El Sueño Americano asserts the humanity of migrants through personal belongings confiscated at the border

By Bliss Bowen

“Virgen de Mickey,” a photograph by Tom Kiefer. This high-quality Disney sweatshirt worn by a migrant who crossed the southern border was confiscated and discarded by immigration officials upon intake. Kiefer collected these and other discarded belongings to create his El Sueño Americano series, currently on exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center. Image courtesy of Tom Kiefer
and the Skirball

Ritualistic aspects we normally associate with travel — plans, checklists, packing, safe passage — are upended by “El Sueño Americano | The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer,” opening this week at the Skirball Cultural Center. Each of the exhibit’s more than 100 images carefully frames personal belongings confiscated from refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Baby shoes, jewelry, religious objects, cell phones, journals, medicine, toys, clothing, wallets: the photos range in mood and style from worshipful to Warholian; cumulatively, they make a damning statement about human nature and American democracy and character. They also offer mute testimony that journeys lead to unexpected destinations, both for Kiefer and the displaced individuals whose aspirations his photos strive to respect.

Tom Kiefer’s “Brush and Comb Assembly” and “Cynthia’s CD Collection” showcase items he recovered from Customs and Border Patrol trash bins

Primitive Americana

Born in Kansas and raised mostly in Seattle, Kiefer is a former Angeleno who took the scenic route into photography. He studied graphic design in college because “photography at that time was too much of an exotic, expensive discipline.” Ultimately, graphic design turned out to be an “incredible, essential part” of the tool bucket he still utilizes as a photographer. After working as a graphic designer in L.A. for almost a decade, he transitioned into selling antique cast-iron beds. In 1998 he sold his Atwater Village shop “with the express intent to do my photography, and travel in the footsteps of Walker Evans.”

As an antique dealer, he’d gravitated toward “primitive Americana — things that had a lived-in soul to it.” That theme recurs throughout his photography.

“The experience I had as a graphic designer and then having the antique store — I mean, talk about setting myself up for ‘El Sueño Americano,’” Kiefer says. “You could not have planned it.”

Three months after 9/11 he left L.A. for Arizona, in search of a home he could own and “a sense of community and safety — I didn’t want to be a nomad.” He settled in small, dusty Ajo, a former copper mining town 43 miles from the Mexico border in the Sonoran Desert. Kiefer, who leads a “very independent” life with his cat, says he did not want a “solitary existence.” But, he acknowledges, solitude “has allowed me to develop and grow, and to do this very intense project.”

“Cell Phone Assembly” and “Pain Relief” highlight the volume of travel essentials taken from migrants as they crossed the southern border

Symbols of Hope

Landscaped with saguaro cacti and scenic vistas, the region lends itself to creative visions. When he first arrived, Kiefer shuttled between Ajo, Tucson and Phoenix with a Pentax camera, capturing black-and-white images that ultimately comprised his first major project, “Journey West”: midcentury road signs, carousel workers, crushed cars, wide-open skies, fenced-in yard dogs.

To support his art, Kiefer says he started working at the nearby U.S. Customs and Border Processing facility on July 7, 2003, mostly as a part-time janitor. Four years later, he was “fed up” with seeing “perfectly good canned food” flung into the trash — food that migrants had been forced to relinquish to CBP agents at
the border.

“My parents grew up during the Depression, and you don’t throw away food,” he says. “I had to do something. The majority of the agents didn’t like seeing food thrown out either, so when I asked for permission to collect the food, the supervisor’s exact response was, ‘Bless you.’ Those were the sentiments: ‘Thank you for doing this.’ Little did I know…”

It was while retrieving those cans of food that Kiefer became aware of other necessities piled in with garbage: Blankets, coins, medicine, shoes, shoelaces, toilet paper, toothbrushes and toothpaste. Bibles, CDs, contraceptives, earbuds, letters, toys, work gloves. CBP agents had deemed them “nonessential” or “potentially lethal,” and taken them while processing migrants at the border. The volume of it all was staggering.

From a security perspective, impounding pocketknives or razors makes sense. But animal crackers? Stuffed animals? Soap?

Kiefer instinctively began tucking items into cardboard boxes in which he was collecting tossed food. He says he donated unopened jars of baby food, cans of tuna, dehydrated soup, beef jerky, candy and granola bars to a local food bank, and thousands of socks (mostly new) to homeless shelters, thrift shops and charities. Everything had been dumped in the trash.

“When you get arrested and you’re in jail, whatever they take from you, you get back when you’re released. But when you’re apprehended and taken to a processing center, there’s very little that you’re allowed to keep. Any extra clothing, mementos, a Bible, a rosary — they are confiscated and thrown in the trash. That’s just utter cruelty. We’re talking about, at base, stripping away people’s identity, their humanity. …

“I was like, ‘I’m not going to let this rosary or Bible stay in the trash. No. Uh-uh,’” he explains. “I was not thinking about, ‘What am I gonna do with all this?’ but: ‘No.’ Then finding a wallet, finding a brand new bottle of cologne — regarding the cologne, I had a very primitive [response]: ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me. Why in the hell?’ I almost thought it was a joke. But then I kept finding bottles of cologne, and I started to put two and two together: ‘This represents something; they’re perhaps thinking about their first job interview, or being reunited with someone they haven’t seen in years.’ It was a symbol of hope.

“Later, when I started researching, I stumbled across the fact that the high alcohol content of all these colognes acted like a medicinal first aid for scratches.”

While gathering those personal talismans, did he feel like he was holding a story in his hands? Like a protective priest?

“I felt like I was doing something that needed to be done,” he says. “Because if I didn’t recover these materials, who would have believed me?”

‘El Sueño Americano’

This was during the George W. Bush administration, which in 2005 controversially (and expensively) responded to an uptick in undocumented immigrant border crossings with its “zero tolerance” Operation Streamline, introduced in Tucson in 2008. By then Kiefer sensed his burgeoning collection represented something he could work with photographically. He got a digital camera in 2012 and the following year grouped more than two dozen black combs and brushes on a black cloth; looking at what he’d photographed, he had a “this is it” moment. It was the starting point of what became “El Sueño Americano.”

That picture is chilling, and not just because of its monochromatic tone. Several combs look sturdy and brand new, but most have the discolored, bent appearance of implements that have been yanked through greased hair and shoved in and out of pockets countless times. Metallic threads split from a worn elastic hair band like the human hairs still lodged in unwashed brushes; their intimacy induces a shiver. Another collection of combs is no less emotionally gripping for being composed in brilliant hues of Disney princess pink.

Assembling such objects en masse became an organizing principle. Their monumental quantity speaks to the scale of the interlocked crises — poverty, violence, climate change, starvation — that are driving refugees to the U.S.-Mexico border. One by one, items are prosaic, symbolically suggestive, and often touching — particularly religious keepsakes, like Virgen de Guadalupe totems and blue, pocket-sized copies of the New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs.

Details unlock stories: Clean polo shirts. Mud-rimmed rubber duckies that had marked trails. Water canteens armored for desert crossings with duct tape or cloth. Weathered leather wallets with prayer cards — and sometimes IDs — folded inside. A sepia-toned mandala of belts coiled in concentric circles. A defiant display of lipsticks, eye shadow, nail polish, and a rainbow-embroidered compact — and the backdrop cloth imprinted with their outlines after the makeup’s been removed, like footprints left by ghosts.

Kiefer kept rescuing food and belongings from the trash throughout the Bush and Obama administrations until, in 2014, he finally quit his job with the CBP in disgust. The following year, he went public with “El Sueño Americano.” He’s shown it at a handful of art spaces and fairs around the country, though none, he says, were “at the scale” of the Skirball. He’s been ranked as one of LensCulture’s Top 50 Emerging Talents and included in Photolucida’s Top 50 Critical Mass.

In March 2017, New Yorker magazine published Peter C. Baker’s photo-illustrated story about “El Sueño Americano.” It went viral. As the Trump administration escalated family separations and deportations at the border, Kiefer’s heart-gripping pictures of confiscated rosaries and rings exploded across social media platforms.

‘This is like Ellis Island’

Now working out of a studio instead of his home, Kiefer says he occasionally encounters former co-workers at checkpoints or the local grocery store. Some agents are cordial; some avoid him. He shrugs off friction with a chuckle.

“My sole work is ‘El Sueño Americano | The American Dream,’” he says. “That’s all I’m doing. I’m continuing to shoot new work from the objects I recovered. I’ll be doing this [laughs] until I die … the volume is just unimaginable. One day, this whole archive, this whole collection is going to be donated to a university or some facility like that so this can be part of our historical record.

“This is like Ellis Island. More people come through this particular region — southwestern Arizona, the Tucson sector, the Ajo corridor — than any other section of the border. It’s like the Ellis Island of the desert.”

Kiefer plans to attend the opening of the Skirball exhibit, which will also feature video interviews with immigrants who’ve crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. He veers away from discussion of partisan politics, preferring a less divisive message of “shared humanity.” But he speaks passionately about what he has witnessed — and what he wants other people to see — at the border. His photographs, he hopes, will encourage people to reflect on “where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to go,” he says.

“It’s just tragic to think about how we are demonizing people. All I can hope for is that soon we can look back in horror at how we allowed it to get to this stage of cruelty. By no means are we out of the woods. … Who do we want to become?”

Before the CBP job, before “El Sueño Americano,” Kiefer had a relatively simple goal. He moved to Arizona to “photograph and document the American landscape, the buildings, the infrastructure, the cultural markers — the things that make America America. That’s what I set out to do.

“In a certain sense, that’s what I’m doing with ‘El Sueño Americano.’ Just not in a way that I could have ever imagined.”

“El Sueño Americano | The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer” opens Thursday (Oct. 17) and remains on display through March 8 at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. Kiefer, Francisco Cantú, Dora Rodriguez and curator/moderator Laura Mart share “Stories From the Border” at the Skirball on Tuesday, Nov. 12. Call (310) 440-4500 or visit skirball.org for venue information.