at him from the sidewalk. She’s easy to miss. When you do see her, you’ll see she’s dressed in nice, new clothes, her hair is cut, and her hand is grasping her parent’s. Photographs such as these are effective in demonstrating the contrasting lives of China’s “floaters.”
“One of the big things for the exhibit is just an awareness,” Szto said.
America and its people are intricately entwined with that of China’s.
“Part of the floating population works in a lot of the factories. China is now the factory of the world. The shoes you wear, the clothes you wear, a lot of it is made in China,” Szto said. “So just a little appreciation about the stuff we have here is because of the workforce over there. We’re not that far apart.”
The next time you’re at the library, take a few minutes out of your schedule to view the exhibit. Then put on the headphones and listen to the 6-minute program, “The Street of Eternal Happiness: The Migrant,” and before you leave, don’t forget to write down your thoughts in the booklet on the podium.
For those who would like to learn more about the issue, Szto is planning a public lecture in the next few weeks, where he will be discussing the floating population in-depth and how it has come to be.
“We understand the human spirit to go where it wants to go,” Szto said. “If it can’t, then that creates problems.”