Veteran photographer shines light on US immigration

Death and deportation at the US-Mexico border, and lives after crossings.

  • U.S. Border Patrol agent Richard Funke looks for footprints from illegal immigrants crossing the U.S.- Mexico border in Dec. 2010 near Nogales, Arizona.

    John Moore/Getty Images
  • U.S. agricultural inspector Mike Ollman questions a motorist entering the U.S. at the Mexico border crossing in Dec. 2010 at Nogales, Arizona. Despite Arizona's tough immigration enforcement laws, thousands of Mexican citizens have permits to work in the U.S. and commute daily from their homes across the border in Mexico.

    John Moore/Getty Images
  • A forensic anthropology team from Baylor University unearths the remains of unidentified immigrants from a cemetery in May 2013 in Falfurrias, Texas. Teams from Baylor University and the University of Indianapolis exhume the bodies of more than 50 immigrants who died, mostly from heat exhaustion, while crossing illegally from Mexico into the U.S. The bodies will be examined and cross-checked with DNA sent from Mexico and Central American countries, with the goal of reuniting the remains with families.

    John Moore/Getty Images
  • Migrant farm workers from Mexico harvest organic spinach while working at the Grant Family Farms in Wellington, Colorado in Sept. 2010. The farm, the largest organic vegetable farm outside California, hires some 250 immigrant workers during the peak harvest season.

    John Moore/Getty Images
  • Migrant farm workers from Mexico have their time cards scanned while working at the Grant Family Farms in Wellington, Colorado in Sept. 2010. Owner Andy Grant lamented that the issue of illegal immigration has become politicized nationally. “They feed America,” he said of immigrant workers. “They should not be victimized.” Grant said his workers start at $7.25, which is the minimum wage in Colorado.

    John Moore/Getty Images
  • Newly arrived detainees play a game of soccer at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility for illegal immigrants in July 2010 in Florence, Arizona. Most immigrants at the center are awaiting deportation or removal and will eventually return to their home countries. Others are interned at the facility while their immigration cases are being reviewed.

    John Moore/Getty Images
  • Returning Guatemalan immigrants make free phone calls to their families after arriving on a deportation flight from Arizona on June 24, 2011 to Guatemala City, Guatemala.

    John Moore/Getty Images
  • A Honduran immigration detainee, his feet shackled and shoes laceless as a security precaution, boards a deportation flight to San Pedro Sula, Honduras in Feb. 2013 in Mesa, Arizona. ICE operates 4 to 5 flights per week from Mesa to Central America, deporting hundreds of undocumented immigrants detained in western U.S. states.

    John Moore/Getty Images

Photojournalist John Moore has covered immigration and border security issues in the United States since 2010. Based in Colorado from 2008 through the end of 2011, he now works from New York City. Moore, who won a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for his Iraq War coverage for the Associated Press, is currently represented by Getty Images.

He recently spoke with High Country News associate designer Andrew Cullen about the process of documenting the complex and emotionally challenging issue of immigration into the U.S. from Latin America. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

We recommend viewing these images in our gallery setting.

High Country News: How did you get started covering immigration in the U.S.? Was it your choice, or did Getty want you to do it?

John Moore: I started seriously looking at immigration issues back in 2010 when Arizona passed the controversial immigration law, SB 1070. Over time, I've tried to look at the story from as many different angles as I can.  I speak Spanish, which helps, and I've also worked [as a photojournalist] with the military and law enforcement, which makes it easier to work with the federal border authorities.

HCN: What's driving you to continue working so heavily on this one issue?

JM: I think most everyone agrees that the immigration policy in this country has lots of problems and that something needs to be done about it. Whether they can achieve that in Washington or not is still very much up in the air. But I think it's useful to have photos that help inform the public on this issue, whether it's the thousands of miles of border fencing, or showing immigrants in the field or following anthropologists who are excavating the bones of migrants to return human remains to families in Latin America.

HCN: Is there anything you haven't been able to photograph that you wanted to –- a moment or a theme that's escaped you?

JM: This project is still very much a work in progress. I want to keep finding ways to tell the story. There are pictures that I don't have yet -- reunions between families that have been separated. I also plan on going to the Mexican-Guatemalan border, where I'll be photographing immigrants as they come up from Central America into Mexico on their journey to the U.S. It's a very difficult and dangerous juncture, crossing a river from Guatemala and then usually riding trains up through Mexico. Many people get hurt on the way. And I haven't shown that yet.

HCN: How do you gain access to people who often don't want to be photographed?

JM: Speaking the language is key. I learned Spanish in the ‘90s when I was assigned to Nicaragua, when I was working for the Associated Press. I try to explain to people in Spanish what I'm doing and how I think these photos are important, and I ask if I can photograph them. Many people don't want to give their names; some don't want to show their faces. I'm happy to oblige them, to help them overcome their fear and contribute to this project, which I hope informs the debate and shows the public a little bit about what it really looks like.

HCN: Immigration reform is obviously an enormously complicated issue. From your experience as a photojournalist, what do you think Americans need to know in order to move forward?

JM: I think it's important to show how militarized our border is with Mexico. I think it's important to show how much the United States needs people who are willing to work in low-skilled jobs. And I think it’s important to photograph people in a way that gives them the dignity they deserve. In Brook County, Texas, I think 127 died just last year [crossing the border], and they're set to have probably more than 200 deaths this year. And that's only in one county.

If there was no need in this country for this community of workers, then they wouldn't come up. Americans are not willing to end demand for cheaply produced vegetables and fruit but many are not willing to allow these people to come and do that work. I'd like to put a human face on this issue.

HCN: You recently began documenting the legal side of immigration, especially in New York, where you've photographed naturalization ceremonies and portraits of new citizens. How has that changed your outlook?

JM: I've found great joy in these naturalization ceremonies. They're beautifully happy and moving experiences to see. [There are also] what are called homebound ceremonies, for people who can't go to a public ceremony. I'll be photographing a quadriplegic and hopefully photographing him as he studies -- of course, he can't turn pages of a book to study, he needs assistance -- and takes the oath.

HCN: Have you found that there is an aspect of the immigration process that you think is particularly important for the country to address?

JM: The path to citizenship for the populace of undocumented immigrants has been a fiasco for years. There has been no path. The border is the most secure it’s ever been. I think the priority should be dealing with these millions of undocumented immigrants and bringing them out of the shadows. These people are going to pay taxes. They're already receiving many services. The economy will benefit greatly from 11 million new taxpayers.

HCN: Which of these assignments has left the biggest impression on you?

JM: I was in Texas for the exhumation of the remains of immigrants who died while crossing the border and were buried in paupers' graves. It's impossible not to be moved and saddened by the bones you see coming out of the ground, and scattered through the desert. It brings home just how dangerous this is and just how desperate people are to lead a better life.

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