Certain images of migrants almost have become cliches in our globalized world of perpetual human movement: Mexican families sloshing across the Rio Grande in the dead of night, young African men huddled over dull campfires in Spanish detainee camps.
But other, less commonplace images challenge preconceived ideas of what it means to be an “undocumented worker,” “illegal alien” or simply a person with no fixed home or identity, stranded between shifting borders.
As illustrated by “Laberinto de Miradas” (Labyrinth of Glances), a provocative photo and video exhibition that’s on display here at the Cultural Center of Spain through August, immigration today wears many faces. It’s a middle-class Argentine woman, driven into exile by her country’s 2001 peso collapse. A Cuban man who bears the scars of jail time served for trying to flee to Miami. Hundreds of Brazilians of mixed ethnicities, body types and attitudes, mostly economic refugees from other parts of the country, all crammed into a ramshackle Sao Paulo apartment building, striving to co-exist.
Rather than rehashing familiar imagery and old, circular debates, “Laberinto de Miradas” explores some of the factors that are driving global immigration from Tijuana to Morocco. It also looks at how the condition of being an immigrant, more than just a description of someone’s citizenship status, is an existential condition shared by millions of people of wildly varying backgrounds.
“At the end of the story, all of us are immigrants,” says Federico Gama, a Mexican photographer whose work is included in the show. “All of us are in a search for something. We would like to be on another side. And also in the sense of, well, where do we belong?”
Taking an unusually expansive view of what immigration means, the show documents how practically any social unit -- rich Mexican women, Spanish sunbathers, Brazilian gay-pride parade marchers, U.S. Panama Canal Zone workers -- can constitute an “immigrant” culture, a community of internal exiles, within its own society.
“Not all immigration is of poor people that don’t have food,” says Diego San Vicente Charles, the cultural center’s manager. The exhibition is “trying to open ourselves to this vision, in order to be able to understand the problem much more globally and in all its levels.” Assembled by Madrid curator Claudi Carreras, the show comprises 160 still photos and a handful of short videos, made by more than 30 photographers and video journalist-documentarians. After leaving Mexico’s historic center, it will travel to several other Latin American countries. Two companion exhibits will open in coming months, one in Lima, the other in Sao Paulo.
Several of the photo series assembled for the show deal with migrants’ harsh physical journeys. Sergi Camara depicts Africans trying to cross into the autonomous Spanish territory of Melilla, on the North African coast, an attempted first stop in gaining passage into Europe. One especially striking image shows a man illuminated with searchlights, hoisting a crude ladder over his head while scaling a chain-link fence stacked with ferocious coils of razor wire.
Another series, by Mauricio Palos, follows the travels and travails of young Guatemalan men and boys in search of work who hitch a ride atop railroad boxcars to enter Mexico, many of them en route to the United States. One print shows a collection of prosthetic feet; every year, a number of the riders lose hands, feet and limbs after being swept under the trains.
The frontiers glimpsed in “Laberinto de Miradas” are not only physical but ideological, political, socioeconomic and cultural. Portuguese photographer Sandra Rocha documented a Chinese immigrant woman living in Lisbon, with numerous close-ups of her subject’s made-up face and personal artifacts reflecting an alternative, non-European reality that is as much an aesthetic as a social one.
In a remarkable series, Eduardo Hirose takes his camera into a Peruvian colony of Austro-Germans whose ancestors arrived in South America in 1859 as part of a project by the Peruvian government to encourage European immigration. The eerie similarity of the colonists’ physical appearance, and the evident way that they’ve preserved their insular culture while adapting it to new soil, suggests that human beings are as resilient and mutative as any plant or any other animal.
“Each border generates a hybrid culture, but this also generates identities,” says Gama. “It’s not only the people that travel but, rather, the culture also travels with the people.”
Though many of the photos adopt a straightforward, journalistic approach to their subjects, others favor more conceptual angles. Martin Rubini shot pictures of quinceaneras, the parties that celebrate a girl’s passage into womanhood, in Argentina. Gama produced a series on indigenous Mexican youths who sweat away their days in the capital as low-paid construction workers but assume new identities on Sundays dressed as goth rockers, emos or whatever subculture tickles their alter egos.
“Laberinto de Miradas” aspires to humanize the issue of immigration by taking it out of the realm of policy debate and putting it in crowded city streets, remote rural enclaves and individual family homes. Perhaps this is nowhere clearer than in the photos and video assembled by the Cia de Foto collective of Brazil. These intimate portraits of some of the 1,680 immigrant families from throughout Brazil clustered in a formerly abandoned, 29-story apartment tower block in the gigantic metropolis of Sao Paulo form a vision of a self-contained world that could stand in for all humankind.
San Vicente Charles says that by mounting this show, the government-sponsored Cultural Center of Spain is aiming not only to provoke more thoughtful discussion about a growing worldwide phenomenon, but also to promote better relations between Spain and its former New World colonies. In the last five centuries, those colonies became the home of millions of Spanish immigrants. Reciprocally, in recent years Spain has welcomed record numbers of immigrants from Latin American countries such as Ecuador and Colombia.
By investing in economic and cultural development in Latin America, Spain is trying to assist those countries in providing for their own citizens, so that in the future immigration may be more of an option than a harsh necessity.
“What better way than to help the countries where the people are to improve [their lives], so that the people don’t have to leave?” San Vicente Charles says. “It’s a strategy that’s more intelligent and more proactive.”