On Image & Absence

My latest project, "Tracing Gila River; A History of U.S. Detention" took me to Arizona, and the American Southwest for the first time. I spent days walking active migrant trails through the desert, interviewing immigration lawyers, humanitarian aid workers, and experiencing the disorienting feeling of being questioned from within my vehicle at border patrol checkpoints, miles from the border itself. It felt like a collision. For many months I'd prepared with research, arranging meetings or virtually scouting locations where I hoped the landscape would somehow reveal the layers beneath. As I framed my camera directly over a shredded blue polo shirt, abandoned just meters from a trail for reasons I'd never know, the absurdity of the moment crept in, turning my stomach. Here I was, asking this machine of mirrors to carry the weight of this object, the heat of this day, which left my whole body drenched in sweat after only a few miles of walking. I was asking these images to somehow share what it was to see an endless repetition of solitary shoes, rusted bike frames, and on the last day of my visit, the bones of a body that were collected by the local authorities in a black bag, to join the others on a shelf, in a dark room somewhere between here and the land this person called home. It was little wonder these images felt like a failure, given everything I was asking of them.

In that first visit, my thoughts felt like a clumsy yelp against the wisdom of the land itself. So, I began working backwards, asking only that each photograph held what my camera saw in its frame, as if adding footnotes to a story already written. Detention facilities are notorious in their lack of accessibility, leaving unfeeling, chain-linked perimeters to act as both opening and closing paragraphs. In contrast, the desert was devastatingly beautiful at times, wafting the distinct mild tar-like scent of Creosote after monsoon rains that flood roads in a matter of minutes. The extreme nature of these settings made the images become quite reactionary, an effort in chasing a narrative I knew existed, while the actions themselves were hidden out of sight. I continued to take photos, compelled by what was present, while in the same instant, acutely aware of what was absent.

After arriving home, I began traveling up and down I-81 to the National Archives in both Washington D.C. and Maryland, where I sifted through no less than 2,000 documents, images, and audio files within WWII and Border Patrol records. I went back again and again, invigorated by every bureaucratic ink mark, numerically digested life event, and theatrically staged image, which echoed the absurdity I'd felt standing there, trying to formulate what amount of dirt to shirt ratio would best convey everything at stake. Because of course, no such ratio exists, even though we are told that it does, and that if we are good at what we do, this formula will be enough. Archive imagery is extraordinary in its ability to conjure so much, simply in being of another time, subjectively removed through experience and collective memory. The nostalgia and contemplation we give to images from the past tend to have a self-aware quality that a new image struggles with, because of course, time is a slow storyteller. We don't know the current punchline yet. In being archived, someone has already labeled, catalogued, and defined the purpose of the image, leaving it only to be dis-mantled, by someone hoping for a bit of irony or humor to shine through our human need to be so sure of things.

This project has shown me, in so many ways, that the behemoth mechanisms of immigration detention, or any other system of oppression have been built in tiny, often inane movements, some of them documented, others not. So many of these memories have been hidden away in boxes or on shelves in dark rooms, the act of bringing them into the light, of remembering them in such a way that they are given value for their place and time is an act of restoring power, and sharing the layers beneath what we all know is a complicated landscape.