Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova
Born in Jerusalem, Israel, Michelle Frankfurter is a documentary photographer who lives in Takoma Park, MD just outside of the District of Columbia. She graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in English. After graduating, she worked for three years as a staff photographer for daily newspapers: The Herald – Journal and Post Standard in Syracuse, New York. Before settling in the Washington, DC area, Frankfurter spent three years living in Nicaragua where she worked as a stringer for the British news agency, Reuters and with the human rights organization Witness For Peace documenting the effects of the contra war on civilians. In 1995, a long-term project on Haiti earned her two World Press Photo awards. She has worked for a number of editorial publications, including The Guardian of London, The Washington Post Magazine, Ms., Time, and Life Magazine. Her personal documentary work has been featured in juried exhibitions at The Washington Project For the Arts, the Arlington Arts Center, Shots Magazine, and the Photo Place Gallery in Middlebury, Vermont. For the past ten years, her personal work has focused on themes of migration and life along the border region between the United States and Mexico.
Her work Destino was just published by FotoEvidence and it is available in our bookstore on line.
SB. Do you have a personal reason to start documenting human migration?How did you become interested in photographing along the border between the United States and Mexico?
MF. I began travelling to the Texas – Mexico border in early 2000, shortly after reading Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Crossing. Inspired by McCarthy’s bleak, hypnotic prose, I wanted to make pictures that evoked the same sense of frontier edginess and melancholy. I’d been aware of the migrant story for a while but I never really paid much attention to it. Then in 2009, I read Sonia Nazario’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Enrique’s Journey, about undocumented Central American adolescents whose mothers had left them when they were very young to look for work in the United States. Predominantly from El Salvador and Honduras, these mostly teenage boys traveled by rail across Mexico in search of their mothers in the United States. Along the way, they faced a multitude of dangers. The book had a profound impact on me. Although a work of nonfiction, the narrative was so compelling that in many ways, it read like an epic adventure tale. Personally, the story resonated with me on several levels: I was in complete awe of these youthful migrants who, relying mostly on their wits and the occasional kindness of strangers, were able to traverse stretches of deadly terrain in the nearly 2,000 mile journey across Mexico. They had a singularity of purpose and determination, a kind of brazen resilience I admired. Having grown up on the adventure tales of Jack London and Mark Twain, and then later on Cormac McCarthy’s border stories, there is no storyline more romantic or compelling than one involving some kind of youthful odyssey across a hostile wilderness. I always root for the underdog and these Central American migrants represented the quintessential underdog.
SB. You traveled on a freight train through Mexico, La Bestia, commonly referred to as the “death train” because so many travelers do not survive the trip. Do you remember your first trip?
MF. Riding the rails with migrants in southern Mexico was one of the most memorable experiences of my life - especially the first time. Initially, I had planned on traveling to different migrant shelters to take large format portraits of Central American migrants. Riding la bestia wasn’t part of the original plan (migrants call the train la bestia - the beast - because of the number of people who have been injured or killed while riding it). I brought an Ebony 4x5 field camera and all the gear that goes with it, which is a lot to schlep. At the last minute, and mostly as a backup plan, I packed my Bronica 6x6 and one lens. The 4x5 was more of a hassle than a tool. It was uncomfortable, awkward and not really appropriate for the situation. Once I started talking to migrants and hearing some of their stories, I realized I had to do the ride with them. There was something about letting go after assessing the risk factor that was extremely liberating. I just felt at peace with whatever might happen. Having an understanding of what these people experienced felt worth the risk. I remember sitting on top of the train, looking at the landscape, ducking branches when everyone shouted to duck, rolling past mango groves and small villages and towns. People would stop and wave. There was a point where the train slowed to a crawl and this kid climbed off, then trotted alongside the train. He gathered a bunch of fallen mangoes, cradling them in his shirt and then running to meet the tail end of the train, he scrambled back up the ladder, leaping from car to car. He paused long enough to drop a mango in my lap and then sprinted off to join his buddies further down. It’s just something I’ll always remember - a moment in which I felt completely alive.
SB. How they accepted you to be one of them?
MF. I had the luxury of time, fluency in Spanish, and unencumbered access. I spent days on end in migrant shelters run by Catholic priests throughout Mexico. Once I explained the intent of my project, I was given access without any restrictions. To the migrants I photographed, I explained that I was working on a photography book project, Destino about the epic journey by rail of Central American migrants across Mexico. I made several working edits using Blurb’s editing software and took several copies of the book with me. I kept a copy wrapped in a plastic Ziploc bag inside my camera bag. Generally, people were enthusiastic about it. A crowd of migrants invariably gathered as soon as I took it out. They saw it as a visual diary of their experiences. They would pass it around with a great deal of reverence, as if they were handling a sacred or fragile text. Sometimes, they recognized individuals in the book. Occasionally, I would meet people I had photographed on previous trips, who had been subsequently caught and deported and were making another attempt. They could see I was taking some of the same risks. Sometimes, I would be met with skepticism from individuals who found it difficult to believe that the project wasn’t a commercial venture from which I stood to profit monetarily. They wanted to know what my angle was. Other times, they would bestow upon me altruisms I didn’t deserve. I explained that my motivations were a mix of artistic, ego-driven self-interest and personal outrage.
I’ve spent more than half of my life traveling to Central America and living in Latino neighborhoods in and around Washington, DC. I lived in Nicaragua for almost three years in the late 1980’s. Being culturally fluent is a great facilitator. At the shelter in Arriaga in southern Mexico, I would sometimes stay overnight in the women’s dorm. Aside from the suffocating heat and clouds of mosquitoes, there was an almost collegiate atmosphere. At night, we’d congregate around one bed and tell stories and jokes. I did several train rides like this – spending a few days getting to know people before trudging up to the rails with them. You bond quickly. You sit on top of that baking iron boxcar with them. During the rainy season you huddle together under scraps of plastic, trying to stay warm. You get to know people. They get to know you. In the migrant shelters, there is very little to do except wait for the next train. Or you’re hanging out by the rails, waiting. You never know when the next train will arrive. Maybe tomorrow, maybe tomorrow….This can go on for days. So you talk and you smoke and you watch 1980’s horror flicks dubbed in Spanish. Sometimes you make pictures. You’re just there. People get used to you and your camera being an extension of yourself, like one more appendage. I spent more time talking or listening than taking pictures.
SB. Why is illegal immigration such a big problem in US?
MF. It’s not just a problem in the United States. Wealthier nations all over the world are seeing a huge spike in migration from people fleeing civil strife, failed states, and the effects of climate change. Among lawmakers in the Republican-controlled house, the immigration debate is being framed in a way that, like so many other issues, does not take the complexity of the situation into consideration - one that has taken decades to evolve. There has been a plethora of in-depth documentation and solid journalistic reporting about the current humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied minors fleeing from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Conservatives reacting to the symptoms of the crisis seem unable or unwilling to consider the root causes behind the wave of migration. It’s a kind of insular thinking on the part of many Americans who don’t perceive a relationship between their lives and the suffering of Central Americans. It becomes easy to compartmentalize, especially when people don’t see a correlation between events that took place decades ago and the current crisis that is a consequence of those events. Many Americans resist the idea that the abundance of cheap goods they enjoy comes at the expense of people elsewhere. Or that the consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of a few, while neglecting to invest in infrastructure, healthcare, and education creates dire conditions here as well. We live in an era of specious reasoning. Belief trumps logic. Civilians fleeing from ISIS are considered refugees while Honduran children, subjected to some of the same horrors by MS-13 gangs are termed illegals. Semantics are driving the debate.
SB. In another interview you said: “Beginning this project, I felt like I was falling in love. It was the right time, right place and right reason. I felt I was meant to tell this story.” Tell us why?
MF. The migrants I met reminded me of the years I had spent living in Nicaragua and then afterwards, in Latino neighborhoods of Washington, DC. These were people I felt comfortable with, people whom I admired for their resilience. On the one hand, I felt as though I was embarking on an adventure that was perhaps better suited for someone half my age. But at the same time, I understood that my experiences of the past two decades had somehow prepared me for this moment. I hadn’t planned on riding the train. It wasn’t the kind of risk I was expecting to take, especially as I was by myself. I was fortunate in that padre Alejandro Solalinde, the catholic priest who runs the migrant shelter in Oaxaca was present when I first arrived. An outspoken figure, he’s received numerous death threats for his public condemnations of criminal organizations and corrupt police officers who prey upon migrants in Mexico. I told the padre that I planned on going back to Arriaga, the railhead town in Chiapas to ride the train with the migrants. I bought a Virgin de Guadalupe charm for 10 pesos at the little open air market adjacent to the bus station in Ixtepéc. I asked padre Solalinde to bless the charm and me. As a Jew and a non-believer, I suppose it was somewhat ironic. Had I sensed hesitation or alarm, I may have lost the nerve. But his eyes lit up. He said, “Que bueno! Just make sure you go to the casa migrante in Arriaga and find a good group to travel with.” At that moment, the fear suddenly dissipated. Over the years, the migrants I’ve met along the way looked out for me, the way they did each other. With them, I experienced a small stretch of the arduous journey that has grown increasingly difficult and dangerous over the years since I began taking these photographs. I already understood the root causes driving the exodus of people from the dense, violent barrios of Honduras and El Salvador, or the highlands of Guatemala where the return on the coffee harvest didn’t cover the expense of its cultivation. Having an academic understanding is one thing; seeing it personified is another altogether.
SB. What is the daily life of the illegal migrants like?
MF. There is a great deal of racism towards Central Americans in Mexico, which explains the numerous atrocities committed against them with such impunity. There are many kind Mexicans who try to help the migrants along the way by offering food and what little money they can spare, but endemic racism towards Central Americans can not be denied. Migrants are mostly trying to make their way across Mexico hoping not to be robbed, beaten, raped, injured by the train, kidnapped by criminal gangs, or abandoned in the desert. Many are caught and deported at some point along the way. The most determined vow to keep trying. Others give up and go home. Run by catholic priests, lay workers and volunteers, the migrant shelters along the train route offer brief periods of respite from some of the harsh conditions of the journey that can take up to several months.
A Honduran migrant who lost a limb while riding a cargo train recuperates from his injury at the Jesus El Buen Pastor migrant shelter in the southern Mexican border city of Tapachula in the state of Chiapas. The cargo trains crisscrossing Mexico are collectively known by undocumented migrants as La Bestia - The Beast, and El Tren de la Muerte - The Train of Death, due to the number of fatalities and injuries suffered by migrants along the train route. January 15, 2014
SB. Who do the immigrants fear most: the Zetas or the US Border Patrol?
MF. The Zetas are probably the most notorious and feared criminal group operating within Mexico. As the drug war initiated by erstwhile Mexican president, Felipe Calderon intensified, some of the older, more established cartels splintered, creating power vacuums resulting in escalating turf wars. New organizations formed, like the Zetas, who ironically evolved out of a Mexican military unit initially established to combat the drug trade. Aside from drug trafficking, the Zetas have diversified their operations to include human smuggling, kidnapping, and extortion. In August 2010, about three weeks after I returned home from a trip to Mexico, the bodies of 72 migrants massacred by Zetas were found on a ranch in the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, about 150 kilometers from Brownsville, Texas. I have heard stories of U.S. Border Patrol agents occasionally mistreating migrants, however, in general, migrants have a much greater fear of Mexican authorities - police, military, immigration officials and the various criminal organizations that prey upon them throughout Mexico with impunity .
SB. Have you maintained a relationship with some of the subjects in your story? What do you hope to accomplish with the publication of the book?
MF. I’ve been in touch with a few via Facebook. In 2012, a young Salvadoran pretty much showed up on my doorstep having nowhere to go. Without any kind of support system - close friends or family members, life as an undocumented immigrant in the United States can be extremely difficult. Undocumented immigrants are often pitted against each other, competing for scarce work in a sluggish economy. The competition for jobs and the shadowy existence creates divisiveness, not solidarity. As photographers, we tell ourselves that we are shedding light on a particular issue. Raising awareness has become almost a mantra. Even if it’s true, it’s beginning to sound like a platitude. Making a book has always been an admittedly self-centered goal driven by personal ambition. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but it’s important to me to be honest about my motivations, which aren’t completely altruistic. I wanted to be able to help one individual in a very concrete way by relieving some of the pressures he faced as he stumbled, fell, struggled, and then finally learned to navigate his way as an undocumented immigrant. He stayed with me for about nine months.
SB. For so many years Destino became part of your destiny. What do you hope to accomplish with the publication of the book?
MF. I think initially, Destino depicted a romanticized exodus narrative, featuring a cast of sympathetic underdog characters, whose journey across a hostile landscape to reach a promised land is as old as the human experience. I didn’t intend for it to be a literal or linear representation of a hot-button issue. But whether intended or not, the people whom I photographed and with whom I came in contact are fleeing untenable circumstances, such as extreme poverty, domestic abuse, and gang violence. I hope the intimacy of the story will resonate with people - especially the ones for whom the issue of immigration is mostly an abstract idea, who maybe have not had any kind of personal interactions with the people being portrayed.