Book Review: Undocumented by John Moore
By Ilana Jael
Recent photobook Undocumented; Immigration and The Militarization of The United States-Mexico Border by John Moore is a result of the photographer’s 10 years of devotion to the titular subject. Publisher Powerhouse Books represents this work well on upscale glossy paper, working in conjunction with Getty Images, where Moore works as a consultant. Wide ranging and comprehensive in its examination, it begins with the poverty-stricken conditions in Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras that motivate many Latin Americans to flee in pursuit of a better life. The pain behind such a risky undertaking is evident in images like those of the twisted spine of Jose Issac Morales, whose parents cannot afford the surgery that would heal him, of the bowed head and desolate junkyard shack of Arturo Santana, and of the mourning mothers of slaughtered sons. The shadowy darkness surrounding the central flame cooked over by a family with no access to electricity is a resonant one.
Our southern border spans four states and almost 2000 miles, and a selection of expert aerial shots placed throughout the book shows that it is as beautiful as it is perilous. But the very diversity and abundance of the terrain that separates us from Mexico has caused nothing but headaches for those who seek to patrol it. As outlined in an essay by Elyse Golob, a wall that covered the entire expanse would be both monumentally expensive and environmentally catastrophic; it’s as if the concept of an impenetrable border is opposed not only by the ideals this country was founded on but by nature itself. A foreword by Tom Gjelten reminds us in the story of his Norwegian immigrant grandfather that we are, after all, a nation of people whose ancestors almost all came here from somewhere else.
Moore transitions into the migration process with shots of traveling families casting fearful glances over their shoulders or bracing themselves for confrontation as agents approach, and utilizes a bird’s eye view in showing us one nearly detained man wading into the Rio Grande in preparation for a forlorn swim home. He then follows a group of immigrants onto the roof of a formidable freight train known as “La Bestia” or “The Beast”. Hundreds of immigrants endure its terrifying conditions for days on end, risking the loss of their limbs or lives should they fall asleep and fall off.
The very unluckiest of these travelers are pictured gathered in body bags, and Moore shows us too the misery of the agents responsible for this burdensome collection. These agents are also humanized in pictures of their rigorous training or their offering of medical assistance to migrants in need; they are recognized as a symptom rather than an enemy.
And even for those migrants who make it through these nightmarish condition and onto American soil, the threat of deportation continues to lurk. Moore uses intimate close ups to show us the tears of one young “dreamer”, who has just heard of Trump’s plan to end DACA and the determined gaze of protester Julia Martinez. He also includes an essay by threatened immigrant Jeannete Vizguerra, who has been in legal limbo since 2009. She and her family are then poignantly pictured going about their daily lives, fate hanging in the balance.
Moore then follows immigrants prosecuted for their undocumented status into detention and holding centers, showing them sleeping uncomfortably on the floor of holding cells and shivering in overly air conditioned “ICE (immigration and customs enforcement) boxes”. Most of these captured “aliens” are non-criminal ones, persecuted only for daring to dream. Forbidden from showing the faces of these detainees, he artfully shifts his lens towards other body parts. He zooms in on hands clasped together in prayer or grasping a phone for a precious call home. The shackled feet of men forced aboard a plane to their homeland speaks volumes, as does their wistful glances out of its windows.
Our journey concludes with a hopeful portrait of those immigrants who were able to beat the odds and become citizens. They are dressed in their best for their naturalization ceremony on Ellis Island, which comes complete with a recorded message from Barack Obama and a celebratory cake iced in the pattern of an American flag. Finally, Moore leaves us with stark profile shots of some of these fortunate few against a black background, an echo of a similar spread that began the book featuring migrants-to-be encountered in shelters on their journey north. In documenting the Undocumented and bringing attention to their plight, perhaps Moore can help some of the next generation of them make it across unscathed.