Surveying La Frontera – a primer on visual approaches, landscape photography, and busting populist metaphors

James Whitlow Delano’s panoramas from 2016 track the current U.S.-Mexico border wall through California, from the Pacific Ocean to the Sonora desert near the border with Arizona. The landscapes are part of a retrospective online collection of 30 plus years of work, including many potent visual reminders of how recent some of the changes are that have led us to associate the United States’ southern border with the idea of a “wall” or heavily fortified and guarded divide.

The border fortifications separating the United States from Mexico have been the topic of news stories and a profusion of photo essays ever since now-president Trump first began to home in on curtailing migration as one of his campaign touchstones a year ago. It remains to be seen exactly how these plans for increased border control measures will play out in reality, and in the long term, once the shockwaves of the new administration’s first weeks have subsided. But the increased focus on this particular stretch of the American South/Mexican North presented an opportune moment to survey the landscape of visual essays depicting the almost 2,000 mile long corridor known as La Frontera.

These occasional articles on Medium will serve as a platform for @EverydayMigration to dig deeper into a given topic: to introduce additional projects by a range of photographers to frame the visual essays featured on Instagram, or to have a more in-depth discussion about one particular body of work. Over the past couple of weeks, the Instagram feed has featured visual journalists who have been creating sustained, dogged work about the border. We’ve shown excerpts from two longterm documentaries, Michelle Frankfurter’s Destino and Stefan Falke’s Border Artists, as well as images by @EverydayLaFrontera, an Instagram collective of Mexican photographers. Alonso Castillo explains their intention as wanting to “reclaim a space for the daily life and the inhabitants of these areas, as a means of empowerment of both the citizens and the identity of the border regions.”

Images by (l-r) Francisco Mata Rosas/ @Fcomata, Eliseo Gaxiola / @cronicavisualnogales and Guillermo Arias /@guillermoarias of the @EverydayLaFrontera Instagram.

Identifying one key idea or honing an overarching theme is one aspect that can set apart a well-thought-out visual essay on migration, an issue where storylines often tend to be reflexive, reactive. Through their choices of medium and approach, all of the photographic works mentioned here succeed by undermining expectations, opening new views and raising questions. They are bodies of works by artists who have revisited the border in their images over a period of many years, and who have managed to strategically re-visualize an oft-photographed topic and push back against oversimplification or cliché.

Michelle Frankfurter’s Destino introduces families and young people fleeing the often violent and hopeless circumstances of their homes in Central America, following them as they traverse Mexico en route to the United States. Describing the motivations that drove her multi-year documentary, she cites a mixture of extremely personal reasons based on her own family’s Jewish immigrant history, and a literary and intellectual curiosity.

“By the time I was twelve, I had developed a deep and fundamental awareness, both on a microcosmic and colossal scale, of the potential for human betrayal. Although much of Destino’s storyline is grim and heart wrenching, there are moments of beauty and tenderness that serve as an affirmation of humanity. I’m interested in work that’s allegorical, where the story transcends its literal meaning as a way of conveying universal themes. If the journey by rail toward ‘el sueño Americano’ were yet another study in human misery, it wouldn’t have had the same allure for me.”

Michelle Frankfurter, Destino: (a) Central American migrants wait for a northbound train in the city of Orizaba, Veracruz. 2010. (b) A Salvadoran migrant feeds her 18-month-old son at a migrant shelter in Arriaga, Chiapas. 2010 © U.S. Border Patrol apprehension of migrants, Rio Grande, near McAllen, Texas. 2013. A slow, patient body of work, Destino feels at once intimate and universal in its depictions of people; its portraits speak to larger themes and the human relationships formed during the journey.

Visual media runs the risk of creating a somewhat lopsided view of migration, especially in the context of discussing national borders and their enforcement, as photojournalistic essays will most often concern themselves with those who are suffering the effects of risky journeys, family separations, deportation and detention. Meanwhile, the function of the borders and who/what they contain and exclude is a topic that remains elusive and difficult to depict.

For politicians to focus on the idea of a wall is but one example of a populist rhetoric that distills complex issues — in this case of immigration reform, national security, job creation, trade relations, to name just a few — into an easily digestible sound bite. It is also a prime example of an issue where visual journalism and documentary art can offer an effective way to break through empty metaphors and encourage us to look, to see what’s at stake.

Best of Luck with the Wall, Josh Begley’s wonderfully mesmerizing video piece, fully created from satellite imagery, is not only visually riveting but also a uniquely visceral way to experience the scope of an endeavor — to extend the wall, to seal the border––that on its surface might sound like a straightforward undertaking. In a conversation with Field of Vision, the Brooklyn-based data artist discusses the process of arriving at the film’s format, and his approach to illustrating issues of state power that are not easy to visualize via traditional photographic approaches. (Previous works have mapped sites of CIA drone strikes internationally, and mass incarceration and police killings in the United States.)

Few visual stories manage to touch on the larger policies and power dynamics at play when it comes to guarding the territorial interests of the nation state. Rarely do they portray the economic winners and profiteers, the myths and fears they exploit, or the special interests and growth industries, from surveillance to immigration detention/incarceration.

When trying to visualize actual border enforcement measures, we’re all too often stuck at the ground level, showing the actual concrete and fencing or uniformed border patrols — the final link in a larger food chain of control and profit. Counter metaphors are needed, and Begley’s work manages to beautifully employ the cold or neutral technology of surveillance, which plays such a large part in securing today’s militarized borders, to ultimately create an emotionally reverberating homage to the complexity of the land that is being carved up and divided.

At the same time, Begley’s film contributes to and updates a long tradition of American landscape photography. What feels fresh is the actual viewing experience; most often this type of documentary surveying the southern border regions is experienced in a gallery setting or as a book (Richard Misrach, Pablo López Luz among others) even when the artists are experimenting with variations of unique venues and size, or creative presentation (Kai Wiedenhöfer exhibiting on the Berlin Wall, Daniel Schwarz rendering the border as an accordion fold-out.)

Kirsten Luce, from As Above, So Below

Mixing up the genres, Kirsten Luce has settled on a new approach after already having spent several years immersed in documenting the Rio Grande Valley of the Texas-Mexico border as a photojournalist. The birds eye views of As Above, So Below show not only the landscape but the migrants whose attempts to cross over al otro lado are being thwarted by the state and federal agencies from whose patrol helicopters she is photographing. This aerial perspective adds a deeply unsettling experience of power by putting the viewer into the role of the enforcer; we watch as human beings, reduced to miniature size abstractions, are being hunted or try to evade capture.

Focusing on history rather than power, one brilliant photographic intervention introduces historical awareness and complexity by abandoning the documentary realm for a topographic performance art of sorts––one fake border marker at a time. DeLIMITations: A Survey of the 1821 United States-Mexico Border by the Mexican-American artist duo Marcos Ramirez and David Taylor, both long term explorers of the frontera regions, visualizes where the two countries’ territories used to meet. The resulting photographs of steel obelisks installed surreptitiously from Wyoming to Kansas, Oklahoma and Utah, are jarringly subversive in upending our trained understanding of what the landscapes of the U.S., and Mexico, are supposed to look like.

DeLIMITations: A Survey of the 1821 United States-Mexico Border by the Mexican-American artist duo Marcos Ramirez and David Taylor.

A third body of work that we featured on @EverydayMigration, besides Destino and @EverydayLaFrontera, was Stefan Falke’s Border Artists project, which introduces musicians, poets, painters, photographers in communities along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico divide. Fittingly, the work is enormous in scale: Since 2008 Falke has photographed over 200 artists along the entire 2,000 miles long stretch of border, to “show the vibrant cultural side of a region that is usually portrayed by the international media with the sole focus on violent crime or migration. My strong belief is that if we don’t show the arts and culture of troubled places we will stop caring about them after a long period of continuous bad news.”

A portrait of Alonso Delgadillo, from Tijuana, Mexico is displayed at the city’s busiest border crossing, San Ysidro, in November. From Stefan Falke: La Frontera.

Besides a book, in German and Spanish, with a Spanish-English version forthcoming, a multimedia website is in the planning stages. As importantly, the process of many years of embedding in the region’s artistic communities as a guest has meant that the portraits have become a part of the fabric of the region’s creative life. Public and joint exhibitions are a primary way of closing the loop. A recent show in Texas featured work by––and portraits of––twenty Matamoros, Brownsville, Reynosa and McAllen artists. And a November 2016 exhibition right at the busiest border crossing in Tijuana brought 18 large scale prints to an audience of 70,000 cars crossing each day.

L: Writer, poet and journalist Miguel Ángel Chávez Díaz de León is portrayed walking in his hometown Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. R: A jacket made entirely from Reese’s king size peanut butter cup wrappers, the work of artist Pablo Llana, is hung on the border fence in Playas de Tijuana. From Stefan Falke: La Frontera.

As we’re starting to build an evolving showcase and archive of stories on the @EverydayMigration Instagram and here on Medium, one of the goals is to show how different bodies of work can function together to give us a better understanding of a certain issue or region. Migration as a theme is too large and varied for one story or body of work to do justice to the multifaceted layers of even a specific place and political moment, as we are witnessing with the topic of US-American-Mexican relations right now. Claiming one dominant narrative as a shorthand explanation, especially when repeated by different media outlets over time, creates calcified thinking and resulting pieties in how we illustrate the topic visually, ticking expected imagery off of a preconceived shot list.

The complete refusal to hew to a specific working method is what is so intriguing about Francisco Mata Rosas ongoing body of work from Mexico’s northerwestern border regions. La Linea mixes it all together: landscapes, portraits, street photography, formally shot one moment and with a cell phone camera the next, not shying away from oft-photographed motifs that might border on the cliché, and then subverting expectations with the next image, in an ever rotating mix of edits and variations. And somehow that seems a fitting approach to a topic that is morphing, evolving, and a far cry from the linear grid on a map that we would like to imagine. Just as the actual geographies and cultures the border traverses.

Mata Rosas has described his view of Mexico’s northern border as implicitly stating the regions problems, not explicitly. “I don’t believe that we need yet another picture of a migrant jumping the fence. I don’t think this photography is needed: Many people have already done it quite well. In this case, what attracts me is the popular culture of those who find themselves trapped.” [From Colorado Nates Óscar: Entrevista a Francisco Mata Rosas.]

Documentary Bonus Feature:

Fiction (for now) Bonus Feature: