Don Bartletti: Spotlight on Immigration
Los Angeles Times photojournalist Don Bartletti (a San Diego native) began taking pictures of undocumented Mexican immigrants towards the end of the 1970s, well before illegal immigration became a high-profile, hot button issue. He eventually expanded his focus to include immigrants from Central American and other countries. Bartletti’s tough, poetic images both comment upon and transcend the myriad social and political ramifications of immigration. His fundamental concern is to depict with unflinching honesty the basic humanity of individuals who feel compelled to leave their homelands in search of a better life in the United States.
This body of work originated as a series for the Los Angeles Times, but beyond the imperatives of the assignment, what initially drew you to this subject? And what compelled you to keep expanding it?
As a photojournalist, my job falls somewhere between a scavenger hunt and cultural anthropology. The hunt has taken me to wars, wildfires, earthquakes, funerals and rock concerts. Deadline images are important to provide something for the newspaper reader to appreciate every day. But even the big news events fade away to be replaced by the next buzz-weirdo event. By contrast, the cultural significance of immigration never fades away. It’s everywhere, it’s accumulative and it’s endlessly relevant. Foreigners are the seeds of societal evolution. Through my viewfinder, I’m showing newcomers as they assimilate, segregate, succeed and struggle. The steady exodus from failed Latin America nations is changing the face of America. Frame by frame, my picture stories are additional pages in the photo album of the United States. Although I now photograph foreign workers around the world, 30 years ago I didn’t have to go far to observe subtle beginnings of the greatest influx of foreigners in this nation since the era of Ellis Island. In the late 1970s I recorded undocumented Mexican immigrants on Tri-X film and fiber-based paper. I filed every negative with IDs and notes about the clandestine encampments in the hills around my hometown in northern San Diego County. It was an astonishing subculture of migrant farm workers living in handmade shacks without running water, electricity or sanitation practically in the shadow of wealthy suburbia. Over the years I concentrated on individuals who eventually crawled out of those farm camps to better jobs and, for one man, the road to American citizenship.
Is this an ongoing series?
Yes. One of my goals is to reveal the consequences of illegal migration. It’s not just the “theater” of people jumping over the border fence. For example, I’ve been photographing Willie Ramirez for 17 years. I first met Willie and his dad in 1989. Two weeks after they snuck across the border, they were living next to a tomato field in a hovel made of plastic sheeting and camouflaged with brush. In spite of their hapless circumstances, they were gentlemen. Every year or two I’d catch up with them, make new photographs and hand out prints. My wife Diana and I went to their pueblo in Oaxaca when they were visiting their family back home. After Willie got his papers through an amnesty program, his life changed dramatically. He learned English, became a foreman for a roofing company, and built a little house in Tijuana. In March of 2006 I was with him when he took the oath of U.S. citizenship. I wrote a cover story for the L.A. Times Sunday Magazine, accompanied by photographs from his 17 years of hope, loneliness, determination and, finally, rejoicing.
Underground House, Vista, California - 1991
Do you consider these images all one big series, or several discrete series linked thematically?
The body of work is countless individual pictures and essays that tell the larger story. “The Roads Most Traveled—Photographs of Migration” is a solo exhibit that was curated by Carol McCusker at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. Ninety-seven images became a photographic narrative in three parts: "Between Two Worlds"—chaos at the border and farm worker living conditions in San Diego. "Bound To El Nórte"—Central Americans en route to the U.S. atop freight trains through "Mexico: A Global Perspective"—six photo essays from a dozen countries around the world.
It can’t be easy eliciting the trust and cooperation of your subjects. What’s your approach?
With cameras dangling around my neck, I don’t blend in. Nevertheless, I choose to be in close with my subjects and working with wide-angle lenses. To those I’m interested in I usually say something like this: “Hello, I’m Don Bartletti, a photographer from a big American newspaper. I appreciate that your dream of a better life is important to you. It’s also important to the people in my country. If you’ll allow me watch, I won’t stop you from doing anything, but I can’t help you in any way either. I want Americans to see and understand your struggle.”
Do your subjects understand and/or appreciate what you are trying to accomplish?
Some walk away, some beg, others sense my sincerity and share their experience. One Honduran migrant on a freight train in Mexico was more revealing than most. He told me, “Usually the only ones who pay attention to us are police and priests. The police hurt us and priests help us.”
Can you relate some of the hazards and difficulties you’ve experienced over the years?
I set a tripod on the U.S. side of the 10-ft-high border fence with Tijuana. Through slits in the steel planks I bantered with men who admitted they would jump over when the moment was right. I stepped away for a few minutes when a passing Border Patrol stopped nearby. When I returned to the tripod 10 minutes later, the camera was gone. “Chingaderas,” I yelled through the cracks. “I can’t believe you guys would do this! You’ve taken my heart, my soul, my livelihood!” “We didn’t see who did it,” they said. “Okay,” I argued, “Keep the camera, just give me the film.” “We don’t know who did it.” God, I was frustrated. I offered one guy $10 bucks to help me. He countered with $40. “Olvida te!” I said. Forget it! Then I countered with $15. We settled on $20. In a few minutes, an arm appeared through the iron barrier with my Nikon FM2. As I grasped the camera I considered keeping the $20 bill. In spite of my humiliation, I passed the money through, preferring to end the standoff on a positive note. I ditched the tripod but hung around. At 1am the time was right and I made the image titled, “Too Hungry To Knock” with the same camera.
Too Hungry to Knock, San Ysidro, California - 1992
Have you ever run afoul of the border authorities?
In the late ’70s and ’80s the U.S. Border Patrol loathed the media. It took weeks to get approval for a daytime ride along. Night ops? “Too dangerous,” they’d say. Nighttime was anarchy. Legions of illegal migrants usually overwhelmed the B.P. and the agents weren’t proud of it. My reporter Pat McDonnell and I wanted to observe this for ourselves. Around sundown one day we went to the infamous “Soccer Field,” a no-man’s land on the Tijuana border where smugglers sold their “guide” services to migrants. We crossed the borderline and walked with a group of young men, a family with two children and three mariachi musicians lugging their guitars. The smuggler was suspicious, so we quipped, in broken Spanish, “We’re Polish.” After a mile walking on trails through the scrub, we crested a ridge overlooking the San Diego town of San Ysidro. Out of nowhere a helicopter roared overhead with a bright spotlight. The young men and the family froze. The musicians disappeared back south. When ground agents careened up in a Bronco they cursed at the migrants and demanded they lay down in the dirt. The little girl wet her pants. A young agent spotted me shooting photos of people illuminated by the spotlight. He went nuts. “Who the hell are you? Stop taking pictures! You can’t be here! You’re in violation of….” and such and such. I asserted my rights as U.S. citizen and a credentialed journalist. We raised our voices above the noise of the helicopter. Clearly the officers were dumbfounded by our presence in no man’s land. The next day the Border Patrol called a press conference, admonishing the media about a reckless and foolish “reporter and his photographer” who risked their lives among bandits and thieves and interfered with law enforcement officials. But they admitted we had the right to be there after all.
How have your photographs been received in Mexico? Have reactions there differed from how your work is perceived in America?
The Mexican council in San Diego lavished praise on me for telling the saga of his people. Emigration has become an inextricable part of Mexican life. During a series of lectures I gave in California farm worker communities, laborers and their U.S.-born children told me they appreciated seeing the things that have become legend in the history of their families. “The pictures were about my life,” one man said.
Interstate Pedestrians, San Ysidro, California - 1990
Can you share some of your personal motivations in taking these pictures?
I have no idealistic notion that my photographs can change the world. At the very least they present evidence of these turbulent days of anti-immigrant hate and pro-immigrant sympathy. I want my pictures to be evidence that the U.S. can be a tolerant nation in a world that often greets illegal immigrants with the muzzle of a gun. I look to show that immigrants are individuals capable of being just like us—some contribute mightily, others are a burden.
What effect do you think your photographs have had here in the United States?
Through the Los Angeles Times I reach policy makers who are in position to make changes. For example, the image “Interstate Pedestrians” was the inspiration for the California Department of Transportation to create warning signs on San Diego freeways alerting motorists to groups of people who run across the freeway near the border and checkpoints farther north. Hundreds were killed and maimed. The yellow signs, drawn from several published and unpublished photos I provided, as well as billboards and posters, helped reduce the carnage.
Do you think your images have helped Americans, even those opposed to illegal immigration, view illegal immigrants with at least a modicum more compassion and understanding?
I have received hundreds of letters and email messages over my career. Most congratulate me for revealing things they didn’t know about. Some say they are writing with tears in their eyes. Others ask how they can help reduce the suffering of hapless farm workers sleeping in spider holes and plastic shacks. Some have sent me checks to give to certain people I photographed. But more than a few have damned me for the essays on Central Americans coming to the U.S. through Mexico. I’ve been accusing of giving “step-by-step lessons on how to break federal immigration laws.”
Do you find it harder for documentary work to make a social impact due to the changed nature of media and the image overload in today's society?
Overload is the operative phrase, that’s for sure. TV, radio, the Internet, podcasts, blogs, docudramas—all provide competition for the print photographer. Ironically, the press is usually the point source for the rest of the media, which lack the investigative commitment of major newspapers and freelance journalists. Busy Americans are easily placated by the truncated talking head TV version, or the car radio personality spin on serious newspaper projects. The Web is a great tool to use more photos, narration and natural sound to tell my stories. The picture that’s worth a thousand words is a rarity, but a picture plus a thousand words is priceless.
Memorial to a Slain Companion, San Ysidro, California - 1992
What makes your work resonate so powerfully for me is its objectivity. For example, one of your pictures depicts a Mexican girl trying to rip the American flag. It’s not a flattering image, but it’s a truthful one. In other words, you don’t set out to make saints of your subjects, or even martyrs, simply human beings trying to cope with difficult circumstances as best they can. Is that how you approach it?
Although I try to be objective, it’s impossible not to formulate opinions when I’m so immersed in an issue. The experience of the protesting high school teen mangling the U.S. flag as her classmates waved Mexican flags still shocks me. It’s an unguarded moment that exposes a hypocritical notion of automatic entitlement for illegal immigrants. My editors declined to run the image. Nevertheless, it’s in my archive. Another image for the photo album of this nation.
Although you have referenced the influence of Dorothea Lange regarding your work, I also sense an affinity with Josef Koudelka’s pictures of gypsies, another marginalized group. You both create images of an unflinching directness and simplicity, coupled with an objective yet poetic visual representation. What photographers besides Lange have you drawn inspiration from?
I really take inspiration from Lewis Hine, who said that when he walked out of his flat, he was determined to make a photograph that would either change something, or make it appreciated. The satisfaction I get from doing documentary photojournalism is translating universal traits that speak to those far removed from the subject. Quite often it’s an unchoreographed dance between the subject and myself. But I’m not cavorting around looking for contrived compositions or radical angles. A powerful image has two characteristics: content and style. My use of lenses, shutter speeds, angle, light and timing all contribute to enhancing a subject of relevant editorial content. Style that’s trendy or enigmatic is unnecessary.
Many of your pictures, such as “Crossing the Tijuana River,” seem to transcend their time, setting and circumstances, and resonate with a universal recognition of our shared humanity. Are you ever conscious of this when you’re photographing in the heat of the moment?
I felt it in a huge way on that particular night. As I sloshed through the fetid Tijuana river channel with the camera smashed up against my face I was shaking with anxiety, sweating, mumbling to myself about what to include and what to leave out. Activity on the borderline is like high drama. It’s infused with uncertainty and hope that “crossing over” suggests. This is where life-changing decisions are played out.
Crossing the Tijuana River, Tijuana, Mexico/San Ysidro, California - 1992
In a similar vein, how conscious are you of the visual aesthetic when you’re making these images? How important is that aspect to you, if at all?
My primary objective is to tell a story with each image. A writer uses his notes, experience, quotes and adjectives to make a point and keep the reader’s interest. The main subject in concert with the background, foreground and edges are my artistic tools. I seldom look for close-ups of faces, as I believe the dichotomy of a person and his environment is a more revealing composition. It’s a jolt when I see that through the viewfinder.
Put another way, do you try to guard against making the images that are too pleasing from an aesthetic perspective?
In a newspaper it’s tough to arrest a reader’s attention long enough to get the message across. The photograph needs to be compositionally interesting. However, I loath techniques like tilted horizons, blurry subjects that aren’t moving, silhouettes, blown-out highlights, symbolic shadows, repeated shapes, chopped-off faces, etc. Those artsy crutches do more to distinguish the photographer’s skill than the importance of the subject. The subject should be the #1 author of the photograph, not the “artiste” behind the box.
The title of your catalog, “Between Two Worlds,” refers to the physical space that constitutes the border between Mexico and America, but also, and in a larger sense, to the cultural dislocation these immigrants must feel as they cope with all the differences between their native countries and the U.S. This cultural chasm seems especially apparent in the image “Suburban Lights.” Do you think this aspect of your work has been fully recognized and understood?
Sometimes my pictures take on a life of their own. Nativists and ultra-conservatives have used “Suburban Lights” as proof that “we’re being invaded” by people from countries that don’t care about the needy. Migrant advocates and ultra-liberals took the same image to preach about San Diego’s shameful policies that neglect the needy among us. As long as we debate in a civilized manner, the truth in polarized opinions is healthy. Like Dorothea Lange said, “I want people to look at my pictures and ask, ‘How can such things be?’”
Suburban Lights, Carlsbad, California - 1988
What have you learned from the immigrants you’ve photographed?
I recognize that migration for survival is as old as humanity, as unstoppable as the wind and frequently misunderstood. I’ve seen that emigration is often the only desperate solution to unpardonable social, political and economic corruption that cripples abandoned nations.
What have you learned about yourself?
In my own community, among people who feel threatened by immigration I sense a helpless discomfort heaped upon all of us. Benjamin Franklin is known to have felt that there were too many Germans here! As a boy, I remember my parents complained about all the Puerto Ricans in south Philly. Then again, when I’m in the cities and pueblos of Latin America, on the trails of migration, or in the barrios in the U.S., I gaze upon those for whom migration is a personal struggle of unimaginable uncertainty. This is not an easy subject. Migration is seldom the easy solution for anyone, but I vow to be tolerant.
(I wrote about Don Bartletti’s work in the June 2007 issue of Black & White magazine.)