Since last October, more than 50,000 children, many of them unaccompanied minors, have arrived at the US-Mexico border from Central America. The freight train they take to reach the United States is known by several names: El Tren de la Meurte (“The Death Train”), La Bestia(“The Beast”), and, sometimes, El Tren de los Desconocidos(“The Train of the Unknowns”).
For the past six years, photographer Michelle Frankfurter has been riding the rails with a Bronica camera and photographing the migrants. She approaches her subjects less as a documentarian and more as a writer of nonfiction novels, so that the resulting black-and-white images transcend their historical value to grapple with Odyssean themes. In the journey by train-top to the border, Frankfurter’s images capture a universal story — one that promotes a better understanding of the Central American migrants’ plight as exiles fleeing poverty, violence, and political failure.
Frankfurter’s photographs are now on display at Chicago’s Daley Civic Center in the exhibit Faces of the Child Migrant Crisis, organized by HumanEYES USA in collaboration with Art Works Projects. In September, Photoevidence also published Destino, an expansive collection of her work. The 53-year-old photographer spoke to Hyperallergic ahead of the show from her home in Washington D.C.
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Laura C. Mallonee: Why did you decide to start this project?
Michelle Frankfurter: For me, the jumping point for any project is almost always a book that has had a profound impact on me. Initially, I started photographing along the Texas-Mexico border in the early 2000s after reading Cormac McCarthy’s books. I’d heard about the migrants but hadn’t paid much attention to them. Then I started reading Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario in 2009.
I saw the story in my mind. I could feel it. And it struck me as being this cinematic, larger-than-life, epic adventure tale. I had always been a sucker for that since I was very little — anything that involved some kind of journey, where you had these scrappy underdog characters like Huck Finn. Or all those stories by Jack London with kids who had this long journey across some wilderness they had to go through and were in all kinds of dangers.
At that point, all these things came together in my head. You have this ongoing, issue-driven story, which quite frankly doesn’t interest me as much, but if you have that folded into a storyline that never gets old, people are drawn to it.
LCM: You’ve described the kind of visual storytelling you do as “historical fiction.” Can you flesh out that term?
MF: I see it as the difference between watching a film and watching a documentary; you’re using different parts of your mind to understand the information you’re receiving. In a documentary format, you have all your questions answered, whereas the more lyrical or allegorical format makes you feel things first, and then you have a bunch of questions that you can then answer.
I’m not creating a reality that doesn’t exist (composing or directing situations), but I’m definitely editing and portraying it to skew the narrative in a direction that I want to take, where I have protagonists I can identify with.
LCM: I think that’s an honest way of talking about it. Who were some “protagonists” you met through Destino that particularly intrigued you?
MF: There was a Salvadoran family I traveled with once, a man and his wife and an 18-month-old baby. I really admired their spirit and determination just to keep moving. Everybody is a little rough around the edges, but I felt that fundamentally they were decent folk who were just trying to do the best they could.
LCM: How important is it to also conduct interviews with the people you photograph?
MF: I do interviews and talk to people and write a lot down, but one of the reasons I parted ways with journalism is that I’m not really interested in specifics. I’m interested in things that are universal, that evoke or convey things, but don’t literally represent them. I can spend days talking to someone and have the most amazing story in the world, but if it doesn’t work visually, I don’t feel the need to put that face together with that story.
LCM: How did the migrants respond to your presence in the migrant shelters and on the trains?
MF: They would ask, “Wow, you’re here by yourself?” and I’d say, “No, I’m here with you guys.” And that was kind of disorienting for people. It meant something to them that I was willing to take some of the same risks.You get to know them, but they get to know you too. It’s very mutual, organic, and you bond with them, because it’s very intense and you cut through layers of pretend bullshit. Occasionally people didn’t want to be photographed, and they would say that politely and I would politely not photograph them.
After each segment of the trip when I’d go home, I’d make a little blurb book and then bring it with me [next time] so I’d have something to show people. That went a long way. The people working at the migrant shelters just want to make sure you’re not working for some cartel and are there to snap photos of people who end up going missing.
LCM: You started photographing at migrant shelters but eventually found yourself on the trains. How did that happen?
MF: When I made that first trip, I didn’t have any plans to get on that train at all. I was terrified of it. But after I spent time talking to [the migrants], they were so unbelievably open and welcoming, and I had the exact opposite reaction — how can I not do this? Of course, I wouldn’t just show up cold at the rail yard, where you just don’t really know who you’re talking to. At least starting off at the migrant shelters, staying there, is kind of like vetting [the people you travel with]. Because it means they’re not with the smugglers.
LCM: Tell me about your very first train ride, a 13-hour trip from Arreaga in Chiapas to Ixtecexc in Huahaca.
MF: When you hear about people who smoke crack, they’re always talking about chasing that first high. That’s how the train is: I’m always chasing that first ride. It was so perfect. We got there at three in the afternoon and the train left right way. It was beautiful, warm, gorgeous. You’re sitting on top of a boxcar. I was in jeans and a white t-shirt watching the hills roll by.
What I remember the most was these 16- and 17-year-old boys. They were just being themselves, jumping from car to car, and there’s a pretty significant gap in between each one. At one point, the train slowed down and this kid scrambled down, ran to this mango grove, gathered up these mangos, and ran to make the train again on the tail end. He sprinted from car to car, and when he got to where I was sitting, he stopped long enough to drop this mango in my lap and then — poof! — he was gone. The mango was ripe, that deep golden color. I remember how good it tasted. Everything felt very heightened. You notice everything, the feel of the air against your skin. It was getting really dark and there was this horse, a white smudge against a dark sky, and it trotted alongside for a while. It felt like we were in the pages of a Cormac McCarthy story. I thought, how many people get to see this?
LCM: I love that. It’s not romanticizing it, but you are acknowledging the momentousness of this journey.
MF: I remember meeting these two young Guatemalan girls, and they were talking about how they wanted to get to Austin and their lips were all chapped. I started buying chapsticks and handing them out, because that was the one thing everybody seemed to want the most. This was already pretty far north, Topio, within six hours of the border. They just talked about the people they met along the way, and the landscape they passed through. And so much of it was so hard, but it was also beautiful. And I’m not saying everybody has that, but there are those moments. There are those little moments.
LCM: In some ways, though, you and your subjects are riding two completely different trains.
MF: I can get off whenever I want to. I can walk away, go to a hotel, get cleaned up, lie down in air conditioning. I can leave. Whereas many of them will get caught, deported, and they’ll just turn around and start all over again. They don’t really have — or don’t feel that they have — a choice. It’s something they have to do and they’re determined. But at least in that brief moment, I kind of feel like we’re all reduced to shivering, huddling humans. And we’re in this thing together. You get at least some sense of what they go through, and how difficult it is.
I wanted to ride the train all the way through Mexico and stick with the people I was photographing, but they told me not to come. They just said, ‘Look, it doesn’t look any different, you’ve already gotten photos, and now you’re just taking risks for no reason.” I felt like I had to listen to them. They were saying to get on a bus and go further north and I did that. But I feel like I tried to minimize risks. I had rules, but then I broke them all for the most part.
LCM: What were some of those rules?
MF: I wouldn’t get on the train if it was very close to nightfall, because you’re not going to take any pictures, so there’s no real point. And that’s when gangs will board the train. I also wasn’t going to ride it in the rain, because that’s when a lot of trains derail in the rainy season. If it’s already moving, if it’s not stopped, then I’m not going to get on it. And last time I did the trip, it was night. It was pouring rain. I was in a truck rolling alongside the train and I hopped on.
LCM: You described the beauty of the beginning of the train ride. But how does the rest unfold?
MF: If you look at Destino, you see that the landscape is a character in the story. There is beauty and romance in the beginning, in that lush countryside. And if you keep going further, it gets darker — literally and emotionally. Then the last third of the book is where the dream collides with the reality, and it is a lot more grim. You see that punishing landscape of the desert that is just not fit for human life, the post-Soviet era, Cold War architecture of the border fence.
Everything’s breezy, then you slam your head against the whole nightmare that is the US-Mexico border land. The cartels control that whole region. They don’t want you anywhere near it. The immigrants turn in their cell phones because they don’t want them snapping photos. There are all kinds of dangers along the way in Veracruz and Tabasco. For me, in particular, once we start entering the states where the Zetas are controlling everything, that’s kind of like … you just don’t even go there.
LCM: And yet since October of last year, thousands of Central American children have arrived at the border — more than ever before. What do you think about how these young migrants are represented on both ends of the media?
MF: I do think there’s really great journalistic reporting about the surge. But at the same time, it seems like we’ve gotten to the point where every year is an election year, and the topic has become this hot button issue. It feels like a war of semantics. If you can just say they’re here illegally, or they’re illegals, then you can just deport them. If you look at them as refugees that have rights under a bill that was passed by both houses and signed into law by [President] George W. Bush, then you need to respect that process.
There’s no doubt that there are real pressures behind this migration, and it’s also true that everybody’s kind of jumping on the train — no pun intended. But the answer is to beef up the legal system to deal with the backlog of applications so we can accurately determine [who is actually a refugee]. Maybe it’s only 5% or 10% of the people getting caught at the border who fit all the requirements for asylum.
LCM: When you’re not riding boxcars through Mexico, you’re shooting weddings in Washington, DC. How do you jump between creative endeavors like Destino that you’re deeply invested in and purely commercial work?
MF: It became a lot less confusing once I extricated my work life from my work life with a capital W. I find it a lot more confusing and conflicting to work as an editorial photographer for newspapers and magazines and then go off and do my own work, whereas now it’s very simple in my mind. One thing is bread and butter, but then I go off and do my own work, and that’s entirely about me. It’s more like being an impressionist painter, where people commission you to paint their portrait: you take their money, you buy a baguette and then you go off and with whatever change you have left over, you make your own thing.