Photography and Border Crossings

Apropos of two discussion points tonight, this photo-essay centers on life along the U.S.-Mexican border 80 years ago.

Given our discussion about capturing and reproducing reality, what are your thoughts? Keeping the Hindenburg discussion in mind (where reality was both captured, but also partially obscured), what do you think might be missing in these images? is there any way to “know” or would it all be speculation? More, to what degree do you think selectivity or framing come into play (i.e. that which is “in-frame” and also that which has been omitted/left “out-of-frame”)? And how, after 80 years, would we be able to know (one way or the other)?

The essay’s accompanying text asserts:

Lange’s images, while uniquely of their time, capture both the recognizable signs of bureaucracy and the timelessness of life on the periphery.

This harks to Carolina’s question about author’s intent. Do you find this (above) interpretation of the photographs persuasive? Or, reflective of our discussion of the recipient’s interpretive power, do you see other messages/ideas present in the photograph’s content.

Finally, do the photographs work as a unity to convey a meaning that departs from any one, in isolation. In short, like a syntagm, do the (photograph-) signs operate collectively as a system of meaning, independent of the individual (photo-) unit present within the paradigm (set)?

4 thoughts on “Photography and Border Crossings

  1. To add to this thread . . . this photo-essay (also from the Washington Post) appeared the following day.

    It centers on everyday life in India. The photos are clearly of the “amateur” variety–you sense that some are simply of the “hee-I-am-walking-down-the-street-oh-looky-there-that’s-interesting-point-shoot-got-it-now-on-to-the-next-thing” variety.

    We’ve all been done that, right? In fact, what would it be like if you spent a day (or 4 hours or 2 hours–whatever) walking around somewhere (on campus, in Medford, in Boston) and reeled off 30 shots of whatever crossed your path? What objects would you encounter? What stories might be told? What meanings could be made?

    If you have time and some juice in your cell phone, you might take the task on.

    As you do this, give some thought to how Sontag would make sense of your effort. Were she to scrutinize your results, what might she say? (aesthetic or instrumental? imperfect copy or material embodiment?) Where, in your images, are her concerns of: belief, ideology, power, cultural practice, social organization? What of her 6 effects can you see in your photographic efforts? Above all, what about your product doesn’t seem to be covered by her analysis?

    Finally, with this effort at rendering the real world in “mechanically reproduced” image, what about your effort articulates with Benjamin’s theorization? In the age of digital reproduction, are his points about altered social relations still valid? What is your role (as spectator, participant, consumer, witness)? What is the relationship between technology, social practice and social change? Looking at your photos, how do they compare to the aura of your encounter? Or, is that beside the point?

    If you do take on this exercise, please post your photos so that we can view, consider and comment on them. (Note: it may not be possible in a comment box, but an original thread may allow you to upload your work).

  2. I think that these images in the essay only reproduce one reality: that of the Americans on the border. Most of the pictures all come from the American perspective rather than the Mexican one. The only one that really takes on the Mexican perspective is the one of the sign that tells people not bring Mexican produce into the US. We’re also missing the story lines behind the people. What are they doing? Why do they want to cross the border? What is going through their minds? What hardships have they faced upon reaching the border? The photos capture a lot of the scene, but there is still so much to explore. I think that they only way to know exactly what was happening is to interview the people on both sides that day because otherwise it’s all speculation. I also realized that they kept the patrols out of the pictures which takes away from the whole scene. When innocent people run into people of authority, there is a sense of fear and intimidation involved. After 80 years, it’s hard to interview anyone in these pictures. They have most likely passed away. I would recommend looking at history books, diary entries, and public documents that describe the times. Still, you won’t be able to capture the whole picture, though.

    While I do agree that Lange’s pictures capture a timeless problem, I think that the signs of bureaucracy is a far stretch in a majority of the images (the one of the sign in the end is pretty clear). I feel that someone might see this and be concerned with the issues these people face, but still be a little confused about the true message because there are images like the train one that are kind of vague. I think that the Washington Post’s author perception of the images may apply but there are still many messages open for interpretation. One such message is , “Lange captures the timeless issues that people face when passing through the border, but also alludes to the fact that Americans may never be able to understand the struggles that immigrants face upon coming to this country.

    Finally, I do think that the photographs work together to tell a story rather than telling individual stories. I believe that they work like a syntigm because the photographs don’t all have one similar theme (the train one, and the immigration sign), but they do work together to tell a larger story.

  3. I agree with Carolina, I believe that it is only told from the perspective of what an American will see. Im not sure if the relations at the border during this time were as serious as they are now, but I do believe that this representation is targeted at how Americans view it.
    The image of the train with the official looking under it, I feel like captures more of a more realistic perception of how things actually were at the border during that time. However, that speculation is only based on the fact of how I know the relations at the border to be now.
    I do think that the photographs work together to create another story outside of each individual photo. Like Carolina said, each image may not have a smilier theme, but the connection of the themes is another story all together.

  4. Similar to Carolina and Nick’s ideas, I believe that the photographs are subjectively photographed to appeal toward American’s during the time the photos were taken. It is clear that the photographer thought about the framing of each individual, but I think each individual photo is intended to contribute to one overall message about border control in America in the 1930’s.

    What is most interesting to me is the photographer’s choice of subjects. For most of the photos, the majority of the subjects are the elderly and women. I believe incorporating women and the elderly was intended to create a sense of empathy from Americans for those people who crossed the border. It made me think of the idea that America accepts the “weak” and “fragile” with open arms. As well, I believe that the captured moments at security checkpoints, as well as the men monitoring the freight trains, was strategic and effective. It is intended to show that American officials are still maintaining order and cooperation and ensuring the safety of its’ people by creating regulations and laws for immigrants looking for access to this country.

    What’s missing is the perception from the Mexican side of areas surrounding the border. How different would the portrayal of American/Mexican border relations differ?

    Benjamin said in his essay that, “The unique value of ‘authentic’ works of art has its basis in ritual”. Benjamin is referring to the location or perception of the work of art having an influence on its meaning. I think that the Washington Post was strategic in producing this article, knowing the social context (ritual) of American/Mexican border relations since the Trump Inauguration. I believe these photos are somewhat loaded in that they force Americans to think about this issue and how the pain and violence that the media portrays differs from these photos from the 30’s. He also says that, “The historical testimony affects the authenticity of the object”. I think this relates to the way in which history has been taught in America. We are more likely to view these photos subjectively as Americans rather than completely neutral observers.

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