A Crisis of Humanity: A photographer reveals heartbreaking personal items confiscated from migrants at the US-Mexico Border

Nuevo-Testamentos. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Kiefer/Redux Pictures
“Nuevo Testamentos” by Tom Kiefer. Placed upon a migrants’ bandana, these New Testaments were considered non-essential personal property and discarded during the initial stages of processing. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Kiefer/Redux Pictures.

It was an image that went viral on social media in 2018 – a photo of 43 rosaries* that had been confiscated from migrants crossing the US-Mexico border. Although the photo was taken years ago, it became a recent symbol of the political and humanitarian crisis at the border and US immigration policy.

Tom Kiefer
Tom Kiefer. Courtesy photo.

Fine art photographer Tom Kiefer wanted to portray America. Inspired by the works of famous photographers of the 1930s and 40s, the artist left Los Angeles where he had previously worked as a graphic designer and moved to Ajo, Arizona to travel around the country photographing America’s rural and urban landscapes.

But when he took a day job as a janitor at a US Customs Border Protection Facility near the US-Mexico border, a disturbing discovery changed his photography – and his life – forever.

Personal belongings of migrants and smugglers apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents in the region were confiscated during processing at the facility where he worked. Items deemed “non-essential” or “potentially lethal” were discarded. While some belongings were catalogued and later returned, many were thrown away.

What Kiefer saw in the trash, however, were items far more personal and intimate than he could ever have imagined. He began photographing these personal objects as an exploration of the humanity of these migrants, creating a powerful exhibition, El Sueño Americano – The American Dream, currently at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts.

El Sueno Americano at the Fuller Craft Museum

Artful Vagabond’s Serena Kovalosky met photographer Tom Kiefer and museum curator Beth McLaughlin at the February opening of the exhibition at the Fuller Craft Museum.

This series, El Sueño Americano, wasn’t what you had in mind when you moved to Arizona.

Tom Kiefer:
My grand project was to photograph America…following in the footsteps of Walker Evans. I wanted to travel around, photographing the landscape, the buildings, the infrastructure – what makes America America. In black-and-white. But not glamorous like Ansel Adams.

So I moved to Ajo in 2001 – that was base camp – and I would travel whenever I could. As I was not selling my work, I took a job in 2003 as a janitor, part-time, at a U.S. Customs Border Patrol facility 10 miles south of Ajo.

How did you discover what was being taken from the migrants in custody at the facility?

Tom Kiefer:
The policy was anything considered non-essential or potentially lethal was taken away. But I didn’t know that. I was just emptying the trash and putting it in the dumpster. I wasn’t focusing on what was in it – I would get in trouble. I was there to empty the trash. Period.

I didn’t find out what was being thrown away until my fourth year working there. In the beginning, the U.S. Border Patrol agents were taking the food out of the trash – canned tuna, for example – and bringing it to a food bank. When you think about it, it was a real decent, humanitarian thing to do. It wasn’t going to landfill, it was going to people within our community who needed it.

Then a new station chief arrived and said, “No more food collecting, let it stay in the trash. I want you to concentrate on going out and apprehending people.”

One day I went to a supervisor and said, “Hey, can I bring this food to the food bank?” And his exact words were, “Bless you.”

That’s when I started separating out the food. But when I saw what else was being thrown away I thought, “Holy….. Oh my God!”

What was in that first bag you looked through?

Tom Kiefer:
One of the first things I noticed were toothbrushes because they were bright and colorful and I said, “Well, OK – toothbrushes.”

But then I’d see a rosary.

And then I would see a Bible.

And I thought, “This is horrible.” No one should ever have a Bible or rosary taken away from them. To me, that was inhumane.

So that’s when I started collecting these things – in 2007. I didn’t know at first what I was getting myself into. Then I starting thinking, “How can I document this?”

There were children’s toys, photographs, rings, even wallets with credit cards and driver’s licenses.

Billfolds and Wallets. Tom Kiefer. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Kiefer/Redux Pictures
“Billfolds and Wallets” by Tom Kiefer. After being apprehended, the belongings of a detainee are placed in a property bag or remain in the backpack they traveled with. Sometimes essential items such as wallets, money and personal identification are accidentally discarded or are lost while those in custody are being transported between various law enforcement facilities. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Kiefer/Redux Pictures.

There are obviously agents who would not allow that to happen. But just in the craziness of the processing – sometimes dozens, sometimes hundreds of migrants coming in at one time – there’s a lot of miscommunication. It’s not like they all speak Spanish – they all speak different dialects from South America.

What did you do with these items? You took them home?

Tom Kiefer:
Yes, because I was taking the food home and I was also allowed to recycle cardboard, aluminum and plastic.

How many of these items do you have?

Tom Kiefer:
Hundreds of thousands of objects. I collected for seven years.

So you were a janitor until 2014. And you resigned because….

Tom Kiefer:
I had to devote all of my time to this – I finally had to go public.

And you told nobody until after you left.

Tom Kiefer:
Right. I think there were a few people who kind of knew. Aho’s a small town.

Taking these personal items – wasn’t that kind of a dangerous thing for you to do?

Tom Kiefer:
Oh yeah. I was living in kind of a half-state of paranoia. If they would have found out what I was doing, I would have lost my job instantly.

But you had a larger purpose.

Tom Kiefer:
My intention to move to Ajo was to photograph America. And in a very untraditional way, it came to me…

Beth McLaughlin:
…And in the end, you ended up photographing America. That’s what I find so interesting about your work. Your original intent to photograph America is what you ended up doing.

But you ended up photographing a side of America that people haven’t really wanted to look at. Or didn’t realize…

Beth McLaughlin:
…Until now. Because back when you started collecting in 2007, this has been going on long before it hit public consciousness with family separations and detention centers, so ultimately you really ended up photographing a big part of America. Unfortunately not the more beautifully transcendant part like Ansel Adams, but equally important – if not more important – to shine a light on.

So how did you finally arrive at this way of documenting these objects?

Tom Kiefer:
I had collected a thousand black plastic water bottles and had this plastic cougar. I had assembled all the black plastic with the cougar. It was an interesting shot, but it was too conceptual. I’m glad I didn’t go down that path.

The two photographs, Pink Combs and Brushes and Black Combs and Brushes were the result of when I finally cracked the nut on how to present the objects in a photograph.

Pink Combs and Brushes. Tom Kiefer. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Kiefer/Redux Pictures.
“Pink Combs and Brushes” by Tom Kiefer. Personal items such as combs, brushes and mirrors are considered non-essential, potentially lethal and discarded during intake. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Kiefer/Redux Pictures.

Beth McLaughlin:
And you’re a graphic designer so you have an eye for composition, form and color.

Graphic design! So that’s where the decision came from for arranging the items, what to put together, what background to use….

Tom Kiefer:
That’s what was in my toolkit! But a couple of very respected art folks in the photography world said, “Oh, it looks like a product shot.”

But isn’t that America? Advertising is a big part of American culture so that “product shot” view is what Americans are used to seeing.

Tom Kiefer:
Absolutely. Where they were coming from I think was that is wasn’t ethereal, it didn’t have textures and layers and it wasn’t “artsy,” not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But if you look closely at my toothpaste and toothbrushes photo, for example, you’ll see that I squeezed some of the toothpaste out of one of the tubes and strung some floss…

Beth McLaughlin:
There’s a sense of order to your work, and that’s a really important distinction – you’re creating some order out of the chaos and at the same time making the composition compelling and so alluring for people to look at, they don’t really have a choice but to engage with it, even though it’s dealing with a subject matter that’s uncomfortable and distressing.

"Miscellaneous Bottles" by Tom Kiefer. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Kiefer/Redux Pictures.
“Miscellaneous Bottles” by Tom Kiefer. Water is the primary source of hydration when crossing the desert. These plastic bottles, stripped of their labeling, contained mostly dairy-based products such as chocolate milk or fruit flavored yogurt drinks. The much smaller bottles were filled with “energy shot” supplements which can be a lethal dehydrant when crossing the desert. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Kiefer/Redux Pictures.

The exhibition is comprised mostly of photographs – with only one actual object. Beth, how does that fit into the mission of an “objects-based” museum like Fuller Craft Museum?

Beth McLaughlin:
Whether it’s toothpaste tubes or makeup or water bottles or Bibles, El Sueño Americano is really about the meaning of objects and the thought process that these migrants went through when they were deciding what to carry with them, knowing that every additional ounce was going to be more effort that they were going to have to exert to try to get through their journey.

Look at Tom’s photo of a bottle of Crazy Lady cologne, for example. They’re picturing their future in America and what it was going to be like. So it’s kind of a glimpse into the future dreams of these migrants through objects.

Museums usually plan exhibitions three to fours years out. You obviously worked with a shorter time frame for this exhibition. When did you start working on this?

Beth McLaughlin:
About six to eight months ago. It’s challenging to do socially relevant exhibitions because they are so time-sensitive. To accommodate this exhibition, El Sueño Americano is actually in our Permanent Collection Gallery.  We had to move our permanent collection to make room for this exhibition.

As a curator and museum administrator, it kept me up at night, but to me that’s a reflection of how important the work is and how the leadership of the museum felt – that we need to bring the work here and give people a place to have that dialogue.

What have been some of the reactions of people seeing this exhibition?

Tom Kiefer:
When it was showing at Art Prize in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2017, every day I had people coming up crying, moved, asking to shake my hand. It definitely touches people and that is intense for me.

Whitney Valentine, exhibitions and education manager at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, saw the project at Art Prize and she pushed me to show at Saugatuk in 2018.

Do you think that people are starting to get a different view of America than they thought? A view of an America that “would never do something like that?”

Tom Kiefer:
I think so. When they see the senseless brutality of separating children and then taking away rings, necklaces, rosaries, Bibles – such deeply personal objects and items of deep faith – how is that not wrong? On some cellular level of your body, you just know that’s wrong.

I can’t believe what I did because if I knew the full extent of what I was doing, when I was doing it, I don’t know how I could’ve gotten through it. There was this intensity of knowing that what I was doing was important and it had to be done, and I just had to figure out a way that I could tell the story in the right way.

Because of where I come from with this, it’s not to demonize the border patrol agents, it’s to humanize what this is about.

You probably didn’t think you were courageous at the time, but it took courage to do what you did and to put it out there.

Tom Kiefer:
Yes, but what’s the choice? To not do it would have been crushing.

I’m 59 years old now and it’s still a struggle. It’s a self-funded project and I still have thousands to pay back in expenses from previous years. It’s a cliché but it’s a labor of love.

Trail-Markers by Tom Kiefer. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Kiefer/Redux Pictures.
“Trail-Markers” by Tom Kiefer. Brightly-colored objects are placed along a path to assist those traveling behind them. These rubber ducks were used as trail markers, one of which still had a twist-tie used to fasten to a bush or tree branch. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Kiefer/Redux Pictures.

El Sueño Americano – The American Dream will be on exhibit at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts through July 28, 2019.

For more information on the El Sueño Americano project and Tom Kiefer’s photography, visit:  www.tomkiefer.com

*43 Rosaries photograph courtesy of Thomas Kiefer and Redux Pictures

SerenaK image logo
Serena Kovalosky
is the owner-producer at Artful Vagabond Productions LLC, specializing in cultural projects, exhibitions and films on visual artists. Kovalosky is also a professional sculptural artist and curator.

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