Documenting the Journey of Central American Migrants: an Option of Last Resorts

Michelle-Frankfurter photography

“Destino” is Michelle Frankfurter’s personal project about the journey of Central American migrants across Mexico by rail. A documentary photographer based in Washington DC, she shot this project on Ilford HP5 120 film and a Bronica 6×6 camera – 12 exposures per roll.

Michelle-Frankfurter photography

Can you tell me about this project and what got you interested in the subject?
‘I made my first trip to the U.S. – Mexico border in early 2000, shortly after reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing. The story has every narrative element that’s captivated my imagination since I was about ten years old: a cast of characters that includes sinners, saints, and pariahs, an epic journey, themes of salvation and redemption.

‘I had been aware of the migrant story in Mexico for a while. But I never really paid much attention to it. Then I read Sonia Nazario’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Enrique’s Journey, about undocumented Central American adolescents whose mothers had left them when they were very young to look for work in the United States. Predominantly from El Salvador and Honduras, these mostly teenage boys traveled by rail across Mexico in search of their mothers in the United States. Along the way, they faced a multitude of dangers. The book had a profound impact on me. Although it’s nonfiction, the narrative is so compelling that in many ways, it reads like an epic adventure tale.’

Michelle-Frankfurter photography

You have captured a lot of emotional and intimate moments such as a woman breastfeeding or the photo of the woman crying on the sofa with the religious posters, are there stories behind how you encountered these moments? How do you decide how close to get to the subject in moments like these?
‘I had the luxury of time, fluency in Spanish and unencumbered access. I spent days on end in migrant shelters run by Catholic priests throughout Mexico. Once I explained the intent of my project, I was given access without any restrictions.

‘I’ve spent more than half of my life traveling to Central America and living in Latino neighborhoods in and around Washington, DC. I lived in Nicaragua for almost three years in the late 1980’s. Being culturally fluent is a great facilitator.

‘At the shelter in Arriaga in southern Mexico, I would sometimes stay overnight in the women’s dorm. Aside from the suffocating heat and clouds of mosquitoes, there was an almost collegiate atmosphere. At night, we’d congregate around one bed and tell stories and jokes.

Michelle-Frankfurter photography

‘I did several train rides like this – spending a few days getting to know people before trudging up to the rails with them. You bond with them quickly. You sit on top of that baking iron boxcar with them. During the rainy season you huddle together under scraps of plastic, trying to stay. You get to know people. They get to know you. I spend more time talking or listening than taking pictures.

‘The woman crying on the sofa arrived at the shelter early one morning. Mexican immigration officials had detained her husband when the bus they were traveling on was searched at a checkpoint in a town not far from Mexico’s southern border. She had no idea where her husband was being detained or when he would be deported back to Honduras. She didn’t have any money and this was her first time attempting the trip across Mexico. She was terrified and upset.

‘I remember feeling uncomfortable. I wanted to talk to her, tell her everything was going to be OK. She was with a good group. They would take care of her. But there was the overriding impulse to take the photo. It was a compelling moment that conveyed a lot about the immigrant experience.’

Michelle-Frankfurter photography

Michelle-Frankfurter photography

Riding the rails seems to be a theme running through this series, did you ride the rails while shooting this project?
‘Initially, I had planned on traveling to different migrant shelters to take large format portraits of Central American migrants. Riding la bestia wasn’t part of the original plan (migrants call the train la bestia – the beast – because of the number of people who have been injured or killed while riding it). I brought an Ebony 4×5 field camera and all the gear that goes with it, which is a lot to schlep. At the last minute, and mostly as a backup plan, I packed my Bronica 6×6 and one lens.

‘Right away, I knew the large format approach wasn’t going to work. It was about 95 degrees in southern Mexico; ducking under a black cloth felt like sticking your head in an oven. The equipment was more of a hassle than a tool. It was uncomfortable, awkward and not really appropriate for the situation.

‘Once I started talking to migrants and hearing some of their stories, I realized I had to do the ride with them. I basically jettisoned everything I had brought with me except for a small Lowepro pack and a little Tamrac shoulder camera bag into which I crammed a change of clothes, a toothbrush, the Bronica and my 23 rolls of film.

Michelle-Frankfurter photography

‘I’m chasing the perfect ride – one that leaves at a time of day that guarantees the most hours of daylight with an interesting cast of characters. I had a few rules about the circumstances under which I would travel: I wouldn’t leave in the evening, because most of the trip would take place at night. I wouldn’t hop a moving train and I wouldn’t ride in the rain. By the third trip, I’d broken all of my rules.

‘There was a young Salvadoran couple at the shelter traveling with their 18- month-old son, Isác, a friend and another Honduran migrant they had met along the way. After three or four days of waiting, the train finally arrived around mid- day and we all filed up to the tracks. We stocked up on supplies peddled by local vendors who make a little bit of money selling stuff to traveling migrants: sandwiches, bottled water, hard candy, plastic garbage bags. We collected scraps of cardboard to have something to sit on. We gathered rocks, in case we needed to defend ourselves from bandits.

‘It was nightfall when we finally boarded. The only cars available were the blocky wagon type. These don’t have side ladders or the small recessed lower platform where some people like to ride in order to escape the rain or sun. I thought about bailing but I was restless and I didn’t want to say goodbye to my friends.

‘It started raining almost immediately. The Lowepro pack comes with a nifty internal plastic rain flap, so after I had secured it to the rope we had strung across the length of the car, I pulled the flap shut. Sometimes, lightning flashed between the hills, but otherwise, the darkness seemed expansive and impenetrable – the night endless.

Michelle-Frankfurter photography

‘We shivered, wrapped in plastic garbage bags. The rain showed no sign of letting up. I clung to a 19-year-old Honduran kid named Elmer, trying to stay warm. We ducked as low-hanging branches swept past our heads. I prayed to the gods of photography that it would just stop raining, that I would get at least a few hours of good light. I’d close my eyes, thinking I could feel the sky lighten, but after a few minutes, I would open them and there was just darkness and the monotonous rain.

‘Just when I thought the night would never end, the rain finally tapered off and slowly, the sky began to show the first blush of dawn. The train lurched across a primordial landscape of standing water, past palmettos and copperwood bowed with rainfall as the sky gradually lightened. It was the most beautiful sunrise I’d ever witnessed.

‘I took the camera out once it got light enough to shoot. Even with the rain flap, the water had managed to soak through the pack, but fortunately, I had placed my copy of 2666, Roberto Bolaño’s 900- page epic tome on top of the camera. The camera and film stayed dry. I only got about an hour and a half or two hours to actually shoot, but I made some of the strongest images on that trip.’

Michelle-Frankfurter photography

Michelle-Frankfurter photography

What do you tell people / your subjects when they ask why or what you are taking photos in settings like this?
‘I tell them I’m working on a photography book project, Destino, about the epic journey by rail of Central American migrants across Mexico. I’ve made several working edits using Blurb’s editing software and take several copies of the book with me. I keep a copy wrapped in a plastic Ziploc bag inside my camera bag.

‘Generally, people are enthusiastic about it. A crowd of migrants invariably gathers as soon as I take it out. They see it as a visual diary of their experiences. They pass it around with a great deal of reverence, as if they are handling a sacred or fragile text. Sometimes, they recognize individuals in the book. Occasionally, I meet people I’ve photographed on previous trips, who have subsequently been caught and deported and are making another attempt.’

Michelle-Frankfurter photography

How has your subject matter developed over the years?
‘The reality in Mexico has changed since the time I began taking these photos in 2009. There is a growing climate of lawlessness and depravity within Mexico to which migrants are especially vulnerable. Early on, I made a few images that defined the arc of the narrative. But what originally began as an odyssey towards a promised land
has evolved into the journey of a generation of exiles across a landscape that is becoming increasingly dangerous, heading towards a precarious future as an option of last resorts.’

Michelle-Frankfurter photography

This post was contributed by photographer Laura Barisonzi.

  • This is such a beautiful project and compelling read. Thanks for sharing!

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