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Photos Of Items Taken At U.S. Border On View At Cleveland Print Room

Arizona photographer Tom Kiefer's exhibit "El Sueno Americano: The American Dream" is on view at Cleveland Print Room. [Tom Kiefer/ REDUX Pictures]
Arizona photographer Tom Kiefer's exhibit "El Sueno Americano: The American Dream" is on view at Cleveland Print Room.

What if someone took your grandmother's Bible and tossed it in the trash? Or your child's favorite stuffed animal was thrown in the garbage and sent to a landfill?

Arizona photographer Tom Kiefer has collected personal items like these that are taken from migrants at the Mexican-American border.

[Tom Kiefer/ REDUX Pictures]

His photographs of these personal items are on view now at the Cleveland Print Room.

After moving to Ajo, Arizona, in 2001 to pursue a career as a photographer, Kiefer needed a part-time job to pay the bills.

Tom Kiefer in his Arizona studio. [Lance Clark Bell]

Kiefer found what he was looking for as a janitor at a nearby U.S. Customs Border Patrol station.  

"It was about my fourth year working there that I started becoming kind of angry and upset, seeing all the food that the migrants and asylum seekers brought with them. That food that was in their backpack, that was just being thrown away," Kiefer said.

[Tom Kiefer/ REDUX Pictures]

His supervisor gave Kiefer permission to take the left-behind jars of peanut butter and cans of tuna to a local food bank.  

But once he began digging the food out of the trash, he discovered other things, personal things.

[Tom Kiefer/ REDUX Pictures]

"I would see a Bible, a rosary, a group of photographs, family photographs, wallets with identification still inside the wallet. Deeply personal belongings. And it wasn't right," he said.

He began collecting thousands of items he found in the garbage and at first he didn't know what to do with them.

Tom Kiefer in his Arizona studio. [Lance Clark Bell]

So he got out his camera.

"I took a bunch of black combs and brushes and placed them on a black background, just set it up and took a shot. And I was kind of amazed by, wow, this is kind of the way forward," he said.

[Tom Kiefer/ REDUX Pictures]

After seven years of collecting, Kiefer quit his job as a janitor in 2014 to work full time on this project.

Now his still life photos of asylum seekers' personal belongings make up the exhibition "El Sueno Americano: The American Dream."

Shari Wilkins, executive director of the Cleveland Print Room, first saw Kiefer's photographs online last year.

[Tom Kiefer/ REDUX Pictures]

"It's disturbing. I guess that's a good way of putting it. It takes you aback once you realize what it is and what the show is. In other words, the very first time I set eyes on them I thought, 'Oh these are beautiful. They are really colorful and interesting.' And then when you find the backstory out it's really sad," Wilkins said.

Kiefer says the exhibition has had a strong impact on those who've seen it so far.

[Tom Kiefer/ REDUX Pictures]

"They're shocked. You know, they ask me, 'Why would a rosary be taken away or why would they take away a Bible? Why would they take away a woman's birth control pills?' So it's been a very educational experience for people seeing this," he said.

Wilkins hopes the same is true for Northeast Ohioans who see the show.

[Tom Kiefer/ REDUX Pictures]

"One of the photographs in the series that amazes me is the photograph of a girl's CD collection and a CD case. When you're looking at it you can see the music that she likes and the music she listened to. So it's a window into the souls of others," she said.

In the end, Kiefer sees his photographs as a conversation starter about the current U.S. policy along the Mexican-American border.

[Tom Kiefer/ REDUX Pictures]

"Is this how we want to treat the most vulnerable? This is not limited just to the people crossing the border," Kiefer said. "We're talking about the 10 million plus people living in fear of ICE knocking on their door and taking away mom or dad and leaving behind the children. Is this how we want to be as a nation? Is this how we want to treat people?"

Tom Kiefer's photography exhibit " El Sueno Americano: The American Dream" is on view now at the Cleveland Print Room by appointment through mid-January.  




Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.