From a distance, it’s hard to make out the details of a bright yellow photograph that seems like a piece of Pop art. But up close, the carefully arranged assortment of objects — colorful pills, wrappers and ointments for treating ailments like heartburn, diarrhea, and headaches — come into full view. There’s even insulin among the ordered chaos.
These items were all seized from migrants and asylum seekers trekking through the desert in an attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Deemed potentially lethal or nonessential by border officials, the medications were thrown away, along with other personal belongings, during the first stages of processing at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in southern Arizona.
While working as a janitor at the same facility from 2003 to 2014, photographer Tom Kiefer secretly collected the belongings and later began shooting them.
More than 100 of his photos make up the exhibition “El Sueño Americano / The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer” on view at the Skirball Cultural Center until March 8.
Some photos are large. One features 15 heavy-duty, black plastic bottles wrapped in remnants of clothing or blanket. In another, 32 CDs labeled with titles including “Super Sappy Songs for Issa 2,” “Brown Pride” and “Boogie Nights” have been evenly spaced on top of a bubble-gum-pink background.
Smaller photos — of a love letter, pieces of jewelry, a rabbit’s foot keychain — show individual items seized and discarded by border officials.
Throwing away the personal belongings “underscores the cruelty of the tentative punishment that the government feels the need to levy against these people,” Kiefer said. “It’s clear the majority of which are decent, contributing and who want nothing more than a better life for themselves or for their family.”
Kiefer moved to Ajo, Ariz., in 2001 after 20 years of working as a graphic designer and later an antique store owner in L.A. In search of more affordable living, he bought a home and began traveling the country to photograph buildings, landscapes and cultural markers, “the things that make America, America,” he said.
In 2003, he took a part-time job as a janitor at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility near Ajo to help sustain his creative practice.
One of his first vivid memories from the job was seeing the canned food that the migrants carried. In his first two years on the job, agents collected the cans and brought them to a local food bank. But under new leadership, they were told to stop donating the food.
“For the next two years, I witnessed all this food being needlessly thrown out,” Kiefer said.
After asking for permission to collect the food again, he came into contact with other belongings.
The first items to pull Kiefer’s attention were 15 to 20 toothbrushes. At the time, he didn’t think about photographing them. He just felt compelled to remove them from the trash. “When I started seeing a rosary, or a Bible, or a wallet, I realized that no one would believe me if I had not collected these items.”
It took about six years of collecting — blankets, cellphones, toilet paper, depression medication, shoelaces — before Kiefer began photographing.
The first subject was a mountainous pile of water bottles. About 10 images into the documentation, something clicked. He assembled brushes and combs over a black background. “After I shot it and looked at it, it was like, ‘Oh my God, this is it,’” Kiefer said.
Color is an essential component of the photos, a way to inject humanity into each personal belonging, Kiefer said. Shooting the items on the same background “wouldn’t feel right, it would it would feel like it was a scientific observation of something.”
The color and composition of the everyday objects in the photographs draw people in, said Skirball curator Laura Mart. But it’s also “like a knife to the gut, and that’s precisely something that I think gives this work its power — that it draws you in with its beauty and then it has this really profoundly sad backstory.”
One of the show’s biggest tragedies, Mart said, “is that we have no way of knowing really who these people are, who carried these things, what happened to them, and what they’re doing now.”
Kiefer estimates he has more than 100,000 items collected and stored in his studio and other spaces around Ajo. The word he uses to describe how he copes with the magnitude of his collection: compartmentalize.
“There’s definitely a psychological and emotional weight to all this,” he said. “But because I … saved them from the landfill, I have a personal connection to them.”
About 90% of the belongings have not been photographed. “El Sueño Americano” is an ongoing project Kiefer plans to continue for a long time.
“It’s not physically possible,” the photographer, 60, said. “And to do it in the manner in which I’m doing, these objects are sacred and I come from a place of deep reverence and respect. … I’d have to live to be 100.”
Kiefer plans to donate the items to an institution or university so they can live on as historical documents of how the government has treated migrants. He hopes the exhibition will educate viewers and possibly inspire them to action.
“Our government is actually taking away a Bible or rosary,” he said. “I mean, how twisted is that?”
When: Noon-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 10-5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, through March 8
Admission: $7-$12 (free on Thursdays)