Collaborative Portraits with Migrants
On a recent assignment I surrendered the control of capture to migrants in Mexico
I am excited to share a story that was just published in the New York Times. For this one I flipped the script, working with migrants in Mexico to create a series of self-portraits as they waited to cross the border into the United States. I’m curious to know what you think about this, please leave comments, and if you like, share it with your networks.
In February, after a change of presidential administrations, migrants from Central and South America surged on the US-Mexican border. Photographs of fraught migrants circulated in the media, carrying their only belongings, clinging to loved ones, and caught in the flashes of photographers strobes as they crossed the Rio Grande in tire tubes and makeshift flotation devices. These photographs were as vivid as any taken during the border crisis during the Trump administration. But I didn't see many images from the Mexican side of the border, especially ones that gave the migrants much agency.
I pitched a project to my editor at the New York Times where I would enter Mexico and make portraits of migrants waiting to cross the border illegally or migrants who had recently been ejected from the USA. It would be a portrait of people suspended in time while in search of a more prosperous life. When I started conceptualizing how I would approach this project I remembered a project by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin called "Ghetto." Broomberg and Chanarin had let people housed at Rene Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital in Cuba take their own photos: One image depicted a man dressed in pajamas in a mint green room turning his back to the camera as he released the shutter.
The images intrigued me because they contained a surprising amount of humor and joy; the subjects seemed empowered in a way that diverged from much of the other photography I had seen made in mental institutions. Inspired by the series by Broomberg and Channarin, I decided to play with the idea of surrendering the control of the capture to the migrants I would meet.
I recently interviewed Hoda Afshar about her process of working collaboratively with refugees on Manus Island. She wanted to make images that inspired "empathy rather than sympathy," an idea explored by Ariella Azoulay in her books The Civil Contract of Photography and Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism. Hoda had asked the refugees how they wished to pose and what symbolism inherent to their environment they wanted to include with the frame. Afshar's photography cut through the two-dimensional depiction of the refugees as victims.
With a collaborative approach in mind, I landed in Juarez, Mexico. Covid-19 was also surging along the border, and the local municipality had locked down the city under a curfew. The usually congested, dusty streets were eerily empty. My eyes and ears on the ground was Ernesto Rodriguez, a Juarez journalist. Because of the city-wide lockdown, access to the larger migrant shelters had halted, so Neto took me to an informal shelter set up by a group of trans women. The Hotel Omare had allowed the migrants to turn the three-story building into a sanctuary, and here I met Amy Rose Henríquez, 26, a migrant from San Salvador, El Salvador.
Amy had arrived in Juarez 16 months earlier, and when I asked her why she came, she said, "I left because I was scared of the gangs. When I was younger, I was attacked by the gangs and they beat me." She had come with a few sets of clothes, a cell phone, and her documents. On the top of the hotel, Amy posed for herself. She wasn't sure what to do at first, and through a translator, I explained she could do whatever she wanted. "Look up, look down, look at the camera, look wherever you want, just try and make a photograph of yourself that is how you want to be seen." Amy was nervous, so I steered my translator and the other woman to another area of the rooftop, and Amy had a few moments on her own with the camera to make her image.
As I continued to work with the migrants throughout this series, I wondered if the idea would actually work. Would there be an emotional power to the images? Would the moment of capture they chose humazine them? Or would they just come across as awkward and forced?
The following day I returned to Hotel Omare and walked a mile with Amy to the border. She was fidgety and nervous in anticipation of finally going to America. (An organization in the USA, Casa Marianella, had arranged for her to cross legally.) She and the friends she was leaving behind in Mexico hugged and cried as they said goodbye, then Amy passed through the steel turnstiles and disappeared into the crowd on the immigration bridge.
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This one hits hard.
Years years ago I did a similar technique but with a handheld flash. I told them to light themselves. How would you like to see yourself in the light. It was a fun little project.
I think handing over the cable release to the subject enters what could be an alternative reality. They are intimate portraits of a dignified people for sure. You mentioned how other photographers have handled the US side at night with flashes which I've seen but I personally haven't seen much from the Mexican side. I'm relying on you to show me what is going on at the boarder. I've never been there and I don't know what kind of conditions they are living in. This approach is a fresh and different way to tell and old story. I commend you for that! The first shot of the boy with his father is very strong. It reveals the hardship and vulnerability of both of them. I can't help to be empathetic for them. I hope the NYT handled this with the dignity that went into it and not with one or two images.