Art //

Secret Histories | The Dark Side of “The American Dream”

A new exhibition of photographs by Tom Kiefer exposes the vast destruction of personal property at one U.S. Border Patrol facility in Arizona.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Trail Markers: Objects placed along the path assist those traveling behind them on where to go. These rubber ducks were used as trail markers, one of which still had a twist-tie used to fasten to a tree or branch. 

From July 2003–August 2014, photographer Tom Kiefer worked part-time as a janitor/landscaper at a U.S. Border Patrol facility in Why, Arizona. During that time, U.S. Border Patrol agent brought in countless migrants for processing, seizing their possessions, and discarding “non-essential” items as garbage. These were the personal effects of countless individuals bringing the barest essentials across the border in search of a better life.

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It is here at the crossroads that Kiefer found himself, among the flotsam of everyday life, taking stock of all that had been tossed away like yesterday’s trash. Imagine it all, from belts, shoelaces, toothbrushes, and socks to Bibles, soap, blankets, and rosaries. But wait there’s more: medicine, birth control pills, jewelry, and calling cards—all deemed worthless by the U.S. Border Patrol.

Soap is disposed of during intake.

Soap is disposed of during intake.

Kiefer observes, “I was greatly disturbed by the volume of food, clothing and personal belongings thrown away at a single U.S. Customs and Border Patrol facility…. The supervisor at the food bank who managed the program estimated the total amount of disposed items brought in was well over sixty tons.”

The sheer volume was simply overwhelming. The trash became a world unto itself. Kiefer recovered and organized the personal effects of hundreds and thousands of people whose names we will never know. Of them what remains is simply this: the things they carried with them (shout out to Tim O’Brien: war is hell).

A selection of work is on view in El Sueño Americano (The American Dream) at Gallery 4 at Art Intersection, Gilbert, Arizona, now through June 18, 2016. Organized as beautiful images of pattern and repetition that renders the whole greater than the sum of its parts, Kiefer’s photographs are quietly mindblowing in their scale and scope. This is the scene of a seizure going beyond all bounds of humanity and decency.\

Water Bottles: Water is the main source of hydration when crossing the desert. In the Tucson sector of the U.S./Mexico border, heavy-duty non-biodegradable black plastic bottles are commonly used as canteens and are occasionally covered or insulated with remnants of clothing or blanket.

Water Bottles: Water is the main source of hydration when crossing the desert. In the Tucson sector of the U.S./Mexico border, heavy-duty non-biodegradable black plastic bottles are commonly used as canteens and are occasionally covered or insulated with remnants of clothing or blanket.

Kiefer’s photographs speak to the acts themselves and the way in which these search and seizure do not follow Constitutional law. Double standards are always a curious thing, very telling of the holder’s values and principles. There is something inherently dehumanizing about the mass destruction of personal property that speaks to a deeper, darker side of the American character.

Kiefer observes, “The ideals upon which this country was founded seem to be under attack as never before, two hundred and forty years since we declared ourselves a nation. “The beacon of hope”: democracy, equality, fairness and freedom of or from religion seems more and more like a sales gimmick limited to certain groups of people.”

All photos: © Tom Kiefer/INSTITUTE.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.