He has spent years arranging the thousands of objects he collected into stirring compositions for a photography project he began in 2007. His work is featured in the exhibition “El Sueño Americano / The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer” at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, with plans to tour nationally over the coming years.
“It was my way of documenting a piece of our nation’s history,” he said.
Kiefer took a job in 2001 as a part-time janitor at the Ajo Station in Why, Ariz., to pay the bills. He’d held the position for about four years when he asked whether he could donate the canned goods and other food confiscated from migrants to nearby food pantries.
But when he began going through the facility’s trash, he found many objects that clearly hadn’t been thrown away. They’d been taken.
“The Bibles, the rosaries, the family photographs. I was shocked,” he said. “And I didn’t know what to do, because it was obviously being condoned.”
Kiefer began rescuing a toothbrush here, a bottle of cologne there. Occasionally a diary. Sometimes jewelry or a coat. He would place the smaller objects in the boxes alongside the food items, and larger ones in cardboard boxes designated for recycling.
“I had to do it all very quick, discreet,” he said. “It was just rapid-fire, split-second decisions about what I could keep and what had to go in the trash, stay in the trash.”
One by one, he gathered an estimated 100,000 items, keeping them over the years in various storage facilities and the spare rooms of friends’ houses. In 2014, he quit the CBP facility to focus on his photography project, and he began exhibiting his work in 2015. One day, he hopes to donate his collection to a museum or university that will properly store and document the items.
While the brightly colored photographs of toiletries and cold medication feel somewhat Warholian, Kiefer, who originally shot landscapes, is more inspired by photographer Walker Evans, who vividly documented Americans living in poverty during the Great Depression in stirring black-and-white portraits.
Kiefer aims to coax the same strong emotions from the spectators of his work, and illustrate the humanity of a group of people the president has likened to “animals."
“Whether it’s an individual object, shoelaces, I present them in a way that I hope the viewer can not just identify, but just kind of be empathetic, or put themselves in the person or persons’ shoes: ‘Wow, a person carried that.’ ‘That’s the same cologne I use, the same toothbrush or toothpaste.’"
And then there are the objects that are staggeringly personal. There’s an infant shoe without its mate, and a diary with the binding ripped off but the contents intact.
Kiefer said he didn’t witness the kinds of abuses reported at border facilities under the Trump administration, which include reports of sexual assault, illness, squalid conditions, physical abuse and children being separated from their parents. But he described the experience of watching migrants, some of them young children, being brought to the facility for processing as “very bracing, very sobering.”
He doesn’t regret his work for CBP but expressed fury at the Trump administration’s immigration policies. He hopes his work will inspire viewers to ask, “Is this the nation we want to be?”
“The way things are now,” he said, “is not sustainable.”