Why a Photo Exhibit of Objects Seized at Border Control Feels Sanitized

Tom Kiefer’s aim — to document atrocity — is clear. But his exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center raises a number of important ethical and legal questions about whose stories he tells, and how.

Tom Kiefer, “Brush and Comb Assembly” (2017), Redux Pictures (© Tom Kiefer)

LOS ANGELES — El Sueño Americano | The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer, currently on view at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, is an exhibit of contrasts. The show features photographs of items seized and then discarded by border officials from migrants at the US–Mexico border. The items —  ranging from water bottles to cell phones, medications to letters, toothbrushes to toys — are photographed against brightly colored backgrounds. Out of context, many of the vibrant images could easily be read as glossy ads for products sold at Target. In context, they resonate quite differently.

El Sueño Americano installation view (photo by Timothy Morris)
Tom Kiefer, “USA! USA! USA!” (2019), Redux Pictures (© Tom Kiefer)

Photographer Tom Kiefer collected these objects while working as a janitor at the Customs and Border Protection Station in Ajo, Arizona. Once a graphic designer living in Los Angeles, Kiefer moved to the small town in southwestern Arizona to lower his cost-of-living expenses; he took the part-time janitor position to support his art practice. Kiefer reports that he found himself “increasingly disturbed” by the food and other personal items that he saw being seized and discarded by border patrol agents. In an interview with Norisa Diaz, he says that:

In 2007 I asked a supervisor if I could begin collecting the food that was being thrown away and deliver it to a food bank … And I found deeply personal items like rosaries and Bibles, family photographs. That was just not right. I was not going to allow someone’s rosary or Bible to remain in the trash. I discreetly began taking them.

Tom Kiefer, “Pain Relief” (2017), Redux Pictures (© Tom Kiefer)

Disgusted by what he saw at the Customs and Border Control facility, Kiefer describes his work as “historical documentation of our country’s response to migration” and as a “contribution to helping our democracy.” His aim — to document atrocity — is clear. But the exhibit raises a number of important questions — ethical and legal — about whose stories he tells, and how. 

When I first read about El Sueño Americano, it immediately called to mind a particular exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington DC: a room of shoes seized by Nazis from prisoners upon their arrival at the Majdanek concentration camp. The shoes are not artfully arranged; they are piled high on the floor, shoe upon shoe in an undifferentiated mass. The shoes are not neatly archived or catalogued, as other objects in the museum are, and the heavy mass of them — framed by a poem printed on the wall above them — is a reminder that they survived the concentration where their human owners did not. 

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (© Estigman via Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

While Kiefer’s work is also a collection and a memorial, his work resonates quite differently than the room of shoes at the USHMM. First, in El Sueño Americano, we are displaced from the objects themselves, and our access is mediated by the photographer. The exhibit at the Skirball would resonate quite differently if it were an exhibit of objects, not of photographs. And there is also a disconnect between the way that the objects are photographed — the brightly colored backgrounds, the artful arrangements by type — and the subject matter, given that US agents seized these objects from their owners — many who have made grueling journeys with very few personal belongings at all. 

Kiefer sees his aesthetic choices — his careful lighting and arranging of objects on colorful backgrounds — as integral to his political project. A recent Los Angeles Times article about the exhibit reports “ [c]olor is an essential component of the photos, a way to inject humanity into each personal belonging, Kiefer said. Shooting the items on the same background ‘wouldn’t feel right, it would it would feel like it was a scientific observation of something.’”

For Kiefer, there is something reverential about the project — about the way he elevates (or attempts to elevate) a small purse or a collection of hair combs. He sees his refusal to make an austere or “scientific” archive as a form of resistance. And when we compare the singular baby shoe that Kiefer photographs against a bright pink background to, say, the collection of shoes at the USSHM, we see that Kiefer’s work asks us to not to imagine masses, but an individual. His baby shoe stands in for a singular baby, and he photographs it with care and reverence that we can safely assume that the baby did not receive upon arriving to the US. The shoes at the USHMM ask us to recognize mass trauma; Kiefer’s baby shoe asks us to acknowledge the losses faced by individuals. 

Tom Kiefer, “Baby Shoe” (2018) Redux Pictures (© Tom Kiefer)

But there is something altogether too sanitized about the exhibition. These otherwise banal objects are evidence of trauma. They stand in for the bodies of the migrants themselves, and there is an uncomfortable distance between their aesthetic and what they represent. Kiefer and the Skirball have certainly tried to create a politically powerful and inclusive exhibit. All of its text is presented in English and in Spanish. The exhibit begins chronologically with a video of Dora Rodriguez, a migrants’ rights advocate who crossed the US–Mexico border in 1980, who tells her story to Kiefer. The pamphlet that accompanies the exhibit includes a brief history of US immigration and information about organizations that serve migrants across the country. But it is all too clean. The highly aestheticized photographs of objects are a synecdoche of the real bodies of the migrants themselves, and through the white gaze of the photographer, we are continually displaced from the lived realities of the atrocities at the border. The exhibit feels whitewashed.

Tom Kiefer, “Water Bottles” (2014), Redux Pictures (© Tom Kiefer)

The most powerful gesture of El Sueño Americano is not the exhibit of photographs itself, but Kiefer’s years-long gesture of saving seized items from the trash; Kiefer collected items for over six years before he even began photographing them. And while the US Department of Immigration has the authority to seize migrants’ belongings at the border, attorney John Stobart, with whom I viewed the exhibit, suggests that Keifer’s work “raises interesting unanswered issues that are becoming more common as immigration law continues to evolve in the face of changing administrative policies.” Stobart suggests that, given the strict procedures (which include reimbursement and notice requirements) outlined by federal law for seizure of property at the border, it is unclear whether the migrants’ property was properly confiscated by border agents in the first place. Kiefer’s work takes care where the US government has not. 

The exhibit’s aesthetic, however, undermines the power of Kiefer’s original act. The glossy bright photos, the symmetrical arrangements of items, the framing, and the Instagram-readiness of the exhibit cauterize the traumas of the border experience. In using things to stand in for human lives, Kiefer’s photographs too often elide the human. 

El Sueño Americano | The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer continues at the Skirball Cultural Center (2701 N Sepulveda Blvd, Brentwood, Los Angeles) through March 8. 

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