Portraits of America
William Taufic ’77 grew up in Austin, Minnesota, a small meat-packing town best known for being the birthplace of SPAM.
Yet when he returned to his hometown in 2017 after spending decades developing a career as a professional photographer that took him around the world, he was struck by how much the community had changed. A substantial number of immigrants, refugees, and other newcomers have made Austin their home, hailing from countries such as South Sudan, Mexico, Benin, Myanmar, and numerous others. Together they have created a community rich with diversity, where more than 40 languages are spoken.
“What’s more, the town has welcomed the newcomers from all over the world with open arms, helping them to become part of the community and eventually new Americans,” Taufic writes on his photography site. “I am the son of an immigrant, who was the son of immigrants. Most of us here in our beloved United States of America, unless you have Native American roots, are immigrants. Unfortunately, in recent years we have become not so united.”
What he saw in the way that Austin has embraced its diversity inspired him to create a photography project titled “Our Austin, Our America” that features portraits of community members paired with personal narratives. The Minnesota State Capitol Art Gallery displayed his exhibit through this fall, and Taufic published a book highlighting the project that is available for purchase online at Sweet Reads, a locally owned bookstore in Austin, and at the Minnesota Historical Society.
“I am really hopeful that what I have done will help other communities understand that there is nothing to fear — the more you welcome people regardless of the color of their skin, the more likely that your community will be successful and diverse and have a richer culture,” he says.
“I am really hopeful that what I have done will help other communities understand that there is nothing to fear — the more you welcome people regardless of the color of their skin, the more likely that your community will be successful and diverse and have a richer culture.”William Taufic ’77
The roots of Taufic’s appreciation for multiculturalism and diversity begin with his family, with his father’s parents migrating from Lebanon to Brazil. Taufic’s father would himself later immigrate to the United States. That link to global engagement continued to Taufic’s own time at St. Olaf during the 1970s.
During a biology lab during his sophomore year, while counting fruit flies for a genetics project, his professor, Arnold Petersen, approached him with a question: “I’m going to take some students to Liberia next summer to do an independent research project. Would you like to join us?” For Taufic, the answer was easy.
He spent the rest of his year planning a psychology memory experiment in Liberia with a group of other students from the University of Minnesota Student Project for Amity Among Nations (SPAN). He also collaborated with a psychology fellow from Rockefeller University in New York, Michael Cole, and spent the summer of 1975 traveling across villages in northern Liberia collecting data for the research. Taufic documented his time there by taking photographs — lots and lots of photographs. Once he returned to campus, his work was displayed in a photography show, co-sponsored by St. Olaf Professor Emeritus of Art A. Malcolm “Mac” Gimse ’58, in the old student center. It was also printed by the Minneapolis Tribune for a story on the SPAN organization.
Little did Taufic know that this would lead to his first post-St. Olaf career opportunity.
“Three weeks before I graduated, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life,” he says. Then he received a call from his uncle, who knew a photographer in New York who was hiring. Taufic sent him a letter and some photographs from Liberia. Three days later, he received a call from the photographer. A week after graduation, he was living at the YMCA on New York’s 34th Street.
That initial job led to work assisting many known fashion, still-life, and corporate photographers, and then eventually to his own successful business as a corporate annual report photographer. It is a career that has led Taufic to travel across all 50 states in the U.S and more than 40 countries, doing work for Fortune 500 companies like United Technologies, Xerox, JP Morgan, UBS, Chubb, and many more. The world became his studio.
After that initial 2017 visit to Austin, Taufic spent the next three years living in Austin, where he worked closely with community leaders like former mayor Bonnie Rietz and retired Riverland Community College President Adenuga Atewologun. He presented his work to the city of Austin in August 2022 in a photography exhibit and a coffee table book.
“I am just so very grateful that I have been blessed with the ability and opportunity to do this work. It has made a difference in the world, in Minnesota, in Austin,” Taufic says. “People are wanting to come to Austin to see what is going on.”