When thinking of the U.S.-Mexico border, certain images may come to mind: fences, walls, concrete. The border has become a dividing force, as the space has become increasingly politicised in recent memory, used as political fodder for discourse surrounding immigration, xenophobia and racism.
However, art can breathe new life into the way we think about the border. This revitalization is the aim of the exhibition “CrossBorder Photography: Images of the US and Mexico” from the permanent collection at the Benton Museum of Art, which looks at finding new ways to understand the border’s place in the world around us.
“CrossBorder Photography” is a student-curated exhibition that aims to deconstruct and reformulate our stereotypical conception of the border as a static symbol of division. Instead, the exhibition encourages a more complex understanding of the border, recognizing that it holds the stories, lives and experiences of countless numbers of migrants.
The exhibition features the work of artists Gordon C. Abbott, Christina Fernandez, Nathan Lerner, Danny Lyon, Don Normark and Richard Ross. All artists were researched and curated by students Maelvi Nuñez PO ’22, Madeleine Mount-Cors PO ’22 and Grace Sartin PO ’21, under the guidance of Rosalía Romero, an assistant professor of art history at Pomona College.
Nuñez, Mount-Cors, Sartin and Romero combed the contents of the Benton in order to find the images for the exhibition and completed intensive research in order to select which artists would be featured.
“CrossBorder Photography” was formed out of a border art seminar taught by Romero. The seminar “gave students an in-depth study of the various aspects around the border, specifically the history of its formation and the policies that have been enacted to reinforce that territorial and physical barrier,” Romero said.
The seminar also examined art’s capacity as a visual medium, which allows it to complicate the fixed conception of the border as a place of militarization and securitization.
“We have to understand the role that art and visual culture play in informing how we relate to the physical space around us,” Romero said. “The way we understand the fact that although there is a physical barrier, and the barrier is constructed using solid materials, like walls, fences, concrete and steel, it’s important to remember that there are people who live at the site and who are based there and who are living their own rich lives.”
This is the sentiment that informs the exhibition: a remembrance and celebration of the human stories that are contained within the border. The diversity of artists featured allows the exhibition to encompass multiple facets of the border.
“The exhibition ranges from the stale architecture of border institutions, as represented in the photos of Ross, to the deeply personal histories of people and communities in Mexico and in the U.S. in the photos of Lyon,” Mount-Cors said.
“CrossBorder Photography” also tracks the historical development of photography over the century and how different photographers captured the same subject, albeit decades apart. This is to complicate the supposed objectivity of the medium, as the exhibition is a testament to the multitude of ways to capture a single entity.
“The exhibition is a way to look at the different techniques and styles of photographers over the 19th-20th century, while grounding it not only in the history of policy and militarization at the border, but also the very personal nature of the border and how it affects people and their families,” Mount-Cors said.
“Visual media forces you to reckon with these issues, because it’s right in front of you. With other forms of media, you can’t see someone’s story the same way you can if you look at a photograph.”—Madeleine Mount-Cors PO ’22
The exhibition features pieces like “Eddie, The Mexican Worker From Chihuahua Who Built My House, With Stephanie in Llanito, New Mexico,” taken by Danny Lyon. According to a booklet from the Benton, in the photo, Lyon chooses to honour his decade-long friendship with Eddie, an undocumented Mexican worker who crossed the border multiple times. The photo is an intimate reflection on the stories contained by the border and the many people whose lives have been fundamentally shaped by its presence.
The exhibition uses the unique and arresting medium of photography to reframe the complex issue of border politics.
“Visual media forces you to reckon with these issues, because it’s right in front of you,” Mount-Coors said. “With other forms of media, you can’t see someone’s story the same way you can if you look at a photograph.”
“CrossBorder Photography” aims to deconstruct the sterile way that immigration institutions have characterised the border by reminding us of its enduring humanity.
“The stories of people at the border are the greatest act of resistance,” Mount-Cors said. “One of the main objectives of U.S. border policy is to generalize and erase the stories that people carry. So, it’s especially important to uplift the stories of people and migrants at the border, so that they are told and remembered.”