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The heartbreaking art of a former Border Control janitor

The photographer Tom Kiefer depicts the countless belongings confiscated from people crossing the border.

The heartbreaking art of a former Border Control janitor
[Photo: Thomas Kiefer]

It was just weeks ago that most Americans learned about how the Trump administration was forcibly separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. According to Jeff Sessions, it’s a deterrent. According to the UN, it’s child abuse. Before the Trump administration decided that tearing young children from their parents would be a good way to stop immigrants seeking asylum, the U.S. had other methods of deterring immigrants from flooding the country’s borders. One such policy? Take all their stuff.

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A powerful photo series called El Sueño Americano by photographer Tom Kiefer depicts these thousands of objects that are confiscated daily at the border: Bibles, rosaries, tennis shoes, soap, water bottles, even condoms and birth control pills. Anything, basically, that the government deems to be “nonessential.” The photographs, which went viral after the news about child separations broke, depict artfully arranged piles of things, often heaped on the ground or positioned end to end, devoid of their original owner.

Nuevos Testamentos, 2013 [Photo: Thomas Kiefer]
Kiefer, who worked as a part-time janitor at a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol facility in southern Arizona for more than 10 years, quickly noticed the sheer amount of food that agents were confiscating from people every single day. After working up the courage to ask his supervisor, he began fishing through the facility’s trash for canned food, which he would then deliver to the local food bank. But as he scrounged for the food, Kiefer began to notice all the other objects that had been thrown away: the Bibles, rosaries, family photos, combs, brushes, toothpaste, toothbrushes.

“At the end of my shift, there’d be literally a couple tons worth of food that I’d load into my truck and bring to the food bank,” he says. “I was also allowed to recycle the plastic water bottles, the aluminum, the cardboard. But they were not aware I was also putting in items like Bibles, rosaries.”

Contraceptive, 2014 [Photo: Thomas Kiefer]

But even as he began stockpiling these objects that had been forcibly taken from their owners, Kiefer wasn’t sure how to photograph them in a way that was respectful. In particular, Kiefer didn’t want to stage the objects in the desert, imposing his own ideas of the journey they’d taken after the fact. After five years of collecting personal belongings, he finally found a visual language that could capture their intrinsic humanity: arresting images of the items lined up together to highlight the sheer number of them.

“There are other artists who go out and find abandoned items and present them in that way and it’s incredible what they do, but these were items that were confiscated and taken away,” he says. “I want people to be able to connect with the toothpaste or the condoms or the birth control pills and not add extra visual information. It just muddies it.”

In some ways, Kiefer’s images are more devastating than the oft-used photographs of people during their journeys. How? “It just humanizes them: the demonization and war against these people, my god,” he says. “People can look at a bottle of cologne or tube of toothpaste, and whether or not they’re consciously acknowledging it, realize–that’s the same type of cologne or toothpaste or soap I use.”

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Kiefer eventually resigned from his post in 2014, though he continues to post photos on his Instagram. More than 100 photos from El Sueño Americano will be on display this October at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts in Michigan. Recent images depict bottles of cologne, which Kiefer finds particularly heartbreaking–symbols of that first future job interview migrants hoped to land. “People who choose to come here, we all have our dreams. It’s turned into this slogan,” he says. “Their American dream is to live a life free of threat of violence and being shot and killed–and to be contributing members of this country.”

Of all the photographs he’s taken, there’s one that stands out to me right now: an arrangement of dried alphabet soup letters that spell out the words of Emma Lazarus’s famous poem engraved into the Statue of Liberty. Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

“It’s one thing to take away a rosary,” he says. “To take away a child?” That’s morally appalling.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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