I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
A photojournalist discusses the stories behind his images of immigration in an age of militarized border enforcement.
John Moore is a Pulitzer Prize-winning special correspondent and staff photographer for Getty Images. During his first seventeen years as a photojournalist he worked in more than sixty-five countries across six different continents. In 2008, Moore returned to the United States and turned his eye toward issues of immigration and border security. Earlier this year he released his first book of photography, Undocumented: Immigration and the Militarization of the United States-Mexico Border (powerHouse Books), comprising of an entire decade’s worth of images. His work offers a sobering look at migration and border enforcement, presenting glimpses of death, deportation, and detention against competing backdrops of natural beauty and institutional sterility. Moore’s photographs also manage to capture the insidious sense of normalcy that often underlies incidents of violence and desperation, as well as the profound dignity and resilience that migrants carry with them on each step of their journey. Moore spoke with me last month during an event at the Chicago Humanities Festival.
Francisco CantúI want to begin our conversation by talking about the image that opens your book, Undocumented. Unlike most of the other photos in the book, it appears without a caption. It’s not exactly clear where it’s taken, and we don’t know why the family at its center has gathered together or what exactly they’re looking at, all of which is part of what makes it so compelling. What more can you tell us about this photograph and the decision to make it the first one people would see when encountering your work?
John MooreSometimes, as photojournalists, we’re hitting pictures on the nose and sometimes they’re a little bit more ambiguous. For this particular image, I had been in Guatemala trying to improve a chapter of my book about the root causes of why so many people are making this long and very perilous journey, and I attended the funeral of two young boys who were kidnapped on the way to school, and when their parents could not pay the ransom, they were killed. This picture was taken at a memorial service for those boys. At the center of the photo is a classmate of theirs, and he was wearing a secondhand shirt that said, “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT.” Obviously, he wouldn’t have known the irony in wearing that shirt—that so many people from his community make that long journey.FC The boy’s shirt also makes a statement about how pervasive our nationalistic immigration rhetoric has become and how far reaching it can be. Could you talk about how you’ve seen this sort of rhetoric pervade communities on both sides of the border?
JM In the Central American communities where many immigrants, migrants, and asylum seekers are coming from, people know that an inhospitable welcome may be awaiting them from the US government. But they’re also aware that someone in their family, or maybe the person across the street, has a new roof on their house. They have electricity that works and they get remittances from family members in the United States. So even though this journey is uncertain and the chances of its success are relatively slim, many feel that it’s a worthwhile proposition anyway. Some people come because they’re under direct threat. Some people come because they have absolutely no economic future, and sometimes it’s both of those things at the same time.
FC As a photojournalist you’ve spent the better part of the last decade focused on border enforcement and immigration issues along the border, but before that you worked on assignment all across the globe. From the standpoint of your craft as a photojournalist, which has so much to do with capturing conflict and strife in all of these different contexts, how do the US-Mexico borderlands compare?
JMThere’s a lot of drama that happens on our side of the border, but the “violence” that’s talked about so much is normally happening on the Mexican side. Yes, of course there’s some violence on the US side, but take for example the border city of El Paso, Texas—it’s one of the safest cities in America. And it’s right across from Ciudad Juarez, which is not at all one of the safest cities in Mexico. Why doesn’t more of that violence spill over? Simply because it’s bad for business. The same smuggling cartels that bring people across also bring drugs across. And any interruption in that trade costs them a lot of money, so it’s not really worthwhile for them to be shooting border agents on a regular basis, because it’s just bad for business.
The other day I was in McAllen in the Rio Grande valley of Texas, and asked a migrant what the toughest part of his journey was and he looked at me and said, “Mexico—the whole of it.” He not only had to deal with the gangs and the elements, but also with members of the Mexican government, law enforcement on both local and federal levels.
FCYou’ve spent some time recently with the migrant caravan, and one of the foundational things that many people perhaps don’t understand is that these caravans have formed first and foremost as a way for migrants to subvert some of the extreme dangers that underlie the journey through Mexico. What can you tell us about people’s hopes and motivations as part of this group?
JMFor many folks who were thinking, “well, you know, one day maybe I can afford a smuggler to make this journey,” and then heard about this group, they may have seen it as their only way to travel safely and for free. You don’t have to save up $10,000 for each of your family members. You just go. Some in the United States may wonder how someone could decide in a couple of hours to pick up and leave for another country. It’s because they saw this happening and said “this is our only chance to leave a hopeless situation.” Many people came wearing flip‑flops. They did not come prepared for a long walk. That’s how it grew so quickly.
FCMuch of the attention on the caravan has been rooted in fear, but in many ways, I think we should be inspired by it. These groups of people are finding ways to band together outside of traditional power structures and socioeconomic mechanisms to avoid much of the dehumanization and violence that so often defines the migrant journey.
JMIt’s true. And knowing what they may face at the US border, with all this military equipment and Border Patrol agents in riot gear, you think wow, why would they still do it? A lot of these people are deeply religious and trust that divine intervention will help them manage to do it. They have a lot of faith—despite all the reasons to not have it, they have it every day.
FCYour caption for this photograph reads very simply: “Central American families watch as US Border Patrol agents approach. They had just crossed over the US-Mexico border near Roma, Texas, seeking political asylum.” What else can you tell us about this photo?
JMThese are families who have come across the US border, seeking political asylum. What traditionally happened during both the Obama administration and the Bush administration is that people came across, turned themselves in to border agents, were brought into the system, and given an interview. If they had what’s considered a credible fear of returning to their country, they would be released until their case could be heard by immigration judges, and that’s been the case for many years. But during the zero tolerance policy of the Trump administration, and specifically during the family separations this summer, it became much more tricky, because people were coming and they didn’t know about new changes—that they might be sent to detention for long periods of time while their cases were heard or that they may or may not be separated from their kids.
FCThere’s a quote from Susan Sontag that I think is in direct conversation with what’s happening in this photograph. She writes in On Photography that “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have.” It strikes me that in the case of this photograph, as in so many others, you have so much knowledge about what awaits these families, while they have almost none, and I wonder if you can talk about negotiating that.
JMWhenever possible, I try to have at least some tacit consent from the people I’m photographing. That doesn’t come in terms of written consent like photo releases, and sometimes it doesn’t even come in complete verbal consent. It sometimes just comes from entering into a conversation with people and asking them where they come from, how their journey was. They see that I have cameras and I’m taking pictures, and I can sense if they want me to go away or if it’s okay for me to stay and photograph.
In certain situations, involving spot news photography, where things are happening in front of you, you can’t really ask for consent because otherwise spot news photographs would not exist as we know them. And so talking to people ahead of time is more of a guideline that I try to follow, and it has to do with adding a sense of respect and dignity, and having people feel that you’re telling their story in a way that’s fair.
Telling these stories visually, completely objectively, is not possible, because we all bring our human experiences to that particular moment in time, and so I’m not really looking for objectivity. I’m looking for fairness. And people can tell oftentimes, unless you’re a real charlatan, that you are being straightforward and the photographs that they’re seeing you take are telling their story, and more often than not, people will open their doors.
FCSo many of the photos you’ve taken along the border depict scenes of chase and capture, often conveying a sense of hunting or being hunted, and also of confinement. Can you talk about these imagistic themes in your work?
JMIn this project, I wanted to show the vast border security network. I was able to get access into the Border Patrol, CBP’s Air and Marine Operations, and ICE in many cases. In one case, I was photographing two people that had just been detained near the Texas-Mexico border. They had been running from a group of Border Patrol agents supported by canine units and a helicopter. They had a frantic chase that led them to a grove of trees and they were under some thorny branches, sweaty and dirty and exhausted, when the Border Patrol agents with the dogs caught up to them. As they came out of the brush it was a very sad scene. It was getting dark and I had just a couple frames. The only photo that came out in focus was a close-up of them handcuffed, holding hands. Often when I’m photographing on a ride along with the Border Patrol, I’m not allowed to do interviews, I can only take pictures—so I wasn’t able to talk to them.
I always wonder when I look at this frame: Did these two people know each other before this desperate, ultimately futile chase? Was she comforting him, stroking the hand of a stranger, or had they been together for years? I don’t have the answers, but I always wonder.
FCYou’ve also taken many photographs of death—on both sides of the border. You have said in other interviews that one of your principal goals as a photographer is to humanize the issue of migration for people, and so I wonder if you could talk a bit about how you try to do that, especially when faced with the issue of migrant deaths.
JMPart of the difficulty in approaching this topic is showing the level of desperation and suffering that causes people to take such risks. Some of these photographs from the border were hard to take. I have a series of photographs of personal effects that are collected at the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office in Tucson, Arizona. They try to match the DNA from people who are found in the desert with DNA that gets sent from foreign consulates, from families who are desperate to know whether their loved ones made it or not. Trying to photograph things like that in a way that brings dignity to the situation is an ongoing challenge.
It’s worth noting that although you’ll often hear that the border security is terrible—that there’s no border security, it’s porous, and so on—the border is in fact more secure now than it’s ever been in its history. There has been, since about 2007, a big buildup. The Border Patrol went from a much smaller force to around 20,000, and so there are many more agents and many more ways to detect people coming across, and that, of course, causes people to take more distant routes through remote places, including the desert, where without water, you don’t last very long.
FCThe landscape is a principal element in a lot of your photos, and you’ve seen many of these areas from the perspective of both the Border Patrol and of migrants.
JMShowing the varied terrain and showing what people endure to cross it on one hand shows the beauty of the landscape and on the other shows the difficulties that people have in those places. Now, people ask me: what do aesthetics and the beauty have to do with telling the story? For me, trying to show these particular pictures in an aesthetically pleasing way draws people into the story and shows them the vastness of this terrain.
FCOf all the countless photos you’ve taken, the one that most people are likely to have seen and remembered is the image of the crying girl you took this summer during the so-called family separation crisis, which is still ongoing. What was the context for that photo?JMThat evening I was with a public affairs agent for the Border Patrol and he gave me a choice: He said, look, there’s a vehicle bailout happening over here and there’s some family arrivals over there. He said the bailout is really interesting, it’s a big chase, let’s go there. And I was like, you know, that sounds exciting but what about those families coming across, what do you say we go over there? The public affairs agent was deflated, but we went over and ended up by the river. I could see rafts coming across with people and it was very dark. It was a moonless night and I could hear people coming up through the brush, through the woods, towards a dirt road. I could hear a child crying, and then on the road this agent and I encountered a group of women and children, about twenty. A transport vehicle and some other agents came, and one by one they would body search everyone before loading them into a vehicle.
I spoke briefly with this mother holding a little girl and she said they were from Honduras and had been traveling for a month. The mother was reluctant to put her child down, because she knew what would happen, but the agent was insistent—you have to put the child down to be searched. And so she did, and the girl started crying. I have a series of maybe six pictures of that scene where the little girl is on the ground. I took a knee to get on her level. It was an emotional scene, and I had no way to know if they would be separated or not.
I could not have known at the time the photo was taken that it would have that kind of impact. As photojournalists we want to have impact every single day—we try to make a difference. If we can’t change the world, if we can’t change a policy, we want to at least challenge a few biases and inform. But I could not have known it would touch so many people. A few days later, it ran on the front page of the New York Times and then it quickly spread across social media.
FCAfter this photo went viral, the image of this girl became a symbol for the entire issue of family separation. It reminds me of the famous photo by Nick Ut taken during the Vietnam War of a naked girl on a country road, crying out in pain after being sprayed with American napalm. Susan Sontag wrote that Ut’s photo “probably did more to increase the public revulsion against the war than a hundred hours of televised barbarities.” But it strikes me that when a photo becomes a symbol, it often becomes severed from the intentions the photographer may have had in taking it, and certainly severed from the experience and lived reality of the actual person or people at its center—in this case, the mother and her child. What sort of life do you wish for this photo moving forward?
JMWhen I photograph, I never know if a picture is going to be iconic or not. But I hope that this photo will remain a symbol, a humanization, a face of the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy. When I found out that the girl had not been separated from her mother, I was so relieved. I’ve been in touch with the mother ever since. I can’t talk much about her story because I don’t want to spoil her asylum process, but that was a very emotional moment, and I think that the still image is one that can remain in our minds. Video is fantastic, and it is very important as a medium, but the still image has a certain power that has remained consistent throughout the history of photography. We’ve seen that certain photos can still capture the fascination of the public at large. Yes, the sheer volume of photographs can be numbing, as we are exposed to so many of them every day. But a single photo can still make a personal connection to the viewer and move people to feel and act. Ultimately I hope this photograph stands the test of time as a symbol of immigration enforcement in this particular moment in history.
Francisco Cantú is a writer, translator, and the author of The Line Becomes a River. A former Fulbright fellow, he is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a 2017 Whiting Award, and a 2018 Art for Justice fellowship. His writing and translations have been featured in The New York Times, Best American Essays, Harper’s, and Guernica, as well as on This American Life. He lives in Tucson and coordinates the Southwest Field Studies in Writing Program at the University of Arizona.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee