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Two Views of the Border Wall (2019) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

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Two Views of the Border Wall (2019) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

PART 1: ON THE PHYSICAL AND THE VIRTUAL

I spent the first days of 2017 “traveling” the United States-Mexico border via Google Earth, staring intently into a glowing computer screen as if it were a physical portal into a tangible place. I sat for hours alone at my desk clicking obsessively through these digital terrains. Initially, I was drawn to the border to better understand the campaign mantra “build a wall”—the words that spiraled across the internet.

In Google Earth, I often came upon street posts bent from faulty uploads, blurred out faces, masking human identities, and large portions of the wall and sky that vanished into digital aberrations. Even so, the US southern landscape appeared recognizable. Cars still crowded busy intersections, and street signs still pointed toward popular destinations. The more I clicked through this virtual border, the more frequently I came upon new views of the wall as it snaked through the landscape.

Studying digital images is not foreign to me. I am a photographer and educator by trade. I teach photography in an era when enlargers have all but been replaced by laptops and the sweet stink of photo chemistry has vanished from most classrooms. Although trained as a photographer, I had to relearn the medium when film disappeared from the corner store. Slowly, I learned to love the digital image. I embraced the pixel in all its forms: intangible, corruptible, and easily altered.

Curiosity first led me through the virtual landscapes of California and into Arizona—then, compulsion. It wasn't long until I was video recording my virtual travels and extracting still images from the footage. I imagined that these digital snapshots of the country's edge would reveal some clue that could help explain the last election, as if the bare landscape might reveal in its soil something distinctly American.

In Calexico, California, I found glitches in the digital border that allowed me to click through the wall and enter, ghost-like, into Mexicali, Mexico, just across the border. Initially, I felt a rush. I was in Mexico. This imperfect digital mirror, which reflected my country, allowed me to slip through its walls. Had I found a virtual border crossing? It seemed to me a perfect symbol for our fragile border and the myths and narratives that we use to construct our nation's histories.

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Virtual Crossing #1 (2017) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

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Virtual Crossing #1 (2017) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

Several clicks later, I had found more secret crossings, visual glitches that transformed clear views of the border wall into new, abstract clusters of broken pixels. This new vision of the border wall—fragile, unfixed, and prone to glitches—visually echoed the verbal debates that dominated the news cycles: were our borders malleable and did this malleability somehow threaten American Identity?

I visited Calexico dozens of times virtually during the winter of 2017. I slid down First Street over and over again, moving from the still block of Californian driveways into a long line of cars in Mexicali waiting to pass into US territory. As I clicked on the wall at the edge of First Street, my computer froze, flashed a pale brown, and flickered before it settled on an image of a girl on the other side of the wall. The girl couldn't have been more than ten years old; she leaned languidly out of the passenger's side window of what I assumed to be her family's red sedan. It became clear to me that this digital universe reflected real people, not just shadowy human-like forms. Later, I found more unmarked crossings in border towns in states including California and Arizona.

Had I crossed the border? In a world where a tweet seems as consequential as a courthouse verdict, had I cracked the system? Furthermore, it was not lost on me that Google's icon of the white hand—not a black hand or brown hand—enabled me to break through this digital wall and peer into Mexico.

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Virtual Crossing #3 (2017) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

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Virtual Crossing #3 (2017) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

I knew that my Google passages were foolishness, irrelevant artist's play. Still, I couldn't help but feel like I had unlocked a secret. I was convinced that when I looked at these landscapes, I saw a world in which an image is as significant—or perhaps more significant—as the real thing. The virtual photographs revealed just how artificial and intangible our borders actually are.

PART II: ON SIGHT AS POWER

In August 2017, after months of exploring the virtual borderlands, I decided to fly to Southern California. I was compelled to photograph the US side of the physical border, to reconcile the inherent contradiction between a landscape that knows no borders and a political state that needs to affirm them. I stayed four nights in San Diego, and spent each day driving up and down the border. I was at Jacumba Hot Springs when I first came to the physical border wall. The steel wall rose from the base of the mountain. It tapered as it approached the second incline and picked up again as it neared its peak. I am not sure what I was expecting to see. But here was the physical wall, dry heat, dirt, dust, and clear sky. I felt like I was on a map. I heard a chicken cluck from the other side. A border patrol officer approached me as soon as I started to photograph. I took a few more shots under his persistent and quiet watch.

The next day, I stopped my car again just off the Pacific Crest Trail outside of Campo. Here, the physical holes in the wall ripped through its core. They revealed slices of arid Mexican landscape, weeds, rocks, and sky. I must have photographed a dozen holes before a guard pressured me to stop. What was it that he didn't want me to see? I obligingly returned to my vehicle; he trailed me in his patrol car for over ten miles as I drove away from his watch.

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Mexican Sky (Outside Calexico) (2019) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

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Mexican Sky (Outside Calexico) (2019) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

An hour later, I was in Calexico. Shadows of Mexicali reflected through the steel bars of the wall. Although I accelerated as I drove down the now familiar stretch of First Street, the physical holes in the border did not correspond to the virtual holes and my vehicle remained on US ground. Of course, I hadn't expected to slip through this wall. After all, it was made from steel panels that measure over thirty feet tall. Still, I wondered whether the reality that I had discovered in the virtual landscape might manifest itself in the physical place.

The photographs I took in California that summer describe a landscape separated by a wall. They reveal truncated views of Mexico. The internet gave me a false sense of power. It positioned me above the dirt and politics, able to see the wall from both sides. In physical space, however, my limited vision was amplified by the border agents who routinely positioned their patrol cars on every incline, thus laying claim to the unobstructed views of Mexico. Their surveillance was a constant reminder of the power of seeing.

Later that summer, I returned home to the East Coast and began to integrate still photography and silk screen. My intention was to compress the virtual and physical into single experiences and reimagine the US and Mexican landscapes as unified wholes.

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Wing Mirror (2017) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

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Wing Mirror (2017) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

PART III: ON SEEING AND BEING SEEN

In Spring 2019 I returned to the physical border. This time I flew into Tucson, Arizona, rented a car, and headed south. I didn't know what to expect, only that I was hungry for more images and confused by the current state of politics. A month prior, in response to the crises at the southern border, President Donald Trump had called a national emergency, and the US government came to a screeching halt.

As I approached Nogales, Arizona, the wall fixed into my vision. I drove silently down the border road, through the town center, and back into the hills. In Nogales, the wall is a visual anchor. It crawls up the mountains, slicing a line through what appears to be a continuous cityscape, separating US from Mexican homes.

I parked my car at a metered spot in the Nogales city center. It was morning, and the shopkeepers were just opening their stores, washing their stoops and resetting their displays. The sidewalks were empty, and the streets were quiet. At the border, a man in a white pickup pulled up next to me and asked if I was a reporter. I told him that I was an artist. “Even better,” he mumbled. He waved toward the agents who stood twelve feet from us, lowered his seat, hung out of his driver's side window, and told me stories until it started to rain:

I remember a time before this wall was even built. We used to play catch and throw softballs over the border. We'd taunt the patrolman and sneak across to see family on the other side. Then came the fences and drugs … You know … the Mexican government built the first structure to keep out all those damn American tourists. They crossed looking for crafts and medication.

He interrupted his monologue and instructed me to stand in a specific spot. “This is where you should stand to get the picture. Right here.” I obliged and took a photo. It was a good picture. The wall spiraled up the hill, indiscriminately tearing up the soil. Further still, it was not a picture I had seen before; despite the hours I had spent researching online, large portions of the Nogales landscape remain undocumented. Here, in order to protect the physical landscape, Google omits much of the virtual wall from Google Earth. An online user cannot click past any home built less than approximately a quarter mile from the border. Thus, I could not fully see this landscape without being physically present and physically seen.

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Blue Trees (Mexico) (2020) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

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Blue Trees (Mexico) (2020) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

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Wire Fence (2019) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

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Wire Fence (2019) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

PART IV: ON SURVEILLANCE AND SUSPICION

After I left Nogales, I headed east toward Lochiel, Arizona. The GPS led me down winding American roads, past rustic houses and tucked away resorts. Eventually, I turned left onto a dirt road. I drove half a mile before a flash flood sunk my tires knee-deep in mud. There was nothing here on this road, aside from the pelting rain and the open desert. I phoned for help and took photos with my iPhone to pass the time. A pickup sped by. A US border agent stopped to make sure I wasn't in danger. After he determined that I was relatively safe, he left me alone to wait for the mechanic in the rain. Two and a half hours later a tow truck arrived from Benson, Arizona, to pull me out of the mud.

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The Other Side (Outside Calexico) (2017) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

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The Other Side (Outside Calexico) (2017) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

Technology allows us to witness distant landscapes, to navigate them hypothetically and to plan our routes. But technology also omits the dirt, the smell, the weather, the terrain. It's a flattened vision. Yet it continues to shape our physical world. In real time, I am reminded of the price I pay for seeing; when I choose to see, I also choose to make myself visible.

I decided to bypass Lochiel. My rented Dodge Charger was clearly not made for off-road terrain. As I snaked up the roads around the desert flatlands toward Douglas, Arizona, I noticed another US border agent on my tail. He followed me through Patagonia and into each new landscape. Five miles later, an unmarked van started to follow him. We sped on—me, the border agent, the van—through each passing town for over fifteen miles. Finally, both vehicles pulled me over, and an officer asked me to exit my car. Four armed agents got out of the van and stood in routine formation at the side of the road. We made small talk about my home back east until the dogs sniffed every inch of the car's exterior. I became acutely aware of my own body—my white skin, my unfeminine posture and my female form—and the privileges and disadvantages that it afforded me. Then, the lead agent tapped my trunk twice. “What's in here?” Suddenly, I realized that I had never opened the back of the car, neither at the rental car facility nor at the hotel. Could anything be inside? Ultimately, the agent disregarded his own question. “Stay safe,” he muttered.

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Rear Windshield (2017) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

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Rear Windshield (2017) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

I am sure now that somebody or something tipped the agent off: the towing company, the border officer who saw me stuck in the mud, or perhaps a newly erected surveillance tower equipped with cutting-edge Israeli technology used to patrol borders. Although these lands are vast, it is nearly impossible to go unnoticed.

As I made my way back to Tucson through the vast desert, I pulled over onto a patch of gravel at the side of the road; I exited the car and took snaps of the open landscape: the desert, thick grass, billowing clouds. It was then that I noticed I was not alone. A white pickup lurked behind a rock to my left. I don't know if the pickup was that of a border agent or just another pedestrian, but I knew that I wanted to remain invisible—alone, by myself—in the desert. I was tired of being seen. I got back in my car and headed north toward Tucson. A half a mile later I noticed that a white pickup was closely trailing me. Was this the same truck that had been watching me at the pull-off? Was this another border agent? Or was I imagining scenarios as a result of the ongoing surveillance?

I still do not know who was in the pickup truck, but it followed me for a good forty miles. Although the road north was straight and turnoffs were rare, I still felt the heavy burden of being watched. When I slowed down, the truck behind me slowed down. When I passed a car, the truck behind me passed a car. As I approached the main freeway to Tucson, the pickup finally turned away. Had my car been deemed one to watch? Out here in the desert seeing and being seen are essential components of the power structure.

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Desert (California) (2019) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

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Desert (California) (2019) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

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Virtual Crossing #6 (2018) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

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Virtual Crossing #6 (2018) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

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Obstructed Views (2019) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

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Obstructed Views (2019) from the series Borderlands (2017–present) by Hannah Smith Allen.

PART V: A FINAL THOUGHT

Since my trips out west, the politics on the southern border have intensified. News of the detention camps and their devastating conditions have played in the mainstream media. Seven thousand migrant children have been separated from their parents. Civilians leaving food and water for passing migrants have been arrested. A Salvadorian father and his daughter were found dead on the banks of the Rio Grande.

In a world where physical consequences can be so brutal, what kind of truth can the virtual offer us? Perhaps photography—in all of its new digital incarnations—no longer holds a mirror up to our world but instead offers surprising alternatives to how we can imagine and operate in our landscapes. After all, the video stills that I have extracted from Google Earth suggest what can happen when we shift the boundaries, break down the walls, and arm individual citizens with unrestrained vision.