Through analysis of Mexican photojournalist Moysés Zúñiga Santiago’s (b. 1979) series La Bestia (The Beast, ca. 2011–16), this article examines the potential for photographs to challenge how certain bodies enter into visual circulation—the moment at which, and how, they are “allowed” to become seen. Zúñiga’s photographs challenge visual economies that depict migrants as faceless laborers or criminals, and reframe contemporary immigration as a labor of everyday survival. The author reads the photographs alongside other contemporaneous visual culture texts about immigration and the US-Mexico border, and in the context of a dearth of images that document the actual process of Latinx migration toward the United States. Grounded in this analysis, the article argues that the work of the photojournalist is to document and transmit the magnitude of the atrocity in a manner that foments new ways of witnessing contemporary migration. The fundamental question thus becomes: Is it possible (and if so, how) to visually create conditions for viewers to more effectively bear witness to contemporary migration? Furthermore, how does this impact our understanding of what it means to bear witness?
RESUMEN A través del análisis de la serie “La Bestia” del fotoperiodista mexicano Moysés Zúñiga Santiago, este artículo examina el potencial de las fotografías para cuestionar cómo ciertos cuerpos entran en circulación visual (cuándo y cómo se permite que se vean) y crean las condiciones para que el público dé testimonio de manera más efectiva de la migración contemporánea como esfuerzo por sobrevivir. Al leer las fotografías de Zúñiga junto a la cultura visual contemporánea sobre la inmigración y la frontera entre Estados Unidos y México, y en el contexto de una clara escasez de imágenes que documentan el proceso actual de la migración de Latinxs hacia Estados Unidos, el autor analiza cómo las fotografías de Zúñiga desafían las economías visuales que representan a los migrantes como trabajadores anónimos o delincuentes y replantean la inmigración contemporánea como un esfuerzo diario por sobrevivir. Basado en el análisis de la serie “La Bestia” de Zúñiga, el autor argumenta que el trabajo del fotoperiodista es documentar y transmitir efectivamente la magnitud de la atrocidad de tal manera que fomente nuevas formas de presenciar la migración contemporánea. La pregunta fundamental es: ¿es posible (y, si es así, de qué manera) crear visualmente las condiciones para que el público dé testimonio de la migración contemporánea de manera más efectiva? Además, ¿cómo afecta esto nuestra forma de entender lo que significa dar testimonio?
RESUMO Através de análise da série “La Bestia” (A Besta, circa 2011-2016) do fotojornalista Moysés Zúñiga Santiago (n. 1979), este artigo examina o potencial de fotografias para desafiar como certos corpos entram em circulação visual – o momento quando, e como, “permite-se” que se tornem vistos. As fotografias de Zúñiga desafiam economias visuais que retratam migrantes como trabalhadores sem face ou criminosos e reenquadra a imigração contemporânea como um trabalho de sobrevivência cotidiano. O autor lê as fotografias de Zúñiga em relação à cultura visual contemporânea sobre imigração e a fronteira EUA-México, e no contexto de uma escassez de imagens que documentam o real processo da migração latinx em direção aos Estados Unidos. Fundamentado nesta análise, o artigo argumenta que o trabalho do fotojornalista é documentar e transmitir a magnitude da atrocidade de tal maneira a fomentar novas maneiras de testemunhar a migração contemporânea. A questão fundamental, portanto, se torna a seguinte: é possível (e se sim, como) criar visualmente as condições para espectadores testemunharem mais efetivamente a migração contemporânea? Ademais, como isso impacta nosso entendimento do que significa testemunhar?
January 20, 2017. His voice cracks. “I’m talking about the vulnerability of human survival, of the risks of survival, and of imminent death. How to escape death, no? Because the majority of the people I photograph leave their country not precisely for economic reasons.” Moysés Zúñiga Santiago’s tired eyes find mine through the crackling Skype connection. “They leave their countries so as not to die victims of violence, from the gangs and the drug trade. They leave so as not to die victims of the most widespread form of violence that exists in Latin America, which is the lack of work and economic means to secure the basic necessities for human survival.”1
Mexican photojournalist Moysés Zúñiga Santiago (b. 1979) rides the trains. La Bestia (The Beast), as the network of freight trains crisscrossing Mexico is called, transports commodities such as corn and cement. La Bestia also carries bodies. Perched precariously on the rooftops of train cars, as many as half a million Central American migrants use the trains annually to travel from Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, north to the US-Mexico border.2 Predominantly hailing from the violent and unstable Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), these migrants ride the trains both to hasten the journey and to avoid Mexico’s numerous immigration checkpoints, notoriously corrupt police force, and rampant, ghastly gang violence. They risk dismemberment, assault, torture, kidnapping, and death in the hopes of making it to, and across, the border into the United States. If they succeed (in 2016 alone, almost 46,900 unaccompanied children and more than 70,400 family units from the Northern Triangle were intercepted by US Customs and Border Protection at the US-Mexico border), they begin the process of building a new life. Some may eventually secure lawful permanent residency (LPR) status. The other approximately 1.7 million Central American unauthorized immigrants who reside in the United States live in the shadows, striving to avoid detection, detention, and deportation.3
Central American immigration into the United States is not a new phenomenon. In the 1980s, fragile nation-states, civil wars, and economic instability drove significant numbers of Central Americans northward. However, even after many of these political conflicts ended in the 1990s, ongoing violence and political and economic unrest, combined with some of the world’s highest homicide rates and rampant organized crime, have resulted in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras consistently ranking among the most violent countries in the world. From 2012 to 2015, the number of people coming from the Northern Triangle to officially seek asylum in the United States increased fivefold, with unaccompanied minors accounting for the majority of requests. Asylum seekers from all three countries cite as their reasons for leaving forced gang recruitment, extortion, violence, poverty, and a lack of even the most basic level of economic opportunity required to survive.4 According to the Migration Policy Institute, while Mexican immigration into the United States has steadily declined since 2009, the Central American immigrant population in the United States has grown nearly tenfold from 1980 to 2015 (to 3.4 million in 2015), with immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras accounting for almost 90 percent of the total growth.5 Ultimately, although at other points in time south–north immigration was predominantly economic in nature, and shaped by US efforts to meet low-wage labor needs with a Mexican workforce, today this is no longer true. South–north immigration has changed in that many of those making their way northward are refugees fleeing for their lives.
Between 2011 and 2016 Zúñiga traveled with the migrants, a witness to their precarious struggle to survive. His photographs document the injuries that many endured, but his photographic gaze does not glorify, nor even particularly focus on, the overarching violence that shapes the journey. Instead, it centers on the migrants themselves, and on the everyday, affective, and bodily labor of human survival. Through their documentation of various aspects of the journey—the scrambling to board trains, and to stay awake and atop them once in motion, the sense of uncertainty and of waiting, of waiting for trains to appear, waiting for them to move, waiting for arrival in some other, better future—his images convey the deep physical and emotional toil of migration, and the loneliness, fear, and hope that undergirds it for so many of those who ride the trains. For example, Figure 1 documents masses of men riding atop La Bestia. Compositionally, the photograph is crowded with their bodies. The train recedes into the background, framed by the trusses of the bridge it is traversing. One young man is the primary point of interest. Centered in the image, with the light catching his skin, he faces the camera. Body leaning forward, arms crossed atop his raised knees, he gazes wearily off into the distance. The image captures a sense of the sweltering heat that beats down upon the men, and the fatigue of the journey, but it is also surprisingly peaceful and contemplative.
This image is exemplary of Zúñiga’s photographs, which do not focus on crime and violence but rather on the humanity of the migrants and the everyday human labor of migration. They emphasize quiet moments—of fear, fatigue, uncertainty, hope. They document the young and the old, mothers, children, and infants. They capture moments of stillness and of waiting in a journey defined by motion. In so doing, they offer an uncommon perspective on south–north migration. For instance, in Figure 2 a young man and woman, presumably a couple, stand close together against a tall wall. A faded pink diaper bag is slung across his shoulder; she clasps an infant closely against her chest. Wearing a frilly pink headband and tiny pink-and-white-striped socks, the sleeping child rests a small hand softly upon the mother’s breast. These small details invoke a sense of tender care and intimacy.
By portraying migrants not as faceless criminals or victims of gang and drug violence, but, in this case, as young parents working together to take care of their child, photographs such as this run counter to the deeply prejudiced tropes that tend to dominate US economies of visuality with regard to migration and the broader US-Mexico border region. Because south–north migration into the United States has been so strongly framed in economic and criminal terms, migrants are often perceived in the context of their potential participation in the US economic (and the closely interlinked) legal systems. Consequently, migrants en route tend to be identified as potential, or future, labor and/or criminals. While this framing is often also layered with racist tropes of criminality and opportunism (the barrage of histrionic, prejudiced bursts and tweets emanating from the current US president providing the most obvious example), the nature of migrants’ potential relationship to the US economic system has historically been the enduring ontological thread. These tropes are perpetuated by visual economies that dictate the ways in which certain bodies enter into circulation—the moment at which they are allowed to become seen, how they become seen, and how that seeing (or what might more aptly be considered an enabled “unseeing”) occurs. This scripted “unseeing” arguably allows audiences to ignore the fact that although at other points in time south–north immigration was predominantly economic in nature, the majority of contemporary migrants making their way toward and across the border are refugees fleeing from deeply unsafe circumstances—circumstances the United States has directly fomented through decades of opportunistic intervention and exploitation across the Americas.
Photographs such as Zúñiga’s La Bestia series are thus especially important because, through their depiction of the migratory journey, they provide a powerful counter-perspective on both the migrants themselves and immigration. By emphasizing the humanity of the migrant, Zúñiga’s photographs challenge visual economies that, in their focus on crime and violence, either neglect the plight of the actual migrants or frame them as faceless labor commodities, criminals, or insignificant victims. They call attention to bodies and experiences that are otherwise systemically overlooked, and to the violence and gross human rights violations that are so deeply embedded in our transnational economic system. Anchored by my analysis of Zúñiga’s La Bestia series, I argue that if the labor of the migrant is fundamentally that of survival, the labor of the photojournalist is to effectively document and transmit the magnitude of the atrocities they suffer in a manner that foments new ways of witnessing contemporary migration. The fundamental question thus becomes: Is it possible (and if so, how) to visually create the conditions for viewers to more effectively bear witness to contemporary migration? And, more broadly, how does this change and deepen our understanding of what it means to bear witness?
SUCCESSIVE WAVES OF UNDOCUMENTED SOUTH–NORTH MIGRATION
The US-Mexico border is 1,933.4 miles long and traces a line east from the Pacific Ocean in California, past Arizona and New Mexico, ending in Texas at the Gulf of Mexico.6 Much of the geography it traverses is rural, remote, and wild; it stretches across and along wide rivers, steep ravines, craggy mountains, desolate desert. These landscapes make border crossing difficult, and thus prior to the 1990s, most undocumented migrants tended to take the relatively easier routes through the neighboring border cities of Tijuana/San Diego (California), Nogales/Nogales (Arizona), and Juárez/El Paso (Texas). Although the contemporary human rights crises in Mexico and Central America have resulted in unprecedented waves of refugee crossers, undocumented border crossing has been a defining characteristic of the US-Mexico border since its delineation, both because the region continued to be closely interlinked even after the dividing political line was drawn, and also because Mexican migrant labor has long been foundational to the US economy.
Large-scale, low-wage labor migration from Mexico to the United States was formalized in 1942 with the Bracero Program, which was intended to fill labor shortages during World War II. Over the two decades that the Bracero Program ran, more than 4.5 million individual contracts for temporary employment were approved, and an interdependent relationship between Mexican workers and US employers was established. When the program was terminated in 1964, workers continued to cross into the United States seeking work, and they continued to be hired, only now without legal status. Although the US Congress had passed an act in 1952 that made it illegal to harbor, transport, or conceal illegal entrants, the employment of undocumented migrants was conspicuously overlooked in a concession to agribusiness interests. As a result, employers undertook very little legal risk, and were in a position to take advantage of the undocumented Mexican workers no longer protected under the auspices of an official worker program.
Over the next several decades, unauthorized immigration continued to rapidly increase with little official response from the US government. But things sharply changed in the 1990s with then-President Bill Clinton’s declared military “crackdown” on the border and the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on January 1, 1994. Although NAFTA was ostensibly designed to eliminate trade barriers between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, the immediate result for Mexico was an economic crash, due in part to an influx of subsidized US corn that put millions of Mexican farmers out of work and upended centuries-old ways of life for rural Mexicans. As a direct result of NAFTA, under which the United States profited and Mexico suffered, this newly unemployed and impoverished low-wage workforce began making its way northward to find employment, either in the maquiladoras flourishing along the border, or across the border in the United States.
This wave of migrants coincided with a dramatic increase in the militarization of US border control. From 1993 to 1999, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) budget was expanded from $1.5 billion to $4 billion, with much of that money allocated to border enforcement. Border Patrol more than doubled, from 3,389 agents in 1993 to 7,231 in 1998. Called prevention through deterrence (PTD), the INS’s border control strategy included physical barriers, surveillance equipment, and additional militarized agents. Designed to deter illegal entry (as opposed to searching for undocumented migrants once they were already in the country), PTD was based on Operation Blockade, which was implemented in El Paso in 1993 and involved 450 agents who were paid overtime to cover a small twenty-mile stretch of border. Unsurprisingly, this drastic increase in border security resulted in a sharp decrease in attempted illegal entry in that particular twenty-mile stretch. Although studies found that the people deterred by Operation Blockade were generally “commuter migrants” (those who walked across the border in the morning to work service jobs in El Paso and then back again in the evening), and even the government reported that smugglers and undocumented immigrants avoided the blockade by simply crossing outside of that particular stretch of border, Operation Blockade was viewed as a great success, and there were immediate efforts to replicate it in Nogales, Arizona (1994); San Diego, California (1994); and Rio Grande, Texas (1997).7
Ultimately, the increase in border militarization had the likely unintended effect of encouraging migrants to stay in the United States as opposed to the more circular migration that had previously been the norm under easier crossing conditions, and it didn’t stop undocumented border crossing. While border apprehensions decreased in areas with augmented surveillance, they increased along the rest of the US-Mexico border, clearly indicating that when one stretch of border becomes difficult to cross, migrants simply attempt to cross elsewhere. Migratory flows shifted away from the major ports of entry toward the Arizona desert, and, by 2000, Arizona was the main gateway for migrants, even though the Sonoran Desert involves some of the deadliest crossing conditions on the entire border. A thriving rattlesnake population, vast landscapes that are easy to get lost in, dehydration, heatstroke, and both hyper- and hypothermia are all dangers in a place where temperatures range from upward of 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the day to below freezing at night.
There was also a substantial surge in the economy of illegality and violence surrounding the border more broadly. Ironically, smuggling (of goods and humans) flourished in the face of changing US strategies.8 When migrants were pushed to more difficult, remote crossings, the use of a coyote (human smuggler) to guide the way became more necessary. However, this puts migrants at the mercy of coyotes, who often have economic arrangements with the cartels that operate in these border regions and the bandits who make a living robbing border crossers. Even if a migrant lucks upon an “honest” coyote, there is no guarantee of managing to both survive the physical dangers of the crossing and make it past the corruption on the Mexican side, US border vigilantes who independently arm themselves to defend the border, and the US Border Patrol. Actually making it all the way into the US is exceedingly difficult and dangerous for undocumented migrants. And yet, although undocumented south–north migration is often understood as the moment one illicitly crosses the US-Mexico border, it’s important to emphasize that for many migrants the journey starts miles and months earlier. South–north migration is a transnational crisis that involves multiple nation-states and borders. And, as Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has painstakingly chronicled, the hardest part of the journey for Central American migrants often comes far before they arrive at Mexico’s northern border.9
As outlined in the introduction to this article, the violent civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s resulted in droves of Central Americans fleeing their respective countries north to the United States.10 These US-supported conflicts were defined by death squads, torture, murder, and the displacement of millions. Even after peace accords were signed, Central Americans continued to emigrate north and to the United States. Among the reasons for this continued migration are neoliberal policies like the Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). Signed in 2004 and intended to gradually eliminate tariffs, customs duties, and other trade barriers between Central America and the United States, CAFTA-DR has resulted in increased economic instability across the region. The situation is exacerbated by the rapid rise of transnational networks of gangs and cartels that have brought levels of violence that, in countries like El Salvador, far exceed both the homicide rates of the war and the country’s capacity to control it in any meaningful way. In other words, although the civil wars may have ended, the extreme violence and instability in countries across the region has not. As a result, Central Americans continue to flee for their lives, despite worsening and increasingly perilous migratory conditions.
The migrant journey across Mexico is unbelievably dangerous. With encouragement from the United States, Mexico has prioritized the deportation and detention of Central American migrants and substantially increased immigration enforcement efforts along both its southern border and popular migratory routes such as La Bestia.11 The country’s stringent deportation policies, combined with rampant corruption and violence on the part of both the armed forces and the massively powerful gangs that control much of Mexico, put migrants at near-constant risk of robbery, sexual assault, torture, kidnapping, and death. In his book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (2013), Óscar Martínez provides an extensive overview of the hellish violence and relentless precarity migrants endure, ultimately portraying a gauntlet so sadistic that it is all but impossible to emerge unscathed. The predatory violence is so extreme that many Central American migrants gamble that the mortally perilous train journey will be safer and faster than one on foot, and thus they cling to the train’s rooftops through freezing nights and sweltering days, jumping off and fleeing when armed gangs or officials climb atop, seeking to apprehend, rob, and/or assault.
In order to take his photographs, Zúñiga places his body alongside those of the migrants, jumping on and off trains, enduring the scorching days and frigid nights, eating the food that is occasionally thrown to migrants as the trains rumble through towns, and observing firsthand the dangers of the journey. Zúñiga’s journey has very different stakes from those of the migrants: he is not a refugee; he can opt out when he chooses; and, although he certainly puts himself at risk (of drug- and gang-related violence especially), his identity as a photojournalist offers some protection. Thus, while his body experiences the physical aspects of the journey, his labor is of a very different nature. It is simultaneously the labor of the witness and of the intermediary, working to transmit these experiences to a wider audience. The resulting images are striking.
DOCUMENTING CONTEMPORARY MIGRATION
Broadly speaking, the sixty images in Zúñiga’s La Bestia series document the arc of the south–north migrant journey across Mexico. Taken between 2011 and 2016, and loosely ordered cartographically, the series begins with migrants on the eve of their journey, sitting and standing alongside the trains, eating snacks, watching, or resting in the shadows as they wait to depart. These are followed by images of the trains once they’ve left, their rooftops covered in humans who together endure freezing nights and sweltering days. Early on, many look nervous but determined, even cheerful. As the journey progresses, they become increasingly dirty, sweaty, and bedraggled. Many appear tired and anxious or are demonstrably physically injured; others simply stare, shell-shocked, into the camera, leaving what they’ve endured to the viewer’s imagination. We witness various moments along the journey: small groups filling worn plastic water bottles in creeks, men sleeping on the floors of migrant shelters, mothers searching for disappeared loved ones (identified as such by the photographs of the missing that they hold to their chests). But the majority of the images focus on the transitory aspect of the journey: migrants walking along or waiting on the tracks for trains to arrive, perched atop the trains, and so on.
Zúñiga primarily works as photojournalist, and thus the majority of his photographs have been published alongside digital and print news material, though he has also shown his work in smaller exhibitions in Mexico and New York. When I reached out to him expressing interest in more closely studying his La Bestia series, he sent me an expanded selection of photographs, some of which had formed part of the New York exhibition, but most not having been shown in fine art context before. Recently I included eight of his photographs in an art exhibition I co-curated with my colleague Anita Huizar-Hernández at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Entitled In Transit/En Tránsito: Arts, Migration, Resistance, the exhibition ran from September 2017 to March 2018 and explored themes of resistance and social transformation in relation to transnational migration and human rights in the US-Mexico borderlands.
Strikingly and intimately focused on the migrants’ humanity, Zúñiga’s photographs clearly document the deeply precarious form of migration that has been wrought by the closing of the borders, and the wars and economic instability that have resulted in destabilization and increases in violence across the region, but they do so without glorifying, or even particularly focusing on, violence. There are no pictures of violent acts, nor the corollary corpses, bloody crime scenes, or grieving, damaged survivors. Zúñiga does not include backstories with his photographs—he does not title any of his images, nor provide names of subjects or precise locations. Instead, he effectively transmits a visual narrative of the fundamentally human experience of migration, communicating a sense of a collective flow of individual bodies who join the journey and then disappear from it. In Figure 3, a woman sits on the tracks, her belongings alongside her. Immediately behind, a man lies in the grass, head against his pack, casually smoking a cigarette. In the background, two uniformed men standing in the bed of a military transport vehicle stare toward the migrants and the photographer. The linear alignment of the human subjects, all of whom are facing forward, produces a sense of simultaneous watching—of one another, of the photographer, and presumably of the tracks, where the train has yet to arrive. It calls attention to the human impact of contemporary immigration and border politics, and the harsh realities of vulnerability and precarity. The staggering risks migrants endure, alluded to by this woman who sits alone, with men literally watching and lying in wait behind her, are often overlooked.
The existence of intimacy and quiet humanity amid incredible struggle and hardship is a signature characteristic of Zúñiga’s photographic style, which has been developing since he was young. The photographer was born and raised in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a historic highlands town in Chiapas. He became politically engaged early on, as his father ran the well-known leftist newspaper Periódico del Tiempo. He spent much of his childhood working at the paper, immersed in politics and photography. When he was fifteen the Zapatista movement started to solidify and eventually escalated into the uprising of January 1, 1994, formally known as the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Front). (The term “Zapatistas” encompasses both EZLN guerilla forces and the Indigenous peoples who worked alongside them in the fight for democracy and land reform in Chiapas.)12 A cease-fire was called after twelve days, and, when the peace talks began, Zúñiga worked as an intermediary between the Zapatistas and the press, helping with logistics and ensuring the effective dissemination of information.
The peace talks eventually broke down in 1998, and Zúñiga left San Cristóbal to study photojournalism at the Universidad de Xalapa in Veracruz. He found the courses so easy that he spent much of his time teaching his classmates, before taking his first official photojournalism job several years later as a crime photographer on what is known in Mexico as the nota roja track (the term refers to a popular genre of Mexican journalism that focuses almost entirely on physical violence, especially violent crime), before eventually expanding to other themes. He worked as a photojournalist in Xalapa for nine years, but when Subcomandante Marcos announced the beginning of another campaign at the end of 2005, Zúñiga immediately quit his job and returned to Chiapas. He spent the next year traveling nonstop with the Zapatista campaign as a correspondent for the Mexican photography agency Cuartoscuro. This travel, he says, was extremely physically exhausting, and it ultimately changed him and the way he approached photography. From then on, he committed to making only images that he felt mattered, demanded accountability, and had repercussions. He now works as a freelancer focusing exclusively on human rights photojournalism, covering the Chiapas region for the Associated Press (AP) and EFE (Spain). He is also a member of Red de Periodistas de a Pie, a journalists’ collective dedicated to covering migration through Mexico.
Zúñiga’s photographic practice is fundamentally about embodied witnessing. At the same time that it requires his own live presence as witness, it is also geared toward the production of images through which others may in turn bear witness, albeit from a distance. As such, questions of what it means to witness, and what this witnessing does, as well as the image’s dual role as both a document of the photographer’s experience and a visual form of witnessing in and of itself, are strikingly complex.
The phrase “to bear witness” is widely used across disciplines, although it appears most prevalently in scholarship on memory and trauma. On one level, “to witness” is relatively straightforward: it means literally to see, to attest to a fact or an event. This is the level of witnessing at which the live (or eye) witness operates. The live witness has the potential to powerfully and immediately intervene in a situation, something Zúñiga can attest to. Over the years, he has repeatedly experienced how his physical presence can alter a scene—instigate certain actions and discourage others. For instance it can stop someone from committing a crime: police approaching to rob migrants will usually turn away at the sight of a photographer. A photographer’s presence as witness may also help migrants get the care they need. Zúñiga explains how if a photographer is there to document, a child with a snakebite is likely to receive proper medical care; otherwise, it is not uncommon for them to be refused treatment.
For the subjects of his photographs, then, his immediate impact as a live witness has the potential to far exceed any images he may ultimately produce. These anecdotes about police bribery and migrant access to health care are consistent with research on witnessing, which unequivocally substantiates that being watched changes behavior. Albeit from a different angle, this is corroborated in Michel Foucault’s seminal text Discipline and Punish (1975), which argues that people mold their behavior to what is considered correct or appropriate when they think they are being watched.13 This impact is both instantaneous and direct, and for those whose lives the presence of a witness has altered, the significance of the witness cannot be understated.
The concept of witnessing also expands beyond the level of the live witness to incorporate a sense of shared responsibility on the part of the viewer. Writing about the 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Annette Wieviorka asserts that the witness is the “bearer of history” and an “embodiment of memory, attesting to the past and to the continuing presence of the past.”14 In Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty (2000), John Ellis describes witnessing as a distinct mode of perception, wherein we can no longer say we do not know.15 On a related note, John Peters writes, “To witness an event is to be responsible in some way to it.”16 In other words, to bear witness is not “just” to see or verify, but to intellectually and affectively acknowledge the magnitude of an event and feel its weight. To bear witness, either directly or indirectly, is to share in the responsibility for what has occurred and is yet to come.
The concept of bearing witness is also widely used in photography, although with notable inconsistency, alternately referencing the witnessing power of the photographer, the viewer of photographs, or even the photographs themselves. That last slippage is the most problematic of the three, given that photographs are the material result of the photographer’s labor, not sentient objects in their own right. Nonetheless, it is fairly common. As the Museum of Modern Art in New York states on its website, “Photographs can bear witness to history and even serve as catalysts for change. They can foster sympathy and raise awareness or, alternatively, offer critical commentary on historical people, places, and events.”17 Ultimately, perhaps the suggestion that photographs have the capacity to bear witness points not to a belief in the sentient nature of images, but rather to the permeable boundary between photographer and image, wherein the divisions between the photographer-as-witness and the photograph as the result of that witnessing are not particularly well maintained.
Aside from the obvious ontological distinctions, this makes sense, at least insofar as the photograph indexes the specific choices and actions of the photographer. Indeed, of his photography, award-winning photojournalist and war photographer James Nachtwey writes, “I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony.”18 It would seem, then, that Nachtwey conceives of the photographs he produces as the testimony that results from his labor of witnessing and as the record of his own experience. However, in his 2001 documentary War Photographer, he also reflects that the subjects of his images welcome his documentation because they realize that photography gives them a voice they would not otherwise have; it enables them to speak to the outside world. It would seem that, for Nachtwey, photographs function simultaneously, if in different registers, as the record and testimony of both his experience and that of his subjects. Nachtwey has also eloquently spoken about the ability of photographs to become part of a collective consciousness and thus change the course of history, fuel resistance to war and racism, give voice to the voiceless, shift public opinion, and promote debate.19 It is thus perhaps the most accurate to say the lines are somewhat blurred. His photographs are the documentation of his act of embodied witnessing. Nachtwey takes photographs of atrocities and injustices he sees and experiences (as witness, not survivor) in the hopes that others will in turn see those images and demand change in the lives of the individuals and communities documented.
Zúñiga likewise experiences the work of bearing witness in his own body, and his images are the results, or evidence, of this labor. They are the medium through which broader audiences, who will never ride the trains with migrants and have no firsthand experience of the fear and desperation that propel such a journey, can learn, and by viewing the photographs themselves bear witness. Understood through this lens, a photograph functions simultaneously as documentation of the subject of the image and as the photographer’s own experience of that documentation. Such an approach emphasizes that the photographer is not simply a cog in the production of images but fully engaged in their own complex experience of making. In many respects, this is obvious. What is less obvious (and more subjective) is the nature of the relationship between the labor of the photographer, and (in this case) the labor of the individuals documented within the images.
If the labor of the migrants is fundamentally that of survival, in the hopes of literal and figurative arrival in some better elsewhere, the work of the photojournalist, as witness, is to affectively and effectively document and transmit the magnitude of the atrocity being endured so as to raise awareness and accountability in a way that in turn hails many more possible witnesses. Zúñiga’s expressed goal is to make images that have an impact—that raise awareness of human rights, hold Mexican authorities accountable, and shift public opinion about Central American migrants from one of indifference or disdain to a recognition that these are humans in crisis. By documenting a range of quotidian migrant experiences, Zúñiga ultimately aims, through photography, to change the conditions that make survival so precarious in the first place. And yet there is always the question of whether or not bearing witness, or looking at images, actually does anything. Can photographs really provoke change?
THE IMPACT OF BEARING WITNESS
Much documentary and human-rights-oriented media hinges on the premise that seeing atrocity and gross human rights violations will influence public opinion, prompting increased pressure on decision makers and demands for cessation or intervention. History has demonstrated that this belief in the power of the image is both partially warranted and overly optimistic; nonetheless, this desire for a direct equation between visual texts (primarily photography and documentary film), the acquisition of knowledge, and social and political change persists. Scholars have studied aspects of this visual economy at length, ranging from the study of what pictures “want” and can do,20 to the politics of spectatorship in relation to images of pain and suffering,21 to the visual vernacular of human rights principles and the discourses that articulate them.22 Other scholars have argued that images can challenge notions of citizenship, change how viewers understand and relate to violence and conflict, and shape intimate relationships and communities. For example, in her expansive exploration of the relationship between photography and citizenship, Ariella Azoulay contends that photographs are political spaces and tools through which to realize change. Similarly, Susie Linfield argues that learning to truly see the subjects depicted in images of political violence is an ethically and politically necessary act, and Sharon Sliwinski asserts that photographs of distant human rights struggles function to form a virtual community of spectators.23
It seems likely that this investment in the correlation between images and social change is linked to the long-held belief in the relation between photography and feeling. In Camera Lucida (1980), Roland Barthes wrote of the photograph’s ability to emotionally “touch” the viewer. In contrast to the cultural knowledge that shapes the viewer’s interpretation of an image (what he calls the studium), the power of the image lies in the unexpected “wound” that emotionally “pricks,” “pierces,” or “bruises” the viewer (what Barthes calls the punctum).24 The image’s ability to affectively “touch” the person seeing it frames the act of viewing as both strikingly tactile and essentially linked to feeling. This line of inquiry continues in contemporary scholarship, such as in Margaret Olin’s Touching Photographs (2011), which explores how images “touch” us, and in Feeling Photography (2014), a collection of diverse essays edited by Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu organized around how feelings affect viewers’ experiences and understanding of photography.25
Such beliefs are not without merit. The photograph’s capacity to “touch” viewers, shape public opinion, and influence political change has been demonstrated in tangible ways across the globe. Iconic examples include Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1972 image of a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl running naked down a road, severely burned from a napalm attack, and Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1993 image of a starving Sudanese child collapsed on the ground while a vulture lurks nearby. More recent examples, such as the collective archive of professional and amateur images of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the infamous 2003 Abu Ghraib photographs taken by US military personnel, demonstrate the profound power of images to shape public opinion. The question, then, is not whether photographs can have an impact, but how, and under what conditions? What conditions will stimulate viewers to more effectively bear witness to contemporary migration and feel called to action?
Zúñiga’s photographs capture various moments of a migrant’s journey, consistently making humans the central focus. Many of the subjects gaze directly toward the camera in explicit acknowledgment of their own documentation. They do not seem posed, but rather convey an affective undercurrent of precarious uncertainty. They are defined by movement toward a future, but also by transitory waiting—waiting to get there, to arrive, to be in some other condition, in multiple senses, than the one in which they currently find themselves. There is a softness to the images that encourages a sense of quiet familiarity or recognition. My argument is not that viewers will completely understand the experience of migration, but rather that they will recognize migrants as individual humans, and not abstract, faceless concepts. These are mothers, fathers, children, caught in a state of in between-ness, between a here and a there, but also between hope and hopelessness, predator and prey, aloneness and collectivity.
Figure 4 documents a young woman in a bright pink polo shirt and khaki pants with a small boy seated in front of her on the rooftop of a train. One of the boy’s hands rests on a flattened cardboard box, the other clutches a plastic water bottle. The two of them are surrounded by other people—all men, with the exception of one other woman sitting some distance behind. A handful of men sit with their legs dangling off the edge of the roof, faces angled away from the camera to gaze out at the train’s surroundings. To her immediate left, one man sits with his arms clasped around his tucked-in legs, his backpack carefully stored beneath them. Three figures—the young woman, the small child (presumably her son, although we can’t be sure), and the man with the backpack are framed front and center. Of the eighteen-odd people discernible on the train’s roof, these three faces are the only fully visible ones. The young woman’s expression is somber and taut; the man looks weary and unhappy; the young boy looks somewhat stunned, glazed, as he stares out beyond the train. Though they are sitting quite close to each other, there is no interaction. Each appears lost in thought, weary but alert. The photograph is paradoxical: it evokes an almost peaceful sense of routine yet contains deeply unsafe elements, for instance a very young child riding on top of a train, or a young woman surrounded by men on a journey in which sexual assault is so rampant that many female migrants preemptively take birth control in anticipation of being raped.26 It takes the viewer beyond an abstract conceptualization of migration to wonder about the relationships between these individual migrants, and what their stories are. It puts a face to the migrant, and to the young mothers and children who attempt the journey. While not explicitly violent, it serves as a sharp reminder of the precarity of migration and the desperation that undergirds it, emphasizing that those who embark on this journey must feel they have no other choice.
Other images capture similar affective, precarious undertones. In Figure 5, a young mother sits on the train tracks, her body hunched protectively around her infant child, who stares blankly over her shoulder. Although her baseball cap and the child’s head largely conceal her face, the punctum of the image (for me, at least) is her one visible eye. What we can see of her expression appears painfully bleak, exuding a sense of tired, placeless uncertainty. She stares beyond the camera down the tracks, the circumstances that led her here unknown. The actions (sitting and waiting with a small child) in this and the previous image are entirely banal, but the specific context upends this banality. The everydayness of the contents of these images, combined with the respective affective undertones wrought by the postures and facial expression, contextualized within the horrific, necro-political environment, is strikingly jarring. These aren’t abstractions or statistics. They are humans who feel, hope, despair, and are injured within and by the systems they are forced to endure.
This amalgam of the precarious and the banal is consistent across all of the images. In Figure 6, a middle-aged man leans against some sort of wire-walled cage. His puffy black jacket and wool cap protect against the chilly night, and the cross hanging from his necklace gleams in the darkness. Several other indistinct figures saunter in the street behind him, but the image portrays him as starkly alone. His actions—standing in the street—are the epitome of everyday human activity, but he looks apprehensive and beaten down, peering at the camera with an uncertain, abject gaze. Figure 7 depicts a woman in a riverfront setting that would seem mundane, if not for the fact that she is holding a portrait of a man against her chest in what we know is a gesture toward a missing loved one. Thus the image signifies the many migrants who disappear while en route and the mothers and other family members who search for them.27
Lauren Berlant defines precarity as an economic and political condition of dependency in which the well-being of certain subjects or populations is in the hands of other subjects or populations. For migrants, caught up in neoliberal temporalities (future workers, future criminals) that rely on an abstraction of labor and of bodies, this precarity is mortally dangerous because it dehumanizes them. It signals the easy replaceability of a surplus population. Struggling to survive within economic systems built on abstraction, not recognition, means that precarity has become a way of life for migrants—in Berlant’s words, “an existential truth about contingencies of living, namely, that there are no guarantees that the life one intends can or will be built.”28 Zúñiga’s images fight the precarity wrought by the neoliberal abstraction of bodies by working to make migrants recognizable as humans caught up in systems beyond their control, systems that limit the ways in which certain bodies are rendered visible by defining their value within specific, injurious neoliberal frameworks that enable the erasure of the individual human. Thus, while Zúñiga’s intervention is subtle, the stakes are high: if migrants remain dehumanized abstractions, the horrific violences they endure can continue to be overlooked. If they are recognized as fully human, the violence becomes recognizable as a human rights issue that demands address.
A number of Zúñiga’s images specifically document the ways in which migrants are hurt within systems that have long measured their value by their bodies’ ability to labor. This is implicit in a neoliberal economic system that relies on an exploitable low-wage workforce, but it is also explicit: the term “bracero” comes from brazo, the Spanish word for “arm,” implying manual labor. Yet these bodies sustain horrible injuries in their efforts to labor. For instance Lourdes Portillo’s 2001 film Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman) investigates the underreported human rights abuses and brutal murders of women hired “for their nimble fingers” to work in the maquiladoras that line the US-Mexico border.
In Figure 8, Zúñiga documents three men sitting on a drab couch. One reclines on a stretcher that rests atop the length of the couch. He stares blankly at the camera, his leg wrapped in bandages from the upper thigh down to the foot. Slouched next to him, one hand bound in thick bandages, another man stares into the distance, his eyes alarmed and pained. He looks profoundly lost. The third man’s cowboy hat covers his eyes as his head tilts back against the couch. His mouth is slightly open, and in one hand he holds a wad of tissue. In another scenario we might assume that he is merely asleep, but given the state of his fellows, we easily imagine that he has suffered some trauma that has pushed him past the brink of exhaustion. The expressions and body language convey a sense of suffering and shock; all three have endured something that exacted a severe physical and/or emotional toll. As this image makes unavoidably clear, migrants are not abstract assemblages of laboring limbs but individual humans struggling to survive in the precarious systems that condition their very existence and script the ways in which they are not just perceived but received by witnesses and countries alike.
MIGRANTS AND VISUAL ECONOMIES OF VIOLENCE
Although undocumented immigration is a fraught political issue in the United States, photographs of migrants engaged in the actual process of south–north migration are surprisingly scarce. The US-Mexico border region tends to be broadly defined by visual economies that emphasize—arguably even glorify—ghastly, senseless cruelty, but it is quite rare for the migrants themselves to be the focus, as though migrants do not really exist until they arrive in the United States. Searches of archives in Arizona, Texas, and California for images of Latino migration have been largely fruitless.29 Images of laborers who arrived as part of the Bracero Program are more readily available, but these all document workers already in the United States.30 I have also found a small selection of other images of Latino laborers in the United States, namely worker protests in the 1960s and 1970s. Pictures like Zúñiga’s may be scarce in archives for a couple of reasons. First, my search focused on US archives, and images of migrants may well exist in archives in Mexico and Central America. Second, the form of migration Zúñiga documents is a relatively new phenomenon. As noted earlier, before the border was militarized, migration was more fluid, with people moving in interconnected webs; the unidirectional and much more perilous flows we see today have only emerged since the 1990s.31 These caveats notwithstanding, these historical and contemporary archival absences highlight the rare and important visual perspective on south–north migration offered by Zúñiga’s photographs.
There is another reason why photographs such as Zúñiga’s are difficult to find: because the focus has been elsewhere. Kency Cornejo argues:
The same national enemy rhetoric that governments used during periods of armed conflict is directed towards gangs and criminalized youth to propagate the narrative of Central American migrant youth as the region’s new enemy, and moreover, as a global threat. Likewise, the region’s aesthetics of violence has also morphed in its appearance with this new criminal face, but remains fixed in a logic of coloniality that uses visual tactics to deem certain bodies criminal, disposable, and less than human.32
Cornejo asserts that “photographers and photojournalists have found an interest in the violent dimensions surrounding maras,” and predominantly focus their attention both on the horrifically violent acts and on racialized, tattooed bodies of the gang members themselves. This approach “draws the gaze to see and perpetuate criminality onto Central American bodies . . . and currently fuels anti-immigrant rhetoric in the United States.”33
There are of course exceptions, but this is largely mirrored in contemporary photography on migration and the border region.34 And this emphasis on violence extends to other dominant forms of visual culture—namely documentary and fiction films. While the two forms have different intended purposes, the majority of both, when they touch on border politics and south–north migration, focus on the often-intersecting tropes of drugs, gangs, and violence. When migrants are represented, it is generally as victims of a larger system, as in El Norte (1983, dir. Gregory Nava), The Other Side of Immigration (2009, dir. Roy Germano), Which Way Home (2009, dir. Rebecca Cammisa), Norteado (2009, dir. Rigoberto Perezcano), and Sleep Dealer (2008, dir. Alex Rivera). Other films, for instance A Better Life (2011, dir. Chris Weitz) and Crossing Arizona (2006, dir. Dan DeVivo and Joseph Mathew), portray the challenges immigrants face after arriving in the United States, including the struggle to find work, lack of rights, and generally hostile reception. Mainstream viewers are most likely to have seen Babel (2006), made by famed Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Gael García Bernal. One of its three intersecting storylines is of an undocumented Mexican nanny working in the United States who takes the children under her care to Mexico without their parents’ permission, and, through a series of unfortunate events, is criminalized and unable to return to the United States. There are important minor exceptions, for instance Llévate mis amores (2014, dir. Arturo González Villaseñor), which focuses on the promotoras who give food to migrants on the trains, and Who Is Dayani Cristal? (2013, dir. Marc Silver), a hybrid fiction-documentary film that traces a migrant’s journey north to his eventual death in the Sonoran Desert, both of which challenge hegemonic tropes about the migratory journey. But these exceptions ultimately prove the rule: the vast majority of mainstream films represent the border and migration through lenses of drugs, gangs, and violence.
The specific angle varies from film to film. Some, including Kingdom of Shadows (2015, dir. Bernardo Ruiz) and Cartel Land (2015, dir. Matthew Heineman), focus on the drug wars. Others center on the cross-border impact of the drug trade, as in Traffic (2000, dir. Steven Soderbergh) and Maria Full of Grace (2004, dir. Joshua Marston). Other films, such as Señorita Extraviada (2001, dir. Lourdes Portillo), Sin Nombre (2009, dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga), and Narco Cultura (2013, dir. Shaul Schwarz), highlight the sociopolitical ramifications of unchecked drug- and gang-related violence. The latest mainstream Hollywood hit to focus on these themes, Sicario (2015, dir. Denis Villeneuve), was considered so “extreme” in its depiction of the “cruel and disturbing world” of drug- and gang- related border violence that the Tribeca Film Festival published a list of five other “informative movies” to help viewers “prepare” to watch it: Cartel Land, Kingdom of Shadows, Narco Cultura, Maria Full of Grace, and Traffic.35
As this brief list makes clear, although south–north migration is all but missing from image archives, there is a broad existing economy of cinematic representation that constitutes it in specific ways. That this visual economy focuses on (or glorifies) drugs and violence is perhaps not entirely surprising, given the malignant hornets’ nest that is NAFTA, US border and immigration policy, weak and corrupt Mexican and Central American states, and what is commonly referred to as narcoculture (narcocultura), or the narco-machine. Nonetheless, these are the complex and overlapping systems these visual works stem from and operate within; it is this visual economy that migrants get caught in and defined by; and it is in this broader visual economy that Zúñiga’s photographs operate.
This context makes interventions such as Zúñiga’s all the more critical. He does not focus on dead bodies, drug violence, smuggling, or even the border wall or border patrol. He focuses almost exclusively on the migrants—not as casualties of violence or commodities, but as humans. The images focus largely on still, quiet moments of reflection and repose, and they paint a picture of the different physical and affective spaces people negotiate on the journey and the hardships they endure. They transmit a sense of how rigorous and taxing this journey is—for the body, the mind, and the spirit. Indeed, it is the absence of violence, the quietness, the intimacy and humanity, that makes them such a strikingly important intervention.
When bodies are invisible, or are consistently framed in exceptionally negative terms, changing how they are seen and imagined is an essential part of changing the care that they receive. For Central American and Mexican migrant refugees fleeing violence, perception and image can be a life-or-death issue. Certainly, changing how migrants are seen (and making them visible to broader audiences in the first place) is no easy feat. In recent history in the United States, immigration has largely been framed in economic terms, based on the need for low-wage labor. This need persists in the present day, but whereas the Bracero Program focused on literal migrant bodies, contemporary transnational neoliberal economic policies hinge on a more visually abstracted notion of exchange. NAFTA and CAFTA-DR are economic systems that abstract workers, rendering them less visible and increasing the risks of violence they must endure. This situation is compounded by the fact that life in the Northern Triangle is increasingly lethal, forcing people from their homes in search of not just a better life but, in many cases, the chance to live at all.
I am reminded again of Zúñiga’s initially seemingly paradoxical reflection that opened this article—that migrants “leave their countries so as not to die victims of violence, from the gangs and the drug trade. They leave so as not to die victims of the most widespread form of violence that exists in Latin America, which is the lack of work and economic means to secure the basic necessities for human survival.” Migrants flee their homes, their communities, their networks of support, the lands that they were raised in and that their ancestors are buried in, because for many it is the choice between life and death. Death comes in many forms. Rampant gang violence and unchecked political corruption certainly result in mortally dangerous social environments, but so does a lack of economic opportunity. The inability to adequately house, clothe, educate—or even feed, or provide clean drinking water for—oneself and one’s children is a mortally dangerous situation. South–north immigration is not recreational tourism or opportunistic exploitation of US resources. It is the very labor of survival, and it must be recognized as such.
By shifting the focus away from violence, crime, and abstracted labor, and toward the humanness of migrants—those banal moments of softness, uncertainty, waiting, fear, exhaustion—Zúñiga’s photographs intervene precisely into the processes of economic abstraction that create the faceless migrant. Bearing witness to the labor of survival is a quiet intervention, but a powerful one, because it creates conditions for viewers to more effectively bear witness to contemporary migration, with all that that entails. This kind of bearing witness through the visual is similar to Wendy Kozol’s concept of “ethical spectatorship,” meaning “visual projects that trouble the self/other construct by foregrounding the inseparability of spectatorship and the ethical imperative to ‘see’ in order to know about acts of violence and injustice.”36 Other scholars have coined similar terms for how images may encourage viewers toward awareness and action, including “seeing for,” “empathic vision,” “ethical imagination,” and “ethical vision.”37 And yet, if our modern world (to say nothing of history) has taught us anything, it is that knowledge alone will not suffice if it is not also infused with a sense of personal and collective urgency and call to action.
As Barthes hypothesized many years ago, an image needs to touch the viewer in a way that is fundamentally linked to both sight and feeling. People need to care, and they need to feel moved, before they become involved on a personal and/or collective level. This is where concepts of ethical spectatorship and bearing witness can be differentiated. Ethical spectatorship is an essential part of bearing witness; yet one can see and know and still remain at a literal and affective distance, running the risk that there will be no correlative impact. Bearing witness draws upon ethical spectatorship, but it is a fundamentally embodied act. This is true for photographers, but also for viewers of images, who are called upon to see, feel, and move in their own respective bodies. Ultimately, bearing witness is about bringing bodies—those of the photographer, migrant/subject, and viewer—into some form of affective, embodied, ethical relation where each has a role to play. This revised definition means that to truly bear witness is far more difficult and rare than the common usage of the term suggests. This is doubtless true—and yet, as Zúñiga’s photographic practice proves, it is possible. What’s more, it is necessary.
By showing typically unseen aspects of south–north migrants’ journeys, Zúñiga short-circuits the usual representational routes that depict migrants as potential or future workers, and/or dangerous threats, and reframes the human experience of migration as a labor of survival. Without overstating the agency of images themselves to change conditions on the ground, this reframing can have life-or-death consequences, because it asks audiences to see and conceptualize migrants in a new way in the hopes of prompting increased accountability and safer conditions. Zúñiga’s labor as photographer-witness is grounded in his own bodily experience of the journey—something that changes him and changes the lives of those he documents. This form of bearing witness is a relational exchange between bodies, as evidenced by the sense of his presence that emanates from his images, and from the stories he shared about the impact his photographic practice has had on himself and on the lives of those he documents. Bearing witness changes us just as it changes the lives of those we witness. The remaining question mark is, of course, the hailed viewer. What will we remember from these images? What histories will they tell, of migration and of us? Will we bear witness? Or will we look but do nothing?