• Isabella Ji

Reorganizing Border Patrol Trash to Form a Voice - Tom Keifer

Claudia Gomez Gonzalez crossed the Rio Grande River in Texas in May 2018 with the hopes of reuniting with her boyfriend. She dreamed of continuing her education in the United States and ultimately becoming an accountant. Instead, she was killed by a border patrol agent, who shot her in the head. This incident was a reminder of the challenges dangers migrants face.

“I was so shaken by it,” Tom Kiefer stated. Kiefer is a fine art photographer and documents items confiscated from migrants crossing the border between Mexico and Arizona. He gathers common objects at the border, such as wallets, stuffed animals, toiletries, shoelaces, and makes simple images that makes the viewer think about the human toll of today’s immigration dilemma. The images allows the viewer to better understand some of the consequences of U.S. immigration policy and maybe evoke some empathy to its victims.

When crossing the U.S./Mexico border, heavy-duty non-biodegradable black plastic bottles are commonly used to carry water and are sometimes covered or insulated with clothing or blanket. Water is crucial for survival and the seven days a migrant takes to cross the desert.

Before the 21st century:

Kiefer was born in Kansas but grew up in Seattle and worked as a graphic designer for 20 years in Los Angeles. However, by the 21st century, he was done with all that and decided start another chapter in his life. He sold his business and wanted to photograph America. Kiefer declares: “My mission was to travel around the U.S. and photograph our landscape, infrastructure and cultural markers. That was going to be my contribution to things.”  

Firsthand Views at the Border

In 2001, Kiefer moved to Ajo, Arizona and devoted all his time to photography. In order to pay the bills, he got a job in 2003 as a janitor at a nearby Border Patrol facility. This was when he noticed the amount of waste thrown away. Perfectly good food that migrants brought with them in their backpacks were just thrown away, Kiefer also discover many other personal items that also were discarded.

Diaries. Artwork. Toys. Bibles. Medicines. Blankets. CDs. Photographs. Baby food. Rings. Clothing. Shoes. Bottles. Snacks. Combs. Soap. Border patrol agents would confiscate all kinds of items when migrants were crossing the border.

Kiefer could not help but rescue it all from the trash. Eventually, he filled his house with an unforeseen inventory consider valueless by the U.S. government, but full of meaning. Kiefer realized that he could use all these items and tell an important story.

Discarded Objects

Kiefer knew that every item was imbued with something personal. He respected each individual item. All the clothing had been worn by people with histories and feelings of hope. Wallets, money, and personal identification are accidentally discarded or are lost in custody or during transportation between various law enforcement facilities. All food carried by migrants is considered contraband and discarded. Soaps to personal hygiene products are considered non-essential personal property and are disposed. “Some of boxer briefs are hilarious (they feature cartoon characters). A mile comes across your face. And then the flip side, the tragedy: These were taken away,” Kiefer said.


Kiefer started arranging the items by category. All the combs, all the shoelaces, all the wallets were placed together. He sorted the objects by colors and forms and used enhanced monochromatic backgrounds and simple lighting. He took the picture from above, which created square images. He concentrated on assembling the items, th light, and the exposure during the process of creating these photographs. Everytime, it would hit him: These people had sacrificed almost everything they had in exchange for the unlikely promise of a better life.

This migrant child's sketchbook consisted mostly drawings relating to experiences and his or her family.

The American Dream

For many years, Kiefer has been working on a project called “El Sueño Americano” (“The American Dream”), which soon will be shown in a exhibition in Los Angeles. “El Sueño Americano” is a photographic essay of discarded belongings of migrants confiscated by Border Patrol agents while being processed at a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol facility near the U.S./Mexico Border in southern Arizona. Kiefer’s intent is explore the humanity of the migrants, who risk their lives walking through the desert, and create a personal connection from the viewer to a migrant and their hope for a better life.

Tom Kiefer is determined to document the human impacts of today's migrant problems. He is striving to raise awareness on the immoral treatments of migrants and at the same time paying tribute to the migrants, who have been forced by certain conditions to turn their lives upside down, with no promises that they might land back on their feet.

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