Migrants and Minutemen

Disposable cameras document the border journeys of both the hunter and the hunted

It's twilight, and a couple of Mexican migrants are camped out under a mesquite.

Around them lie plastic bottles filled with the water that will keep them alive in the Arizona desert. Above them stretch the branches that will shelter them during the night. But they're not unhappy--they're chowing down and smiling for the camera, exhilarated by their great adventure.

Another picture shows another encampment that's much better equipped, with store-bought tents and surveillance gear. Members of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, dressed in warm flannel, are camping out, too, in their own shady grove, but they're going to spend the night looking for migrants just like the people under that other mesquite.

The two groups may have more in common than they know. That's the unstated assumption behind a riveting exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. The Border Film Project/El Proyecto Fronterizo Fotográfico displays 260 snapshots of migrants and Minutemen in the borderlands, along both sides of the international divide. What's unusual about these images is that they were taken by the migrants and Minutemen themselves.

Migrants casually step over low border walls in the pictures, or carefully push barbed wire aside, then lope gleefully into the United States A few fearlessly walk along paved American roads; one even hitchhikes. Somebody shot Tucson monsoon clouds through the windshield of a smuggler vehicle on Interstate 10. One successful traveler had his photo taken in his new American kitchen at the end of his journey, his face covered by a mask and his thumb most emphatically up.

These photos are startling--and rare--for obvious reasons: migrants in the act of sneaking into the country illegally don't usually bring photojournalists along for the ride. Here, they seem willing, even eager, to document their journeys. The Minuteman images are more familiar and less dramatic. Their flag-decked rallies, their surveillance gear, their RVs and their lawn chairs have all been abundantly photographed and published in the media.

The project was a good-hearted effort by three 20-somethings, two with roots in Arizona, to find a new angle into the fierce debate over illegal immigration. All kinds of people are roaming around nowadays in the contested terrain along the border: Border Patrol agents bouncing along in SUVs, journalists looking for stories, ranchers patrolling their land, activists setting up water stations.

For the purposes of this project, most of the extras in this extravaganza step out of the way. What's left are the migrants traipsing through the desert in search of a better life, and the Minutemen trying to stop them.

The three project leaders, Victoria Criado and Arizona natives Rudy Adler and Brett Huneycutt, handed out some 600 disposable cameras, locating the migrants in Mexican shelters near the line. They asked those who agreed to participate to document their own stories via snapshots while remaining anonymous. To get the cameras back after the pictures were shot, the trio also distributed stamped mailers and, as an incentive, gift cards to which they would add money only if the cameras were shipped back. (The migrants got Wal-Mart cards, and the Americans gas cards.)

Surprisingly, enough cameras were sent back by the time of this traveling exhibition that the curators had 2,000 photos to choose from. Most of those on view have been left tiny, snapshot size, but a number were compelling enough that they've been enlarged. An iconic portrait of a Minuteman, in reflective glasses and a cowboy hat, poses him against a cloudy Southwest sky; a migrant easily climbs over barbed wire to enter into a field of winter-gold wild grass.

Displayed in a thoughtful room-within-a-room installation by Tucson architects Teresa Rosano and Luis Ibarra (its outer walls suggest the infamous border fence), the 260 images in the show are roughly divided between the two camps.

Minutemen cheerfully documented their gatherings, mostly carried out in lawn chairs and in Scout-like circles in the desert. A row of six volunteers lean against a storefront in one picture, and six women smile for the camera in pink team T-shirts in another. Overwhelmingly white and mostly past middle age, these pleasantly paunchy folks look for the most part like tourists out for some retirement fun.

Other pictures, of course, demonstrate their serious intent. A pair of photos capture a group practicing their shooting and the circle targets they're aiming for. Press conferences, with more reporters than Minutemen, announce their surveillance plans, and angry signs--"Don't worry. The King of England didn't like the Minuteman project either"--stress their patriotism. One artful shot uses a car window to frame a shot of one of the ubiquitous Minutemen vehicles, a flag and a backdrop of Arizona mountains.

But their pictures are necessarily static. On a purely visual level, the Minutemen's quiet vigils in the desert can't begin to match the great drama of the migrants' epic journeys. Several of the migrant sequences chronicle entire trips, from their beginnings in dusty Mexican towns, to the dangerous hikes through the desert, to the jubilant finales on streets in unnamed American cities.

Whatever a viewer's political leanings, the well-fed Americans of the surveillance groups are no match on the emotion-o-meter for the little kids playing on the concrete floor in a grim border-town migrant shelter, or the little girl, pretty in pink, riding in a van in the United States with her face full of hope for a safe arrival. The migrant photos mutely testify to the tragedy of whole families uprooted from their homeland out of economic necessity. In one, a grandma protectively holds a small child among some creosotes, while the dad looks fearfully out into the distance for Border Patrol officers.

A documentary playing on a continuous loop in an inner room of the exhibit does address the economic fears of those working to stem the onslaught of illegal entrants. An American talks about Mexicans replacing her countrymen in the meatpacking plants of Iowa, a contention supported by last week's mass arrests. And a Mexican explains that back home, Central Americans willing to work for a pittance pushed him out a job that was already impossibly low-wage. He has no choice, he says, but to go north.

The film helps situate the photos' emotional stories into a larger context. With workers displaced worldwide, even the sturdiest fence, or the most diligent Minuteman, is unlikely to stop migrants from crossing borders to keep their families alive.

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