For the last 10 years, Tom Kiefer has dedicated himself to photographing personal belongings seized from migrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Kiefer secretly collected the items — medication, jewelry, Bibles, shoelaces — while working part-time as a janitor at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Arizona from 2003 to 2014.
A recent article in The Times about his work, currently exhibited at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, went viral online, quickly ranked as the most-read Times art feature of the year and triggered media inquiries from CNN, BBC, Elle, Artnet and public radio, among others, as well as questions from people wanting to buy the work. On Instagram, a user asked if the photos might be included in a book in the future. “Yes but I have no idea when,” Kiefer responded.
Unlike some artists whose work has been displayed in major cultural institutions, Kiefer does not have a book deal or gallery representation. Before the Skirball exhibition, he said, he would “literally go weeks, if not months without a sale.”
The recent flurry of media attention, however, prompted about 30 inquiries from people wanting to buy his work. Prints begin at $500.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like if I sold 30 prints, I mean, my God,” said Kiefer, for whom the project is his sole source of income. “This year is the first year that I’ve actually had more money come in than what’s gone out — the cost of printing, framing and all the incidental costs to do this work. Whatever the income is for poverty, I’m in that category.”
Empathy, he added, is why his photography has connected to such a large audience.
“The images allow people to immerse themselves into this just horrific, horrific situation,” Kiefer said, hopeful that the photos will inspire others to take action.
He estimated that he has more than 100,000 confiscated items stored in his studio and other spaces around Ajo, Ariz. About 90% of the collection has not been photographed. It’s an ongoing project the 60-year-old artist plans to continue for a long time.
Because he works alone, Kiefer said he struggles to keep up with requests for prints or requests to exhibit the work, and he wishes he had help.
“I’m an artist, I’m not an eloquent salesperson,” he said. “I don’t even have a comprehensive image list of the hundreds and hundreds of images I’ve created.”
For now, Kiefer plans to just keep shooting.
Earlier this month, he made a photo of unused makeup and another of a cluster of fingernail clippers emblazoned with an American flag. He’s still thinking about how he wants to shoot heavy-duty workers’ overalls and numerous graphic T-shirts.
“It’s wonderful to be able to do what you love and to have that be something that has the potential of profound and positive change,” Kiefer said.