At first glance, Tom Kiefer seems to be a documentarian of the mundane. His collection at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles includes carefully curated photographs of used combs, empty canteens wrapped in denim, and dusty black shoelaces coiled together like snakes in Raiders of the Last Ark.
But his work actually offers an intimate portrait of contemporary life along the U.S.-Mexico border. The brushes and bottles he shoots on pastel backgrounds were all seized from migrants and asylum seekers at a customs and border facility in Arizona. Agents deemed these intimate belongings nonessential and tossed them out with the trash, but Kiefer saw in them a vehicle to tell human stories.
For six years, he has been saving, arranging, and photographing landfill-destined items for his ongoing project “El Sueño Americano / The American Dream.” The pictures reveal how blatant disregard for people’s everyday things can underscore “the cruelty of the tentative punishment that the government feels the need to levy against these people,” Kiefer told the Los Angeles Times. “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 began his collection after taking a part-time job as a janitor at a center near Ajo in 2003. Migrants often entered the facility with canned foods and cell phones and notebooks, he told the Times, which agents promptly threw out. So, he started pulling the cans out of trash bins. Then, he took out toothbrushes. Occasionally, he’d discover a Bible or a rosary or even a wallet.
Once, he found a diary (pictured below) that starts off, “Blanca I want you to know that I have loved you since I met you.” It’s signed: “I will be yours forever.”
Today, he has over 100,000 items stored away, and only 10 percent of them have been photographed.
Eventually, he’d like to donate the massive collection to an institution or to a university where they “can live on as historical documents of how the government has treated migrants,” according to the Times. But he’s not looking forward to that moment.
“There’s definitely a psychological and emotional weight to all this,” he told the Times. “But because I…saved them from the landfill, I have a personal connection to them.”
“El Sueño Americano / The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer” is on display through March 8 at the Skirball Cultural Center.