Photo by Tom Keifer
Photographer Tom Keifer moved to Ajo Arizona in 2001 to escape the high cost of living in Los Angeles and make more time for his art.
In 2003, he took a part-time job as a janitor at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol detention facility nearby – and found, in the trash, an extraordinary collection of the items taken from migrants. Love notes, baby shoes, water bottles, toothbrushes. They all tell the story of the ordinary humanity and extraordinary experiences of the thousands of people who hiked across the desert to find new lives in the U.S.
The people in detention over these years were mostly turned back, though some were granted asylum and are most likely living in the U.S. legally today, living the kinds of lives the viewer can imagine from their colorful combs and hairbrushes, extra slippers and rosaries, wallets and Saints’ medallions.
The water bottles in the image above tell a specific story. They look like American bleach bottles, gallon jugs built for hauling. But they’re black instead of white, and covered with improvised cloth jackets. Why? Because migrants travel the brutal southern Arizona desert trails almost exclusively at night, to dodge the heavy border partrols. White or clear water jugs light up in the dark when they catch the beam from a flashlight or surveillance tower.
Dark, covered jugs tell fewer stories in the desparate hours on the trails, though here in Tom Kiefer’s exhibit they tell their tales with a quiet eleoquence.
Kiefer’s exhibit is up at the Skirball Center in LA, 2701 North Sepulveda Blvd.
The Los Angeles Times features the exhibition in this article: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2019-12-02/tom-kiefer-exhibition-el-sueno-americano?fbclid=IwAR1372ovtRyR5cSZW5BqMP71O3lbUm2_2twYhrBosgaQM-irtkjcTvQybik