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Former Janitor Collects and Photographs Items Seized From Immigrants and Thrown Away By U.S. Customs and Border Patrol


Photo credit: © Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE

Photo credit: © Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE

It started with toothbrushes. Arizona-based photographer Thomas Kiefer had been working part-time as a janitor at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in Ajo, some 40 miles from the Mexican border, for several years when he acted on his impulse to salvage— and to catalog—some of the hundreds of personal items thrown away in the facility. As hopeful American immigrants, many of them illegal, were apprehended and brought to the station, personal objects deemed “non-essential” were seized and disposed of during processing. With El Sueno Americano, or The American Dream, Kiefer tells the story of those who risked their freedom and their lives to cross the border through the many possessions they had to leave behind.
After taking the position at the station, the photographer was unsettled by the sheer volume of the food stuffs, hygienic products, and objects of personal significance that were seized and then trashed as people moved through the system. As a janitor, he admits he wasn’t party to the complexities of the process; what he can say with certainty is many articles were removed from their owners at some point during the procedure.
Initially, it was just food he retrieved from the waste containers and subsequently donated to a nearby food bank. From there, of course, it was the toothbrushes, then hairbrushes, t-shirts, wallets, and rosary beads. The collection of objects used to make a single image sometimes required hours of work, sometimes weeks.
These, suggests Kiefer, are the few and deeply valued things people wanted to bring with them as they entered into the United States. These are the things that were taken away and were never to be seen again. The photographer abstains from making any overt political statements, and ultimately, through these anonymous assemblages of the routine items so many of us take for granted, he asks only that we feel ….
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