The US-Mexico border cuts through 1,954 miles of mostly rugged, inhospitable terrain; traveling between the towns along it, you rarely see other people. But the landscape is not as deserted as it seems. Linger a while and you’ll find the water bottles emptied by thirsty migrants, tires discarded by federal agents, and other traces of human activity that intrigue photographer Richard Misrach.
Misrach spent seven years driving tens of thousands of miles up and down the border in search of them. The result is his eye-opening project Border Cantos, which Misrach describes as less of a journalistic account of dramatic moments than a “slow meditation on overlooked details.”
“Each item contained a mystery, a story of hardship and fear,” he says. “I was struck by their poignancy.”
Politics have shaped the nature of human activity in the border region for more than a century. The US and Mexico defined the boundary in 1853 after years of fighting, but friction continued in some form or other through the years as illicit goods and migrants flooded north, reaching unprecedented levels in the 1980s and ’90s. After September 11, 700 miles of concrete and metal fencing went up, and the number of border patrol agents more than doubled to reach nearly 20,000 today. Though apprehensions of illegal immigrants have fallen nearly 75 percent since 2005, border security remains a priority and favored talking point for President Trump.
Misrach wasn’t thinking about any of this in the early 1970s, when he first packed his VW van with film and books and steered it into the Sonoran Desert on a quest to find giant cacti. He fell in love with “the warm dry air, the big spaces,” and soon began exploring the environmental, social, and political issues that affect it. Border Cantos sprung out of this epic, decades-long project—called Desert Cantos—in 2009. “I noticed a major escalation, a militarization, of border infrastructure—more walls, ground sensors, surveillance cameras, border patrol agents—and felt it was time to give it full attention,” he says.
Several times a year, Misrach flew to a border city to spend 10 days exploring a different stretch. He’d rumble along in a 4×4, sipping coffee and munching trail mix until something fascinating appeared—whether a stretch of sand smoothed by border patrol to better track footprints or an unfinished length of wall abstractly towering toward the sky. He photographed with a medium format Hasselblad (fitted with a Phase One digital back and mounted on a tripod), and also occasionally used his iPhone to work more quickly in places where he maybe shouldn’t be, like the border patrol shooting range that appears in one image.
The experience offered a close-up look at the dynamics of the border. No matter how remote the area, he rarely had more than an hour or two before border patrol arrived, alerted to his presence by ground sensors. One agent warned of nearby cartel activity and kindly stood guard so he could finish photographing; another approached him with a drawn rifle and searched his bags for heroin. “He said there was an ‘ongoing situation’ in play nearby,” Misrach says.
The objects he captured function almost like religious icons or relics—material remains that stand in for an absence, encouraging reflection. In this case, it’s the individuals who, whether from duty or pressure, continue to traverse this desolate landscape, pushed by broken politics and warring socioeconomic forces. Some might view them as cause for despair, but Misrach doesn’t. “Our country remains a beacon of hope—this is not a cliche, but a fact,” he says. “Every item found on the border embodies that passage, that dream.”