An edge, boundary, or line of demarcation. Few concepts feel as critical to the contemporary discourse on migration as border, for every migrating subject must navigate a physical, political, or conceptual divide. Especially thick structures govern my own country’s national borders, whose markings, surveillance, and protection are the subjects of current debate. Soon they may be fortified at high costs, as US President Donald Trump has issued executive orders proposing the construction of a new border wall between the US and Mexico.
As anxieties about immigration resurge in the US, photographers are on the front lines, documenting the nation’s terrestrial borders. In recent years, photographers on both sides of the US-Mexico divide have traveled along its 1,989 miles, picturing them from the land and air. Photographers John Moore, Jim Watson, Jose Luis Gonzalez, and Pablo López Luz, for example, have used their cameras to ask important questions: What does the border look like? Whose needs does it serve? How is it currently defined and secured? What would it take to create a new border wall – physically and economically, but also culturally and emotionally? The photo by Gonzalez above reveals that a partial wall already exists, and invites us to consider the simultaneous beauty and ugliness of its form. Luz uses his aerial shots to argue for the artificiality of dividing the US and Mexico and the absurdity of ever building a continuous, impenetrable wall. He observes that “the landscape does not change much on either side of the border” and so “it’s man who’s dividing the territory between north and south, good and bad.”
Measuring 5,525 miles, the US-Canadian border is officially the world’s longest international boundary. Between 2012 and 2015, Canadian photographer Andreas Rutkauskas tested the popular perception that it is also the longest undefended border. Along his route he encountered guarded patrol stations and surveillance cameras; grand bridges, gateways, and monuments; and barriers between the two countries, both robust and makeshift. In the resulting photographic series, Borderline, stretches of the border appear unprotected or minimally secure. We see this in the photo below; a crossing is marked only by an unmanned telephone booth that people use to announce their arrival to US border guards. Appearances, however, can be deceiving. As Rutkauskas notes, anytime he approached and photographed the border on his trip, a patrol officer was quick to ask questions, although his journey was always allowed to continue.
Given the current prohibition of photographs depicting official US border activities, it is remarkable that Rutkauskas was so successful in completing his project. In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Homeland Security, arguing for the lawful use of cameras at border crossings and immigration facilities. To date the case has been unsuccessful, demonstrating that photographing the border remains a mighty thorny issue. The ACLU stands behind Americans’ right to document the public operations of law enforcement agencies, while defenders of the prohibition claim that cameras represent a significant national security risk. What if civilians were allowed to move into and out of the United States while taking photographs? The possibilities unnerve Homeland Security officials, even though they monitor border crossings with their own cameras.
So far I have been considering the work of photographers whose journeys across and along the border were neither forced nor deemed illegal by the US. What of the undocumented migrations into the country? How have their experiences been represented? Consider a group of photos taken by photojournalist Christinne Muschi in February 2017 that sharply contrasts the unrestricted trip on the border that Rutkauskas enjoyed as a white Canadian citizen. Setting up her camera on a dead-end road, she photographed refugees from Sudan, Mauritania, and Yemen attempting to walk from Champlain, New York across the border into Hemmingford, Québec. Muschi’s pictures show families and individuals attempting to cross, only to be taken into custody by Canadian police. Her captions tell a story of police kindness north of the US border, as officers help people up snow banks and hold children in their arms; but nowhere do we see the fearful, sympathetic refugees receiving the asylum they seek.
In the Undocumented Migration Project, anthropologist Jason De León takes a different look at unauthorized border crossings, shedding light on the unkindness of US immigration policies. As security increases at US border stations, more and more people select paths across the border that take them through remote, treacherous, desert terrain. Working between Arizona, USA and Mexico, De León has documented the material culture of these clandestine migrations. Photos taken by De León and his team depict the objects left behind by migrants, including backpacks, water bottles, sentimental objects, and other personal effects. They also capture the bodies of the dead, human and animal. The Undocumented Migration Project goes a step further: it equips border crossers with cameras and runs photo camps for Arizona children so that they might use photography to tell their own migration stories.
From where I sit, just a two-hour drive from the US-Canadian border, one thing is clear: a boundary that once signified possibility for many has become rebranded with fear and hostility. It would be naïve to think that America embraced my French-Canadian ancestors with open arms, and that their migration to New England led directly to their social mobility and personal success. It was never that simple. But the character of America’s borders are changing rapidly, and the black and brown bodies seeking to cross them are at risk. Photography can draw attention to that risk, and it can invite the world to look closely at what (if anything) is to be gained from it.
This week I will put this idea to the test at a community event in Waterville, Maine. Working with local partners, the Photography and Migration Project has invited area residents to bring their historical family photos to the local public library for digitization and to share their migration stories on video, in addition to enjoying food and music drawn from local cultural traditions. While celebrating historical immigration to Waterville from the United Kingdom, Canada, and Lebanon, we are concerned to represent migration to Maine as dynamic, continuous, and diverse. And so we are reaching out to the city’s newest arrivals from Africa, Asia, and across the Americas, in the hope that they will contribute their family photographs and narratives. The event will also feature a selection of photographs from Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest’s New Mainers series, previously introduced in this blog series. How will “old” and “new” immigrants work together to redefine cultural heritage in Waterville in the twenty-first century? How can we represent and preserve the diversity of their migration stories through photography? Finally, how can this work challenge, on a local level, the increasing hostility and precariousness of American border culture? Through the Photography and Migration Project website, I look forward to sharing our ongoing efforts to explore these questions.