It started with cans of tuna, corn and beans.
Then Tom Kiefer saw the more touching items — clothing, Bibles, rosaries and family photos — tossed out as trash, and couldn’t let them be.
While he was working part time as a janitor at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Center, Kiefer salvaged food and personal items belonging to migrants detained while crossing the border in Why, Ariz.
They became deeply personal to the professional photographer. Dismayed, angry and morally moved to save them, Kiefer began photographing the items in a dignified and respectful way. His work highlights the humanity of the discarded items and prods viewers to question their own.
A special exhibit created and curated for Saugatuck Center for the Arts, El Sueño Americano: The American Dream, features more than 100 photographs of the confiscated personal effects and belongings of migrants crossing the border in southern Arizona from 2007-2014.
“This is really a humanity show,” said SCA’s Education & Exhibitions Manager Whitney Valentine. “It’s about people. The photographs prompt a lot of conversations and reactions. No matter what, you have to feel something looking at them.”
The exhibition includes some new works by Kiefer and actual items that men, women and children carried as they set out for America, including bordados, a culturally significant hand-embroidered cloth often used to transport food and given to the person leaving on a journey. Kiefer didn’t intentionally set out to create art out of the items, but to document them as living artifacts that tell a story. Besides offering some insight on the people who risk their lives for a better life, the images also shine a light on what happens during capture and processing. Border agents take away everything that is considered “nonessential” or potentially dangerous, often belongings that give people a sense of dignity, hope and faith. Stripped of belts, shoelaces and jewelry, they are left with just the clothes on their back, Kiefer said.
Thoughtfully arranged by color, shape, size and subject matter, the photographs reveal both the practical and personal items migrants and asylum seekers chose to pack for their long and dangerous journey.
Nail clippers, combs and brushes. Cologne, condoms and car keys. Half-used bars of soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes. Baby food, stuffed animals and personalized trinkets.
“I didn’t know at first what this was going to turn into,” he said. “It took me a good five years to figure out a way to arrange and present these items in a way that I felt was appropriate.”
Kiefer estimates he has far beyond 10,000 items, which he collected over seven years. But he never predicted his life would follow this path — for these discarded items to find refuge in his studio and become the focus of his work.
He started out as a graphic artist and ran an antique business in Los Angeles. In 2001, he decided to move to the small arts community of Ajo, Ariz. to live simply and spend time photographing America, its landscapes and cultural markers.
After about a year in Ajo, an old mining town about 40 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, Kiefer needed a job to supplement his photography and answered an ad for a part-time janitor at the customs facility.
“When I first started working there, the agents would collect the food, dig it out of the trash themselves and bring it to the local food bank,” he said.
With a change in leadership, the food collection stopped. From 2005-07, Kiefer watched it all get thrown out. The sheer weight and volume of the food was hard to manhandle, but the senseless waste is what really bothered him.
“You just don’t throw out perfectly good food. It’s beyond wasteful; it’s disrespectful on so many levels,” he said. “About my fourth year working there, I went to the supervisor on duty and asked, ‘Can I bring this food to the food bank?’ His exact words were ‘Bless you.’ They didn’t like seeing the food thrown out any more than I did.”
Rummaging through the trash, he was horrified and shocked to see the number of personal items bound for the dump.
“I couldn’t in good conscience let a Bible or rosary remain in the trash,” he said. “It was more important to me to recover those objects than losing my job.”
Kiefer started to secretly collect the items and take them home, while continuing to take the food to the local food bank. According to the manager, Kiefer brought in more than 60 tons of food over five years.
Now, Kiefer hopes the items eventually will become part of a historical and archival collection, similar to the coins and personal items of the people who came through Ellis Island.
“This is just a reflection of this period of our history, this mass migration from 2007-14,” he said. “Immigration is always going to be part of our history and how we manage and deal with it is too.”
Kiefer’s gained media coverage and more Instagram followers since President Donald Trump’s controversial family separation policy, but the SCA is one of the first art centers or museums to host an exhibition of his work. He hopes to travel El Sueño after its run in Saugatuck.
Last year, Kiefer packed up his car and drove cross-country to bring some of his photographs to ArtPrize, where he met Valentine.
Valentine felt an immediate connection to Kiefer’s work, and reached out to him about organizing a special exhibition of new work, partially because the SCA provides art education to migrant school children through its a Growing Young Artists program.
“I was incredibly moved by his images, so many intersections and layers that relate to the lives we impact all year long,” she said.
Kiefer’s works tell intriguing stories and remind viewers how ordinary items can be extraordinary, Valentine said.
“The photographs of the migrant's personal objects remind us that at the heart of this issue is people — children who treasure their teddy bears, people trying to feed themselves and their families, and those who can't imagine taking a trip without brushing their teeth,” she said.
From an artistic standpoint, the aesthetics and composition of the images are striking and help tell a story. But the stories behind the objects, especially the mysteries, are what give the photographs real power.
“In making the invisible, (confiscated) objects left at the border visible to all of us, he affirms the existence of oft-overlooked people whose existence is primarily talked about in temporary terms,” she said.
Through his photography, Kiefer wants to create a personal connection for the viewer to a migrant and their pursuit of el sueño Americano. For him, it is personal and political.
As the guardian of these items, Kiefer struggles with the fact they were just taken and trashed.
“We do not have a proud history of how we treat other people,” he said. “If anything comes of this project, it’s just to foster this healthy dialogue about our policies.”
“I want people to think about this,” he said. “Let people think for themselves about what’s right, what’s humane. Taking away someone’s rosary or Bible, how is that ever considered humane? To take this hardline bullying dehumanizing path is just … we have to ask ourselves, is this the nation we want to be?”
El Sueño Americano: The American Dream
Works by Tom Kiefer
Saugatuck Center for the Arts
400 Culver St., Saugatuck
Oct. 25-Dec. 22, free opening reception, 6:30-8 p.m.
sc4a.org, (269) 857-2399