The phrase “waste not, want not” comes to mind when looking at Thomas Kiefer’s photo project El Sueno Americano (The American Dream). This study, which started in 2007, records the personal belongings of migrants that were confiscated and discarded at the US Customs and Border Protection facility in Ajo, Arizona, on the border with Mexico. The results are strikingly symmetrical images that imbue everyday objects with poignancy and drama.
Kiefer’s work is an exploration of the reality faced by Mexican migrants. “I wanted a name that represented what these objects stood for — The American Dream — which seems to be less and less real for more and more people,” he explains. “The possessions and belongings of migrants who enter the US illegally too easily get lost as they are processed by the US Customs and Border Protection system.” Treasured and personal possessions such as clothing, rosaries, bibles, belts, food and underwear are seized and thrown away. “I am certain much of this is not meant to be discarded,” adds Kiefer.
About four years into his part-time role as a janitor at the Arizona border facility, Kiefer stumbled across a pile of discarded toothbrushes. Struck by the bright colours and how clean and new they seemed, he realised something more constructive could be done with them. At this moment, he unwittingly started his project. “I thought it was a terrible waste for them to end up in landfill,” he explains. He began to collect and put aside interesting items: “I realised the importance of documenting them through photography.”
Kiefer’s project spans a wide variety of products. Many are garish, everyday packaged products, such as Colgate toothpaste and Snickers bars. He organises them symmetrically. His artful handling of the items contrasts starkly with the apparent casual disregard of the US authorities. “I try to do the best I can in treating these objects with respect and care; they were, after all, the personal belongings of others,” he adds.
For this reason, Kiefer employs a straightforward approach when taking his photographs, avoiding techniques that would distract or divert the viewer’s attention. “I love a moody, chiaroscuro style of lighting, but this is not the place to employ the visual styles I like, or to present the images how I want.”
"This project is about the migrants, their hopes and their dreams," says Kiefer. "It is important, right down to the photographic process, not to distort or misrepresent those dreams."
As far as Kiefer is concerned, every object is a piece of a puzzle that, when assembled, paints a picture of the migrants’ collective past. The objects on show have often survived treacherous journeys across unforgiving deserts and challenging, mountainous terrain. Had such items not been important to the individuals who were carrying them, they would not have been packed. “Why would someone choose to pack a bottle of cologne with them, adding extra weight to an already full and heavy backpack, if it wasn’t important?” asks Kiefer. “Maybe they were thinking of the first interview that they were hoping to have upon arrival.” Perhaps they just wanted to “arrive in the best possible way, in a state of dignity and hope”.
For Kiefer, taking these objects away from people merely demonstrates how those in the US “strip people of hope, dignity and respect while trying to protect our own”. This forceful stripping of personal effects evokes feelings of `sadness and bewilderment; it is difficult to understand why anyone would voluntarily give up treasured belongings such as a bible, a rosary or a photo of one’s children, or even extra clothes and shoes.
“My pictures are about how people and their personal belongings are treated,” says Kiefer. “If someone wants to judge the ethics and morality of all this, it is up to them to decide what is right and what is wrong.”