The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Virginia filmmaker entered the deadly Darién Gap to capture what Black migrants face. He almost didn’t make it out.

Virginia filmmaker Nathaniel Dennison trekked through the Darién Gap in Colombia and Panama in September. (Nathaniel Dennison)

Nathaniel Dennison didn’t recognize the voice on the phone, but he could tell by the man’s accent he was Haitian.

“Are you the person who helps people tell their stories?” the man asked.

Yes, Dennison told him.

The man said he was friends with two Haitian men who worked with Dennison in Tijuana on a film project about the experience of Black migrants. He had called, he said, to let Dennison know that he and a group of fellow migrants were planning to cross through the Darién Gap to get from Colombia to Panama and eventually to the southern U.S. border.

“Would you want to come with us?” he asked.

The Darién Gap is one of the most dangerous paths migrants heading from South America to the United States can take. It is a jungle filled with deadly creatures, treacherous terrain and armed criminals. Agence France-Presse recently described it as a place “where hell and hope collide.”

Dennison knew the risks of going, he tells me on a recent morning as he recounts that August phone call. His long, curly hair is knotted in spots, and during our conversation, he cries several times. Both the knots and the tears are the result of the answer he gave that stranger on the phone: “Yes.”

Dennison, who lives in Richmond, is a photographer and filmmaker who established a foundation that puts cameras into the hands of people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them so they can tell their own stories. The idea for the foundation, called Through My Eyes, came to him when he was teaching in Thailand. A few students asked to see his gear, and after briefly showing them how to use it, they captured on video the story of a closed Buddhist monastery.

Since then, the foundation’s work has taken Dennison to Nicaragua, Haiti and Mexico. In 2018, when the news told of migrant caravans heading north from Central America to the United States, he booked a flight to join them and, at one point, lived in a government-run camp with them.

“I believe when I go to do this work, I need to integrate myself into the lives of the people I’m covering,” he says. “I don’t want them to see me as above them. We’re on the same level; we’re human.”

That context is needed to understand why Dennison entered the Darién Gap several weeks ago and why, unlike other photographers and videographers, he didn’t take any security guards with him.

That decision would end up giving him a different experience from that of others who have gone there to document the harrowing passage. They have left that jungle and come home with photos that show the horrific struggles of others. He almost didn’t leave the jungle, and he came home with only a fraction of the photos he took and with his own horrific story.

“What he’s been through is horrible and really disturbing,” says Erika Pinheiro, a lawyer who is the litigation and policy director of Al Otro Lado, an advocacy and legal aid organization that serves migrants, refugees and deportees on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The organization has been working with Dennison to create a film that captures the experiences of U.S.-bound Black migrants.

“The only way to understand it is to see it, and that’s what he’s providing,” Pinheiro says. “It’s really important that people understand what’s happening, and that it’s not over in Del Rio.”

The Biden administration recently cleared out a border camp in Del Rio, Tex., where an estimated 15,000 migrants, most of them Haitian nationals seeking asylum, had gathered. The clearing out of the camp came after viral images and video footage showed Border Patrol agents on horseback grabbing migrants and charging at them. In one video, a young girl in a mint-green dress scrambles to get out of the way of a horse heading toward her.

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President Biden decried the agents’ actions, and the Department of Homeland Security opened an investigation into the incident.

But what happened in Del Rio captures only part of what many Haitians experience to get to the United States. Many pass through the Darién Gap, some with children in tow and infants strapped to their backs or chests. Officials in Panama have said that a record 70,000 people traveled the 66 miles through the terrain this year.

Before going, Dennison did extensive research on what to expect: spiders with bites that can cause death within six hours, criminals who routinely rob travelers, and polluted water that if not filtered can sicken you. But nothing, he says, could have prepared him for what he experienced.

“When you’re in the jungle, you’re no longer a filmmaker,” he says. “You’re no longer a humanitarian. It becomes about survival.”

As Dennison tells it, he and others trekked through water and mud when the rivers allowed and climbed over rock formations when the rivers were impassable. He saw many of the migrants discard personal belongings when the weight becomes too much. Those keepsakes joined the soiled diapers and other refuse that lined the trail and littered the river.

On the second day, Dennison’s phone died, and his belongings were too wet for him to use a backup battery he had with him.

On the third day, some of his belongings were stolen.

That night is the hardest for Dennison to talk about. He pauses, crying, as he describes what happened: He and five other people had stopped to rest for the night when a group of men carrying machetes showed up. They took from Dennison a bag containing $600, a camera and memory cards. A man who called him “Gringo” ordered him to get inside the tent and zipped it closed.

While in the tent, Dennison could hear a woman crying and a man screaming. “It went from frantic screaming to painful screaming,” he says. He also heard a thud.

“If you die in the jungle, the chances of your body being taken out are very slim,” he says. “I thought I was going to die.”

The back of the tent faced the jungle, so he unzipped it quietly, grabbed his remaining bag and bolted into the darkness as tree branches slapped at him. When he finally stopped, he used a hammock for a blanket, wrapped himself entirely in it and sat down. Not knowing whether the men were looking for him, he stayed in that position, opting to urinate on himself rather than get up and risk making noise. Later, he would learn that the woman had been raped and the man he heard screaming had been hit with a machete.

“I feel like a coward,” he says. He doesn’t know whether he could have helped the woman or if an attempt would have made the situation worse, but he can’t help wondering what might have happened if he hadn’t run. “My brain keeps saying, ‘I could have done something,’ and I can’t make my brain shut up.”

In the days that followed, he was nearly robbed again and had to walk hungry and thirsty. The night he ran, he left his food and water purifier behind. At one point, he started to drink from a river and heard people shouting at him. He looked up to see that the water was flowing around a dead body.

He threw up at that moment, he says, and through the night, his stomach continued to betray him. He felt so sick that he didn’t follow the group that next morning or the groups that passed him over the next two days.

When he finally got up, he walked slowly, concentrating on the pain in his feet, until he made it to the end. Once there, he says, military police officers took care of him, giving him saline solution to drink and feeding him.

Meanwhile, with his phone dead, no one in his life had heard from him for more than a week. The first sign they received that he was alive was a Facebook post on Sept. 21.

“I have the barest amount of signal,” it read. “Made it out of the jungle a few days ago but Panama migration & police holding me, refusing to allow me to contact embassy or anyone.”

He says he was held in a camp covered in excrement, but before he was taken there, officials deleted the photos and video he shot while in the jungle.

“I was irate,” he says. “They deleted everything.”

Well, mostly everything. He was left with some images and video he captured on his phone before it died and photos of the camp he took covertly.

On Sept. 24, Dennison flew to Dulles International Airport in Virginia, and his mother picked him up. Since then, he has reunited with his dog and spent time with friends. He has also thought a lot about what he witnessed.

“I feel really guilty,” he says. “I experienced this horrible, horrible thing, and now it’s over for me. But it’s not over for them. It continues.”

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