« Return to this article

Know the West

Veteran photographer shines light on US immigration

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


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.