Feature Shoot: “A Former Janitor Collects and Photographs the Items Seized from Immigrants and Thrown Away By U.S. Customs and Border Patrol”

by Joseph McKeown


While the surge in Central Americans crossing the US/Mexico border has led to increased attention to undocumented immigrants making this harrowing and dangerous journey, it can still be difficult to imagine the human side to these stories. Photographer Thomas Kiefer, however, who worked part-time as a janitor with US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) in Ajo, Arizona, about forty miles from the US/Mexico border, has given us a way to visualize the plight of these migrants in his photo series titled El Sueno Americano. In his series, translated as The American Dream, Kiefer has photographed personal items and objects that CBP had taken away from undocumented immigrants when they were detained. Kiefer explains the idea behind his project:

Working as a janitor from July 2003 until August 2014 I was greatly disturbed by the volume of food, clothing and personal belongings thrown away at a single U.S. Customs and Border Patrol facility. For many of those years, I was allowed to collect and take the food transported by migrants, that was discarded during the first stages of processing, to our community food bank, an estimated sixty tons by the person who managed it. The personal effects and belongings were another matter: Why would someone throw away a rosary or bible? Why would someone throw away a wallet? Why would a pair of shoes, for all intents and purpose “brand new”, be tossed in the trash? The ideals upon which this country was founded seem to be under attack as never before, two hundred and thirty nine years since we declared ourselves a nation. “The beacon of hope”, fairness, democracy, equality, faith and grace seems more and more like a sales gimmick, limited to certain groups of people.

His photos include everything from belts, shoelaces, and gloves to calling-cards, birth control pills, and rosaries. It’s unsettling to see the volume of personal items slated for the trash and also impossible not to wonder about the lives attached to these items. Thomas Kiefer is represented by The Story INSTITUTE, where the full series of El Sueno Americano has been published.