Images of the US-Mexican border are often bleak – a high fence, a stern guard or two and a vast expanse of space either side, littered with rubbish. But the 2,000 miles of land and its multi-billion dollar barrier is not devoid of life and its ephemera. Far from it.
Richard Misrach, a photographer famous for his love of wide, open space and strange light, has spent the last five years photographing items he encountered along the border, things left behind by migrants passing through, hoping for a new life. Backpacks, shoes, books, footballs, wallets – all are found in the arid dirt, with no identity to speak of. The people who dropped them are long gone and no one knows what's happened to them.
Misrach has teamed up with Mexican composer Guillermo Galindo for the project – which will be ongoing until its culmination as a huge, interactive travelling exhibition 2016 – who is building functional, playable instruments from the found objects. At face value a rucksack or a trainer is banal, but together the two artists are attempting to address the humanity behind the statistics, to make people realise that every lost shoe belonged to a lost person.
VICE: Hi Richard. What pulls you to the Mexican border?
Richard Misrach: Well, I've been photographing in the Napa Desert for almost 40 years now. I've always thought of them as a giant stage – everything from bomb ranges to nuclear testing happens in our American deserts. I've been aware the border issues for years but its always been such a high profile subject that I didn't bother touching it. But in the last decade the increased militarisation of the border has caught my attention. Its a real paradox shift. I've now photographed almost 2000 miles of the border, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, and it's really indicative to me of a major shift in what's happening in the US in terms of our national sovereignty. It all plays out in the landscape. I'm not a journalist – I look at the bigger picture and how the landscape speaks to us.
Wall, Playas de Tijuana, California, 2013
In partnering with Guillermo Galindo, do you feel like these ephemeral objects you find – a piece of rubbish, a single shoe – regain an identity?
Yes. If you go along the border you're going to find "human trash" – backpacks, water bottles, tennis shoes – but it's only trash in the landscape before you start opening it up. For example, I once opened a backpack that contained bright yellow boxer shorts covered in cartoon characters, Trojan condoms, a big bottle of cologne, toothpaste, toothbrush and a surfer T-shirt and I realised, my god, this was a portrait of a young man. Another backpack I found, maybe 500 miles away, carried a small lipstick compact with a mirror and a cute little purse with around 70 pesos in it. It was a young girl. If you actually open up these pieces of trash, suddenly you get the people. It's very powerful.
So yes, I bring a visual approach to these items, but Guillermo – whose original project this was – tries to find the life of each objects that I bring back. In the last three years we've been working together, I've been bringing back things myself as he has problems at the border. Because I'm a white guy with blue eyes, I can be there and work. If Guillermo goes, it can be really unpleasant.
So you don't ever encounter trouble?
It's been interesting. I've been doing this so long that I'm used to it, but then, I'm an old white guy with a big camera and a tripod. I have a formal, non-threatening presence. People will check me out and I have to go through their sensors and things, but I'm on public land so its OK for me to be there. Once they've checked me out, they become very friendly – some even start showing me their own photos on their iPhones. Once they get comfortable with me being there they kind of look out for me and I feel quite safe because they are there waiting and watching all the time. It would be very different for a person of colour.
Micro Orchestra, 2014
Do you never find the expanse and remoteness of the landscape claustrophobic?
No, the more remote the better. It's probably some sort of existential thing. When I'm out there in the middle of the desert by myself, I feel like it's kind of primal. But I've also been photographing the walls that go through the cities and the more densely populated areas, too. The whole border stretch varies from places where the river takes over – like the Rio Grande in Texas – and more dense, urban landscapes like Nogales, Arizona, where the wall splits the city in half. It's the weirdest, most surreal thing – families and friends have been cut off from each other. There's a Nogales USA and a Nogales Mexico.
Do you feel like every item you find along the border is a tragedy?
Well, the most recent development is that we have 52,000 unaccompanied children coming from Central America, all the way across the desert to get to the United States, only to end up incarcerated. Two weeks ago I was in the desert photographing some places where people put water and food out for migrants.
Because they can get to these remote places and die?
Yes. I spent four hours in one place and my shoes and hands became filled with cactus spines. They're brutal and really hard to get out – I actually had to throw away my shoes at one point. But these people – children – travel through the night across this terrain. I once found a pair of tennis shoes for a four-year-old and two bibles inscribed with crayon hearts – these are really, really young kids. Innocent children trekking across vast expanses of dangerous landscape. Women are raped all the time. People come here, desperate, looking for the opportunity for a new life. It's a tragedy. It's 52,000 tragedies.
Guillermo, I'm looking at an image of an instrument utilising found clothing that looks like an effigy. It's quite affecting.
Yes, that particular one is a replication of the effigies that are found on the border. It's a strange instrument.
Can it – and the other instruments you've created from the objects – actually be played?
Yes, but every instrument requires a lot of training and practice. Even I am still learning how to play them. Each of the instruments have special tunings – they are tuned only to themselves, not to Western standards.
Are you trying to promote a greater connection with the idea that, behind each statistic, behind each piece of "trash", is a person just like us?
Yes. We need to understand that these objects – things we use in our daily lives – belonged to someone who was suffering. These people trying to cross the border need to drink water, they need shoes. They are just like everybody else. For many, though, these tragedies are just numbers. The instruments show them the humanity of the tragedy.
The instruments require human manipulation, so they end up becoming, by default, a conduit between two people – the one who owned the item and the person playing the instrument.
GG: That's right. I consider these objects to be sacred. They are very special and have to be treated gently.
RM: Guillermo is reconceptualising these objects, which have otherwise kind of lost their meaning, or become jumbled into a different meaning by the concept of tragedy. Reusing them and releasing them makes you pay attention.
Richard – do you drive around and collect these things alone?
Yeah, I really have to get into the zone to do it. I get up at about 4 AM and push all the way through to the evening. My wife says I live on twigs and berries – I don't like to spend time going to cafes and basically just exist on trail mix. She is is horrified by the way I eat out there, but I get into a zone out there and have to pay attention all the time to the changing light. It works best when I go alone.
Where do you sleep?
For the first 35 years I would sleep in the back of my Volkswagen Camper. I've had five over 40 years, but in recent times, because of my back, I now do the motels. I need to sleep in a real bed.
What has been the most affecting object you've found so far?
GG: The first time I went to Laredo, Texas, I found a child's backpack with a cartoon character on, which happened to be one of my son's favourite. It really touched me that a boy my son's age is out there with his backpack.
RM: Mine is something really different. Guillermo is making an amazing piece out of something that I recently found – an old Spanish library copy of Doctor Zhivago that was right by the border wall. Inside, I found a bus ticket for a college student. It was leather-bound, beautiful edition of a book that – even though it's about Russia and the Cold War – carries such meaning as to what is happening on the border today. That the person carrying this book would have just lost it, in a fleeting moment, is so affecting for me.
Thank you, both.
More like this from VICE: