I pick up a path that is now heading directly west. It is littered with all kinds of discarded clothing and personal items. Shirts. Hats. Bras, panties and underwear. A new Colgate toothbrush. Old Spice antiperspirant. A hair comb. And empty half-gallon jugs. It becomes so hot in the desert that hyperthermia can occur within a short period of time to the point where it can become so overwhelming, you just want to rip your clothing off. This is the primary reason migrants are dying in the Sonora desert.
It is so hot. I want to strip naked.
I drink some more water and then some more water.
And now, the second half-gallon jug is done, and I toss it in with all of the others scattered around.
In my opinion the best photo documentarians are those who authentically embed themselves into the situation they are recording or better yet, genuinely live the experience they are documenting. Perfect examples of full metal entrenchment include Danny Lyon's 1960s The Bikeriders and Larry Clark's Tulsa, where Clark seductively documented his violent, druggy life among his circle of friends during the 1960s and 70s. Other photographic projects in this ilk that come to mind are Eugene Richards' Cocaine Blue, Cocaine True which intimately documents three different East Coast housing projects ravaged by the crack epidemic of the 1990s.
It would be fair to suggest that Paul Turounet's photographic practice falls within this category. His work along the U.S.-Mexico Border resulting from his extensive explorations of this same region attempt to document first-hand the undocumented immigrant experience from a gringo's point of view--an affectation he uses himself to explain his personal role within his work.
Rather than simply documenting his subject as the detached observer (which is quite valid in many documentarian situations) Turounet's weaves in his own autobiographic experience in a bid to understand the physical and emotional challenges shared by the undocumented immigrant as they travel across the extreme geographic and climate conditions posed by La Frontera. Recording his own journey into the U.S. from Mexico--one that is also illegal, on foot, with limited supplies within severe temperatures and terrain--informs his work in ways that are not available to the detached, physically comfortable observant.
Consistent in his pursuit, Paul has made social documentary work his career focus. After completing the graduate program at Yale in 1995 Turounet received a Fulbright Fellowship in 1997 for a border related project in Mexico and then received several grants for projects on the same subject from the Trans-Border Institute. Paul currently teaches photography as an associate professor at Grossmont College in El Cajon, California and exhibits his work internationally. Continuing with this documentary subject vein, Turounet began his extended multimedia meditation on the migrant experience at the U.S.-Mexican border and its associated culture in 2002.
By the time he began the project--Operation Gatekeeper, the 1990s Clinton-initiated program that militarized the Border primarily aimed at circumventing the "illegal" immigration of transborder migrants into the U.S. from Mexico was in full swing with border culture consequently reflecting the bureaucratic measures thus implemented. From this historical/political perspective Turuonet conceived and created a body of work he called, Estamos Buscando A or We're Looking For.
The initial works were executed as a series of site-specific photographic retablo-like portraits of various migrants in found traveling along the U.S.-Mexico Border, especially in areas shared by Mexico, California and Arizona using a technique harkening to the 19th-century tintype effigies of the deceased found among the headstones and above ground caskets in many Mexican and Hispanic cemeteries. Large format negatives were printed on 1/4 inch steel plates coated with a gelatin silver photographic emulsion yielding a vintage sepia patina to the images. Some of the portraits included the names and place or origin of each migrant carved into its face by the individual pictured. Each single plate weighed 30 lbs. and was mounted directly to the steel border fence at the exact location where the original photographic image was taken establishing a silent shrine-like presence of those who came before. A total of eleven plates were installed at five different locations along the U.S.-Mexican border on the Mexican side of the fence. The photographs themselves are, although conventional by documentary photographic standards, exhibit a starkness and honesty that provides reverence and homage of the subject photographed.
Over time, Turounet would travel back to these locations to document the works through video and photography as they slowly deteriorated from the arid desert elements or through human intervention. Often, a migrant or group would be present at the location, waiting at their makeshift camp for the right time and conditions to cross. The video documentation of these encounters is indeed haunting and effective--individuals are seen attending camp, cooking meals directly below the markers perhaps because they offer a familiar face or sense of comfort seeing those who came before in this harsh and unwelcoming environment.
Other Estamos Buscando A project elements included are several personal narrative pieces such as Finding Francisco, a text and photographic piece documenting Paul's personal encounter with a lost migrant who believed his fellow companions were dead and the subsequent email from a Border Patrol agent detailing the outcome of the migrant's experience. Another sub-project, Under the Green Moon, documents Turounet's own border travels near the northern Sonoran town of Sasabe, Mexico, just south of Tucson where he details first-hand a night in the unforgiving landscape of La Frontera while attempting to cross the border illegally on foot. His attempt to understand and convey what it feels like for the migrant alone in the desert at night is admirable.
Currently, Estamos Buscando A installation project has been modified for gallery installation incorporating a reclaimed section of the actual border fence salvaged from Border State Park in California. The project is being exhibited with two other artist projects considering life and culture along the border for Desert Initiative: Looking across the border | Iniciativa Del Desierto: Mirando a través de la frontera at Pima Community College's Louis Carlos Bernal Gallery from August 27th - October 5th, 2012. Please visit: www.pima.edu for more information.
Top image: Estamos Buscando A or We're Looking For | Photo: © 2012 Paul Turounet.
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