The journey is tedious and the outcome can be fatal. Despite the odds, thousands of undocumented migrants illegally cross the U.S.- Mexico border each year. Trying to stop them are minutemen, a group U.S. citizens who volunteer to patrol the border. As the debate about immigration intensified and became more polarizing, three friends-- Rudy Adler, 25, Brett Huneycutt, 25, and Victoria Criado, 25--had an idea they hoped would humanize the complexities of the issue on both sides. They decided to distribute hundreds of point-and-shoot disposable cameras, along with tutorials on how to use them and the means of returning them, to migrants and minutemen to document their own journeys. Often revealing the harsh realities on the ground, the authors received back more than 2,000 photographs representing both sides of the issue. The collection is now a new book and is being exhibited across the country and in Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Israel and the Netherlands. Below is a candid Q&A with the authors. For more information on the Border Film Project visit www.borderfilm
Q: Why did you decide to carry out the Border project?
The Border Film Project is a collaborative effort by three friends - an artist, economist, and financial analyst - seeking to find a fresh way to simplify and humanize the issues surrounding the U.S-Mexico border. Immigration is arguably the most important domestic issue facing the United States in political, social and economic terms. It is also an extremely controversial and divise issues. We have found that many people have extremely strong opinions about immigration -- both in favor and against -- but often very few concrete facts. Our project seeks to show the American public the true human content of immigration -- and sides of the issues that they would otherwise never see.
Q: Were most of the people you approached receptive to participating in Border or did you come across some hostility?
Surprisingly, the vast majority of migrants we approached were receptive to the project. Granted, many of the 500 migrants that received cameras may have been just fishing for a free camera, but in the end, the migrants that truly believed in the project where the ones that took the best photos. Many migrants expressed a profound desire to show American citizens what they had to endure to arrive in the United States.
To recruit migrant photographers, we visited migrant shelters and other humanitarian organizations on the Mexican side of the border. In the busiest areas, these shelters housed dozens of migrants per night, providing them dinner, a place to sleep, and sometimes clothes and medicine for the journey. Since many had never used cameras before, migrants were given a brief tutorial – how to use the flash, film wheel, and viewfinder. They were also shown pictures of U.S. mailboxes so they could identify them once inside the U.S.
We gave out cameras in pre-addressed 4" x 8" envelopes with $1.60 in U.S. postage. South of Texas, we used waterproof envelopes to protect against the water of the Rio Grande. The key to getting migrant cameras back was creating an incentive system that allowed migrants to stay anonymous. We did that by giving them gift cards that had a $0 balance from Walmart – the largest U.S. retailer where migrants shop the most. When migrants returned their cameras to us, we added donations to their cards.
Q: Did you inform the Minutemen that you were giving cameras to the illegal immigrants as well? Why?
Handing out cameras to the minutemen was considerably easier and we got their full support –possibly in an effort to show a softer side of themselves. We spent a lot of time with volunteers on observations in Arizona and Texas, which gave us a much more human and nuanced view than the caricatures often painted by the media. Minutemen volunteers are, in short, dedicated to doing what they believe the U.S. government should – securing the U.S. border with Mexico.
We sent boxes of cameras to Minutemen leadership, who then distributed them to volunteers at observation sites in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and California. They were told that we were handing out disposable cameras to groups on all sides of the issue.
Q: You spent a few months at the border filming. Is this going to be made into a documentary in its own right or is the footage solely an accompanying work to go alongside the photography in the exhibitions?
We cut a 20-minute film that features interviews with both groups – migrants and minutemen. The film will be shown exclusively as part of our exhibitions.
Also, we should mention that we began the project filming 60+ hours of interviews with politicians, activists, migrants, minutemen, Border Patrol, and artists along the border. We eventually found ourselves in a migrant shelter in the town of Altar, approximately 60 miles south of the Arizona border, filming a young woman and her three children. We warned them of the dangers ahead, but it fell on deaf ears. Before parting ways, Victoria searched, unsuccessfully, for a toy to give the children. Looking around for alternatives, one of us joked, "Let's just give them our video camera." We immediately knew we had stumbled onto an interesting idea – a way to let the people on the ground document their own reality.
Q: The photographs have been displayed in various galleries. Do you consider them to be art? Or are they simply journalism? Or both?
It's both. We're most interested in creating art that makes people think about real situations. We're shaping the immigration issue through an artistic lens, but also adding real value to the debate. The photos are unprecedented documentation of the migrant journey across the southern border and a highly personal look into a controversial group frequently labeled as "vigilantes." They capture the humanity present on both sides of the border. They tell stories that no news piece or policy debate or academic study could convey.