Tom Kiefer’s photography exhibit El Sueño Americano began more than a decade ago but has received national attention in recent months amid public concern with the implementation of Trump administration policies on immigration and border control. In December 2001, Kiefer moved from Los Angeles to the tiny desert town of Ajo, Arizona, some forty miles north of the Mexican border. His project, as he remembers it, was going to be “the things that make America, America.” Like others before him, Kiefer’s aesthetic of America explores national identity through banality of place and transfiguration of the familiar. To support his livelihood and give him the flexibility to focus on his portfolio, Kiefer picked up a day job as a part-time janitor in the Ajo Station of the US Border Protection.
* * *
Americans have long sacralized ordinary objects through memory work that reveals the power of the state, that transforms otherwise familiar, even banal, objects into the ties that bind daily life to regimes of power. El Sueño Americano fits within this bigger American story of creating the bogeymen who haunt us as we dream our better selves. Two recent examples paint a picture. As news reports detailing the detention of migrants on the southern US border began to circulate early last summer, Getty Images staff photographer John Moore photographed a two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker crying as her mother stands over her, hands against a Custom and Border Protection (CBP) utility vehicle as she is searched and detained. On June 17, 2018, seemingly in response to a litany of visual documentation from the border, the Administration for Children and Families at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a series of images from various detention centers, including McAllen and Casa Padre (a government-contracted migrant youth facility in Brownsville, Texas). Each of these examples conveys a message about the American state through a pageantry of the familiar that the photographers’ trust their beholders to recognize.
Moore’s subject is humanity in crisis—people in migration, being detained, being reunited with their families, protesting, policing, and detaining other people. He has long been documenting migrants on the United States–Mexico border and the people he follows along their journeys are often the focal point of his photographs, drawing viewers into the complex social lives of persons so often caricatured in media coverage. At a soup kitchen in Hermosillo, Mexico, migrants rest beneath a mural of La Virgen de Guadalupe cradling the head of a brown-skinned man wearing a baseball cap. The Pietà motif is replicated throughout his portfolio, as appeals to the intimacy of family, of community, play upon registers of the sacred.
The HHS photographs also appeal to the power of the familiar. Here, the primary compositional subject is detention facilities, represented at Casa Padre through glossy portrayals of familiar objects in clean, bright private rooms and public spaces. In the McAllen series, HHS focuses several photographs around religious objects—a desk with a hand-drawn La Virgen de Guadalupe, a “Santa Biblia” on a bright blue bed, and another copy of the same Bible on a desk, this one with a white plastic rosary carefully staged between the pages. Through these series, HHS attempts to disarm public outcry by focusing on familiar, even ordinary, objects in their facilities. All of these photographs tell a story with an intent not only to document but to persuade. Visual propaganda is, of course, nothing new in the long, fraught history of American immigration and deportation. And yet no less significantly to understanding this moment, these competing photographic narratives of the US border with Mexico reflect how photography, as a visual grammar of American citizenship, traverses the borderlands of the sacred and the American state by classifying and curating everyday objects. Perhaps nowhere is this migrating sacred—between people, holy objects, and ordinary things—so clear as it is in El Sueño Americano.
* * *
According to CBP policies and directives, the material that Kiefer would eventually explore through El Sueño Americano is officially classified as contraband. The policy of collecting all objects on migrants’ persons when they are processed at border patrol stations reaches back into earlier eras. When Kiefer first arrived at Ajo, agents were donating confiscated nonperishable foods to a local food bank. But then a new station chief ended the practice—he disapproved of the use of company time to collect and transport the food. Kiefer later requested permission to take the confiscated foods to the pantry on his own time. When the agent responded with his blessing, Kiefer began to see what other items were taken from migrants detained in the facility: keys, clothing, water bottles, ID cards, wallets, toothbrushes, combs, medicine, toys, and other articles migrants had deemed essential to their journey and the start of their new lives. Among these “deeply personal items,” Kiefer recalls with pointed clarity the “shock and horror” of discovering Bibles and rosaries, along with other Catholic devotional objects.
He began to collect it all, discreetly tucking clothing and toiletries and religious objects in with the food he was permitted to collect. And then he took it all home. Some things he could donate to the local St. Vincent DePaul Thrift Store. But, as Kiefer reflected when we spoke in August, you “don’t donate a wallet or a rosary or a Bible,” at least not those still pulsating with the lives of the people from whom they were taken. He estimates that over the course of a decade he collected tens of thousands of objects that together amount to “an historical record of what took place in our country,” even reflecting that the collection is “kinda like the Ellis Island” of this period of American immigration history.
Through El Sueño Americano, Kiefer wants to move public debates around undocumented migrants from abstract, polarizing rhetoric to the tactile banality of everyday life—to replace the border wall with toothpaste and condoms and rosaries in the public imagination. It is a tall order. The ethical challenge of how to present these twice-stolen objects, of even how to arrange them, “to have dignity . . . dignity and respect,” initially kept Kiefer from photographing them. Could photographs of migrants’ belongings, reclassified under the authoritative regime of the American state as “non-essential, potentially lethal personal property,” restore human dignity to the migrants who had been so efficiently dehumanized?
Eventually, he began to stage the objects for his camera, creating photographs as well-ordered and stylized as modern graphic art. Over time, he has created both “mass assemblies”—a patchwork of condoms, rows of keys, tangles of rosaries—in order to confront viewers with the massive scale of confiscation and also intimate portraits of single objects—a bottle of cologne, for instance, or a child’s magic marker drawing of a dinosaur—in order to focus on the personhood of those whose objects we now behold. Across both aesthetic devices, Kiefer sees the objects in his collection (is it really his?) as “symbols of [migrants’] hopes, their dreams.” And something more. Tellingly, for Kiefer, the “power and poignancy” in these everyday products transforms each of them into “a sacred object.”
Several of the objects on display in El Sueño Americano are easily recognized and classified as religious objects—rosaries, Bibles, statues of Mary, holy cards. Such objects remind us that many migrants crossing the border are “devoutly religious,” as Kiefer put it when we spoke, and that confiscating these articles betrays, for him, the “absolute stinking hypocrisy” of policies in place to protect American values, among them the promise of religious freedom. Religious freedom talk, to use Tisa Wenger’s turn of phrase, has long been in the service of white racial privilege and American imperialism. We know, too, that border protection from the beginning has been steeped in racialized imaginations of American citizenship and that the history of race in the United States is also, at the same time, a history of religion. As much as any legal document or political commentary, El Sueño Americano invites scrutiny of the code-switching around religion, race, and citizenship in American public life: What does it mean for border agents, through the act of confiscation, to define religious objects as illegal contraband? Or, if we take the CBP mission literally, as within the potential class of terrorist weapons? How has the framework of religious freedom developed over the course of American history to protect certain objects, in certain spaces, in relation to certain people—and how has it been wielded to exclude other objects, spaces, and people from that protection?
But classifying religious objects in El Sueño Americano as in some fundamental way distinct from the other objects on display in the photographs misses the bigger picture. Every confiscated object is remade through the ritual of staging and photographing as Kiefer performs the priestly role of transforming mundane objects into sacred hosts, tabernacles of dignity that migrate across the borderlands of sacred and secular. On the surface, El Sueño Americano employs a visual strategy not unlike the HHS photographs of detention facilities. Both series, for instance, frame commonplace objects to familiarize their subjects, investing those objects with the power to invoke bigger truths, be it common humanity, for Kiefer, or, in the government series, a benevolent state. But beyond what Kiefer may mean by “sacred object”—and I think he is sincere in using that language—there is a reckoning at work in El Sueño Americano that differentiates it from the government photographs. Toothpaste, combs, nail clippers, bandanas, clothing, gloves, razors, rosaries, worn surfaces of La Virgen de Guadalupe, scuffed covers of Nuevo Testamento, each refer back to the bodies of those who have sought refuge in the grand, unfulfilled American promise of human dignity and who have borne the burden of its failure.
Americans, as I suggested at the start of this piece, have long sacralized ordinary objects through memory work that simultaneously discloses the power of the state. When Tom Kiefer likens his contraband collection of migrants’ objects to a modern-day Ellis Island, he is invoking this American habit. Shoes. Eyeglasses. Teddy bears. Rosaries. Cologne. Each of these, through the crucible of violence remembered, transubstantiates, becoming the flesh and blood of those whose bodies are no longer in our midst. And also becoming something that we can pick up, curate, and, with them, create the stories we tell ourselves. When Kiefer arranges verse from Emma Lazarus’s most famous sonnet—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .”—in the dry alphabet soup carried by migrants, he captures the dissonance between these stories and the violence we do in order to tell them. Here, Latino Catholicism and the American state do not generate the sacred so much as the act of confiscation exposes fault lines—borderlands—between objects, bodies, and beholders. As he surreptitiously collected these confiscated objects from CBP wastebaskets, Kiefer realized that, instead of him searching for America as he set out to do, “America was coming to me.” In these twice-stolen objects, cast away as contraband, he had found the things that make America, America.