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Photographing moments of humanity at the border


Iowa Dispatch features the voices of Iowans scattered around the country and the world, offering a local perspective on national and international issues.

courtesy of Sergio Flores

My name is Sergio Flores. I am a documentary photographer and freelance photojournalist currently based in Austin, Texas.

Being Mexican-American, it was really important to me to contribute to the conversations around issues that relate to people like me, or people who look like me. I have made a big push to do more stories centered on immigration, as many of these stories are still being told and photographed by white people.

Media coverage from the border tends to give a sense that most of what is going on is awful — and don’t get me wrong, a lot of it is, and it’s important not to gloss over the harsh reality currently being faced by those seeking asylum in the U.S. We’re repeatedly shown photos of people at the border crying through wire fences, pleading to government agents to be allowed entry into the country. We hear about the horrible circumstances faced by those people who are forced to return to their home countries and, perhaps worst of all, placed in cages, completely dehumanizing them.

But when I work scenes like this, it is important to me to look for moments that contain humanity, that show that even though these people are having a hard time, they are not a sea of sad brown faces for either side to use for their own propaganda. Here are two photos that tell two of those stories.

On April 5, when the photo above was taken, I was working on an assignment for the Washington Post about the Trump administration’s “metering system,” which limits the number of people who can request asylum at border patrol stations, forcing migrants to stay in Mexico. The goal of metering is to lower the number of people crossing into the U.S., but a fairly predictable byproduct of this policy is that many feel that they need to cross illegally. (This reportedly included Salvadoran migrant Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his young daughter Valeria, whose bodies were photographed by AP’s Julia Le Duc on June 24, drowned on the bank of the Rio Grande.)

I was walking with a reporter near Eagle Pass, Texas, on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande when we stopped to talk with two migrants, who admitted to considering crossing illegally. As we spoke, the man stopped to point out a group of women who were crossing the river. I ran over and began taking photos. It was powerful watching these three women, grasping each other by the hand and taking the ultimate leap of faith as they waded through the historically unforgiving river. They reached the other side and were met by Border Patrol, but if they were claiming asylum, it didn’t matter. They did what they set out to do, on their terms.

courtesy of Sergio Flores

This photo was taken in Matamoros, Mexico on June 29. A group of migrants had set up a camp with tents, and many were waiting for the chance to legally cross into the U.S. to claim asylum. Many were on the list that the Mexican government had made, so there was a system in place for who got to cross next.

I took some photos, but left the area not long after. I returned later in the day to try to get more coverage when I noticed a volunteer group had come to pass out food and drinks. Once most of the food was gone, they brought out small toys and stuffed animals. The toys were mostly balls, tennis ball-sized to soccer ball-sized.

I watched a boy in a green shirt take one, immediately run over to a more open space and begin bouncing it. I followed him and watched him as he bounced the ball with such joy. It may sound silly to some of us who haven’t gotten a thrill from a toy that didn’t have a screen or a battery in a long time, but I think that was what made it all the more impactful for me: watching this kid who had to escape a country where, had he stayed, he may have been killed, completely forget that fact in the time it took for a round mass of rubber to strike the concrete and come flying back up.

These are the moments that define this type of work for me, and they are moments I will continue to chase.

Sergio Flores was born and raised in central Iowa and graduated from the University of Iowa in 2014. His photos have been published in Bloomberg, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, among others. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 269.

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