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Quiet Heroes — Over Eighty offers universal life lessons from older L.A. immigrants

The USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology exhibit conveys the beauty and dignity of age, encouraging people to examine their own place in the world

Veda Joshi left his home in Nepal to provide a better education for his children. Rachel Lapin fled persecution in Russia. Guy Pasquini stowed away on a ship from Italy in search of a new beginning.

All of them settled in Los Angeles and are featured in Quiet Heroes — Over Eighty, a photography exhibit showcasing the region’s older immigrants and minorities who share advice on how to overcome adversity and live a meaningful life.

“I was curious why war and hatred were so prevalent throughout the world, and I thought, who better to ask than people who could look back over their lives, who had experienced lack of opportunity and intolerance, and left their homes for a better life?” said photographer Barry Shaffer, a USC alumnus who created the exhibit with his wife.

The collection is displayed in the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology’s Sophie Davis Art Gallery, a venue that celebrates older artists and aims to illuminate topics related to aging across the life course.

Quiet Heroes exhibit covers diversity in L.A.

Quiet Heroes — Over Eighty portrays the diversity and contributions of older adults across Los Angeles. It contains 31 portraits, including a woman who hid Jews in Poland during the Holocaust and another who survived the bombing of Hiroshima. Other heroes include a truck driver, housekeeper, professor, filmmaker and farmer. In poses and prose, they express themes of freedom, generosity, faith, education, forgiveness, hope, love and loss.

It is fascinating, he said, to be able to share different human beings’ experiences and to hear their values and see how much those values align.

Shaffer has traveled extensively as a dentist and in his second career as a photographer. His fine art photography book, Echoes of Bhutan, is a recent release.

His wife, Barbara, said the exhibit is a tribute to seniors, aging, immigration, diversity and the wisdom of our elders. That wisdom includes the following guidance from 104-year-old Shih-Yin Dai from China: “Step back from arguments, look at things differently so you can get to a solution.”

Couple connects with participants

Barry and Barbara Shaffer: Quiet Heroes exhibit

Barry and Barbara Shaffer (USC Photo/Dario Griffin)

The Shaffers, who began their project in 2007, spent years connecting with participants to profile. They started their search by knocking on the door of a Boyle Heights church, a fitting location because Barry’s Los Angeles roots took hold in that neighborhood. A connection to people and culture remained a strong part of the project, particularly as the couple was invited into people’s homes and lives.

“We would sit down with them and they opened their hearts,” Barbara Shaffer said. “I think they were honored that someone wanted to ask questions about their lives.”

The project ultimately included close to 70 people for the full collection. They represented Argentina, Armenia, Ghana, Germany and other far-flung countries. Stella Guzman, a descendant of the original settlers of Los Angeles, was one of the participants.

During a recent gallery visit, Mark Lucero gazed at the appropriately larger-than-life portrait of his late grandmother, the matriarch of his Native American family who died just before turning 101. He recalled a feisty woman who lit sage, prayed and fought for her children to attend their local public school instead of an Indian school set up by the federal government.

“This is history being acknowledged, and it makes me proud and happy,” Lucero said.

Exhibit brings participants together

Five of the 31 individuals featured in the gallery photos, along with family members paying tribute to six participants who have since passed away and one who returned to his native Mongolia, came to reunite with the Shaffers and view the exhibit.

“I think I look younger than the picture,” joked 86-year-old Joshi, who educated four children in the United States and is now raising money to pay tuition for schoolchildren in his native Nepal. He makes yearly trips there and actively promotes his cause on Facebook. His granddaughter, Stephanie Ano, said he is a quiet hero indeed.

“I’ve done my best to give something so people can make their lives better,” Joshi said. “But my work is not done.”


The Sophie Davis Gallery is open to the public Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about the gallery, contact Emily Nabors at emily.nabors@usc.edu.

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Quiet Heroes — Over Eighty offers universal life lessons from older L.A. immigrants

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