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Americans Who Tell the Truth

Jim Harney

Political and Social Activists

Jim Harney

Activist for the Undocumented/Excluded, Photojournalist (1940 – 2008)

I could hear the five hundred pound bombs going off, and see A-37 jets that my country had sent down to El Salvador, and we were in a dirt floor hut and those who could read shared some scripture ..., and one of them a mother breast feeding her baby, and the A-37 jets came in ...

And then the woman brought me out of the hut, and as the bombs were going off in the valley she pointed to the planes coming in and she said they come from a part of the world where people believe in a God of death. We believe in a God of the living, and when you believe in the God of the living, she said you end up doing things that you never dreamt yourself capable of doing.

Globalization  is the the development of an increasingly integrated global economy marked especially by free trade, free flow of capital, and the tapping of cheaper foreign labor markets.” This is the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition, although the term does not appear in the 1967 edition. It also does not define the consequences for so many people who are squeezed out of this more modern economy. Jim Harney called those people the undocumented, or the excluded. For decades, and up until his death, Harney’s work was to bring a voice, a face, and a story to the undocumented.



Jim Harney grew up in Boston, MA in a Catholic “ghetto,” where whole Catholic communities (including schools, hospitals, and churches) lived in isolation from the non-Catholic neighborhoods around them. Harney became a priest in the sixties, and in that decade, two major events occurred to inform Harney’s outlook on the world. The first was the directive from the Second Vatican Council to open Catholicism to the world, in essence opening Harney and the “ghettoes” to interaction and dialogues with their neighbors in the non-Catholic communities. The second event was the Vietnam War, and this put Harney onto the path he’d follow for the rest of his life.

In 1968, Harney and thirteen other antiwar activists broke into some draft board offices, stole some files and burned them with homemade napalm. They came to be known as the Milwaukee 14, and all went to prison for over a year. Jim Harney, spending much of his time in solitary confinement with only the Bible to read and absorb, was released with a new purpose – to follow and spend time with the poor and degraded people of the world.

Armed with a camera, Harney went anyplace and everyplace there was suffering – Haiti, Argentina, Venezuela and beyond. He returned with photographs and stories of the struggles of the poor. Globalization had left so many people without jobs, forcing their exclusion from this economy, and often sending them on long journeys to find work. As one profile pointed out, “US citizens in particular bear a responsibility to hear the testimony of the Madres (Mothers) of those “disappeared” by the US School of the Americas (SOA) graduates and to understand that someone else pays the difference for our ‘bargains’ at the mall.”

Determined to give voices to the excluded, Jim Harney amassed thousands of photos to create a slide show presentation. He also studied finance to better equip himself to explain how globalization affects these poor, and went to schools, churches, anyplace where people wanted to experience the “excluded” life through Harney’s lens. In the 1990s, Harney moved to Bangor, Maine and became an Artist in Residence for Posibilidad, a group formed in 1999 of activists which “engages people in conversation around the excluded of society.” There he continued his work, putting his slides into a more compact Power Point presentation, making it easier to share and discuss with the public.

In 2008, Jim Harney, diagnosed with terminal cancer, planned “The Longest Walk,” with the intention of walking from Boston to Washington, D.C. Harney wished to walk and bring his presentation and discussions on immigration injustice to anyone interested along the way. He only made it as far as Providence, RI, and passed away at home. His legacy lives on in his images, stories, and his own words about his mission. Harney said, “I try to use my camera to capture the excluded of the world as subjects of promise and hope….I go on the premise that when people who are not suffering see the pain on this planet, they change. How can we stand tall and take pride as a human being when violence and poverty is taking place in countries where democracy is being created? I try to speak for those who don’t get a chance to speak for themselves.”



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