A few years ago I went down to the Arizona border to see what the real situation of immigration was on the border. I was unsatisfied with what I was seeing on TV and reading in the news and felt like I had to go there and experience it for myself. I traveled around the area and ended up photographing migrant resource centers in Mexico that are right on the other side of the US border. People who are caught by the border patrol get dropped off at these centers. They load the people on buses and then back the buses up into the other side of the border. Many of the people who are let off the buses have wounds that they sustained in crossing the desert and they have no money. The resource center helps them reenter Mexico.
While I was down there I met a large undocumented family, a mom with 14 kids, living near the border. I started to photograph and interview them and to tell their story. They had been living in the US for twelve years so all of them were just like typical, Americans. The oldest girl was six or seven when she came to this country. She graduated from high school with a 3.8 GPA and had no options. She couldn’t even get a job selling fast food let alone follow her dream to go to college and become a nurse.
A year after I met them they were caught by border control and I continued to tell their story as they went through a really difficult process. Living through this experience with them, understanding the nuances in their lives and seeing what was happening to them, what they were up against, inspired me to focus much of my work on undocumented communities.
The whole experience of undocumented workers living here is connected to jobs, especially agriculture. The mother of this family worked in one of the tomatoes processing plants. I started to shoot these factories and then I came back to San Francisco and there were these perfectly, round beautiful tomatoes from the factory where this woman worked. I began to see these larger connections between undocumented workers and the rest of America. How their work is incorporated into the fabric of our lives.
Shortly after this, in San Francisco, I started Beyond Borders a media arts education program for undocumented high school youth where they made short videos about their lives. The purpose was to give these kids a voice and a place to express themselves. All of the kids who participated in the program want to go to college and get good jobs. The reality is that they can’t because they don’t have papers. Even students with really good grades have to find some low paying job under the table.
With these types of media projects it is difficult to measure if broad based public opinion changes or a specific law changes because of your work. Hopefully the work provides moments of awareness and changes some opinions. I have seen a tangible and deep impact with the young people who are directly involved with the projects.
For Gilbert and Helen, who were featured in Sin Pais, having an outward representation of their family’s deportation experience, not only through the film but also from the public speaking that they do about the film, helped them to process the experience. Talking in front of the camera and having this unusual, reflective experience of being in a film while they were going through such a dramatic and difficult time, encouraged them to communicate with each other in ways that might not have otherwise happened.
Several people have told me that having the opportunity to tell their story, either through Beyond Borders or by being the subjects in one of my films, they feel that their lives are validated. So while it is hard to pinpoint large, systematic change with this work, the positive impact upon individual lives has been significant. It is a small group of people, but the impact is really big.
From a conversation with Janeil Engelstad in March, 2011