When Arizona State Museum, the renowned anthropology museum on the University of Arizona campus, offered photographer Alejandra Platt-Torres an exhibition of her searing black-and-white border photos, I was invited to be a guest curator.
In my day job, I’m an art critic, and switching to art curator gave me a behind-the-scenes look at the work that goes into every exhibition.
Platt-Torres grew up bicultural and bilingual in the borderlands, easily crossing the international line between Arizona and Sonora, between the United States and Mexico.
“There is no border in my world,” she says.
But the once-fluid border of her childhood is no more.
Platt-Torres has spent years documenting migrant stories, bringing her camera into migrant shelters in Sonora, capturing images of the looming border wall and hiking the Arizona back country with Samaritans who give food and water to migrants in trouble.
Museum Curator Davison Koenig, museum staffers, and I agreed that this show would be more than images and words. Koenig had already planned an outdoor migrant trail. Made up of Platt-Torres’ photos of the footprints left in the desert sands by walkers, the paper path would extend outside the museum walls, leading patrons in.
Inside the gallery, a large-scale photo of Arizona’s landscape would be hung on a facsimile border wall: paired together, the wall and landscape would confront visitors at one stroke with both the human-made and natural barriers to migration.
A shrine and meditation space was created in a private corner, where visitors could watch a slide show of additional Platt-Torres images and light electronic candles in honor of the dead. A tape of Tucson musician Salvador Durán singing Mexican songs would run continuously.
Selecting from among the 2,000 photos Platt-Torres had submitted was a challenge all its own. The photographer had also documented joyous aspects of Mexican-American life — festivals, concerts, beauty pageants — but we agreed that the museum show, A World Separated by Borders, would zero in on the migrant journey.
Once Koenig had whittled the photos down to 60, I helped pick the 21 most salient pictures. I wanted to group the photos geographically and chronologically, picturing the migrant journey south to north — starting in Mexico, across the border, and into Arizona.
We set up the gallery so that visitors could walk this path themselves, fulfilling the old dictum to walk in someone else’s shoes in order to understand them.
The show begins with a section called In Mexico, with pictures of migrants en route. One poignant photo shows a young man in a church in Altar, praying for a safe journey; another depicts a father proudly displaying a tattoo picturing a beloved daughter left behind.
The images in the second segment, In Arizona, picture the 16-foot border wall and a helicopter flying above, as well as the landscape migrants must cross if they slip past the wall undetected. A photo from the Pima County morgue of an unidentified migrant “John Doe” zipped inside a white body bag is a reminder of the possibility of death that stalks all border crossers.
The final section, In Limbo, looks at the fate of migrants who survive the crossing. Some succeed in settling in Arizona or elsewhere, but they live in the shadows, in constant fear of arrest. Those picked up by the Border Patrol might be sent to detention in the United States or deported back to Mexico. Platt-Torres’ photos capture the confusion of deportees who find themselves stranded in Nogales, Sonora, far from their families in the United States or elsewhere in Mexico.
I have written a book that covers the same territory as Platt-Torres’ art, The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands. Now, instead of simply writing words on a page, I helped bring the migrant story to life in new ways, not only through Platt-Torres’ luminous artworks on the wall, but through multimedia installations.
Visitors continue to be moved by Platt-Torres’ work. “Thank you for exposing the tragedy,” one wrote in guest book.
Another said simply, “My heart cries.”