The inhumanity of the Trump administration’s family-separation policy has been painfully illustrated over and over in the past weeks through chilling audio and heartbreaking quotes and, perhaps most poignantly, through photos. From the sobbing toddler clad in a pink coat captured by Getty photographer John Moore to the disturbing mural of Trump emblazoned across a wall in a Texas shelter for immigrant youth, these photos have traveled far beyond the border and might have even been the impetus behind Ivanka Trump’s self-serving shift on the policy.
Given that this is a crisis of real people, it feels strange to note that one of the most resonant of these images contains no humans. Instead, dozens of rosaries arranged in neat rows against a grey backdrop fill the frame, calling to mind photos of mountains of wedding rings seized from victims of the Holocaust. Taken by photographer Tom Kiefer, the rosaries were confiscated from migrants by Customs and Border Protection, along with other items deemed potentially lethal and nonessential like toothbrushes, Bibles, and even wallets. As a janitor at a CBP processing facility for more than a decade, Kiefer saw firsthand the disdain with which migrants’ possessions were treated. He began collecting the discarded items in 2007 and photographing them in an ongoing series titled “El Sueño Americano” (“The American Dream”). I spoke with Kiefer to understand how his project fits into a moment when migrants are being stripped of something infinitely more precious than their worldly possessions.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Rachelle Hampton: So how did the project start?
Tom Kiefer: I started working at the Border Patrol station part time as a janitor in 2003. I’m a fine arts photographer, and I moved to this small little border town, 40 miles to the Mexico border, in Arizona in 2001 to fulfill my part of the American dream and own my own home because that was never ever going to happen in L.A. I moved here shortly after the attacks on 9/11 and bought a house, and this was going to be my base to continue my work as a photographer. What my project was, was to follow in the footsteps of Walker Evans and Robert Frank and just photograph America, its buildings, its landscapes, its cultural markers, its infrastructure. That was going to be my project for the rest of my life, however much time I had on this planet. That’s what the plan was.
In 2003, I had to get a job because art doesn’t pay for itself. I took a part-time job as a janitor at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility about 10 miles south of Tucson. After working there for about four years, I really started to get agitated by all the perfectly good food, canned food, that the migrants were carrying with them in their backpack and seeing that get thrown away. After a couple of years, I couldn’t take it anymore, I was just angered and disturbed, and I was the one throwing food out. One day I mustered up the courage and I went to the supervisor on duty and I felt like Oliver: “More soup, sir?” But I asked if I could please bring this food to the food bank and his exact words were, “Bless you.”
So I started collecting the food to bring to the food bank in 2007 and that was the beginning of this project, “El Sueño Americano.” That’s when I was seeing firsthand, because I was digging for the cans of food out of the trash, like oh my God, a Bible? A rosary? It was incomprehensible. So I discreetly, whenever I could, would remove these items, taking things like shoes and jeans and jackets and putting them in with the food. I did this all knowing I could be questioned and lose my job but I knew that I had to do this because no one would believe me.
Being an artist, being a photographer, within a few months or six months, I don’t know how long, I realized that my job really is to document this. It took me a good five years to figure out the manner in which to arrange and present these items in a way that I felt was appropriate and respectful. It wasn’t like, OK, let’s just put a pile. There were certain items where it was appropriate to put piles like the gloves and the toothbrushes, but the wallets, I wanted to arrange those in a way in which you realized there was a person behind that. I wanted to present those in a way that was dignified and respectful.
Why do you think these photos, which have struck a chord for a few years now, feel so relevant at this moment?
Well I think it humanizes, I don’t want to say “these people,” but it allows the possibility of the viewer to try and transfer themselves into the work. Like, oh my God, that’s my bottle of cologne or tube of toothpaste or I have a toothbrush just like that or whatever. It just humanizes.
About how many photos are in the series? And how many items have you collected?
Probably hundreds of thousands if you added up each item. So far, I’ve done probably around 500, 600 images, and it just continues to grow.
So you’re still making photos in this series?
Oh God yeah. In some respects, I feel like I’ve just begun. I haven’t photographed the underwear, the shirts, the jackets. It’s amazing and heartbreaking that these items would be removed. We were taking away their objects and now we’re taking away their children.
Do you think that this series is resonating right now because of that escalation?
Oh absolutely. I think that by taking this step of taking their children away, it’s unfortunately shining a very large spotlight on what’s been going on for years and our unsettled issues regarding race, our bigotry. We look at our history of invading someone else’s land and then we start to go to other countries, other continents, and actually stealing, kidnapping, and enslaving. My God, we have such a dark, dark history and this is just a continuation. We have people who want to come here and this is how we’re treating them. On one hand it’s so, so sad. If my imagery can help people think or reflect, then I’m grateful for that.
This project has continued under three different administrations. Has the changing political context shaped the contours of this series?
No, no. It’s always been about the dehumanization of people who are not welcomed here and the actions taken to dehumanize them and stripe them of their hopes and dreams. That’s been a constant from the get-go, and now it’s just been pushed to this extreme of where we’re at now.
What do you do with the personal items like rosaries and wallets?
There are items I always have a concern about. They’re as safe as I can make it, archived away. I’ve never thrown anything out. The intent is to have this collection remain intact and go to a center of immigration studies or something to that effect.
What was the most surprising item that you saw get thrown away?
Toy guns, but believe me there’s plenty more that are just heartbreaking. Little photographs of children, pacifiers, baby shoes.
A memorial service from a funeral, from someone whose grandma had passed away in Mexico and you knew the person was traveling to Mexico to attend the funeral and they were caught when they were coming back. That’s really … that’s sad. A lot of people have this notion of a whole bunch of people flooding in, well, no, a lot of these people live here and have lived here for years and are important contributing members of our country, but you think they’re going to miss the funeral of their mother, father, grandfather, grandmother? Of course not.
With this project having such an unexpected resonance to the Trump administration’s family-separation policy, what has it been like for you to watch the past few months unfold, especially being so close to the border?
I don’t know how to answer that. I just, I live in America. The town that I live in, about a third to a half of the people here are of Latino descent. I don’t know how you say it, Latino, Mexican, South American. They’re not Anglo-American. And it’s just like we get along, so yeah. The area in which I live in, the Tucson sector, is one of the deadliest crossings. At times, there are more human remains found here in the desert in this area than in any other section, of people just trying to cross who didn’t make it. There’s a section in Texas and here, they go back-and-forth in terms of numbers of human remains found. But you don’t see it. You don’t see these bodies, these desiccated, bloated, sometimes all that’s left is just the bones because they’ve been picked over by the vultures or the coyotes. The Border Patrol agents, they’re our neighbors. Many of them live in this town. They’re our friends, our fellow citizens. You see them at the grocery store or at the gas station to pick up a 24-pack or whatever. It can be surreal.