A Janitor in an Immigrant Detention Center Turned Confiscated Items into Works of Art

From a baby shoe to a diary entry to a collection of toothbrushes, photographer Tom Kiefer made ”trash” into a reflection on humanity

One man’s trash is another man’s art. In Tom Kiefer’s case, the photographer has taken belongings seized from migrants detained at a border patrol station in Arizona while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border and turned them into an art project that’s also a commentary on America’s immigration policy. He’s the subject of the Skirball Cultural Center’s new exhibit, El Sueno Americano | The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer, which runs through March 8, 2020.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, and raised in Seattle, Kiefer spent two decades living in L.A., where he worked as a graphic designer and later owned an antiques store in Atwater Village. Looking for more affordable living, Kiefer moved in 2001 to Ajo, a small mining town in Arizona 43 miles from the Mexico border. He bought a house and traveled the country photographing landscapes and architecture. To finance his passion, Kiefer took a part-time job as a janitor at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection center near Ajo, where he stayed from 2003 to 2014.

tom kiefer immigration skirball
Cynthia’s CD Collection, 2017

© Tom Kiefer. Redux Pictures

Tasked with emptying out the garbage, Kiefer was alarmed by the amount of food that was being confiscated from the detainees and tossed out. “I was becoming increasingly disturbed seeing all the perfectly good food the migrants and asylum seekers carried with them just being thrown in the trash,” Kiefer says over the phone from his home in Ajo. “It was perfectly good food that could go to people who needed it. I couldn’t tolerate the waste.”

So he sought permission to donate the food to a local food bank. In the process, Kiefer found other items—some everyday, some personal, but all deemed “non-essential”—that tugged at his emotions: birth control pills, baby food, stuffed animals, rosaries, bibles, figurines of the Virgen de Guadalupe, yellow rubber ducks caked with dirt that were used as trail markers along the desert.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do with them,” says Kiefer, “but I wasn’t going to let these items stay in the trash and go to the landfill. It was morally and ethically wrong.”

detention center arizona
USA! USA! USA!, 2019

© Tom Kiefer.

Kiefer would spend years discretely retrieving thousands of these possessions, arranging them and photographing them in his studio, which he first exhibited at a Phoenix gallery in 2016. In Kiefer’s hands, a collection of condom packets looks like a patchwork quilt, belts and shoe laces resemble a mandala, and toothbrushes in nearly every color seem like bouquets of flowers.

“I didn’t want people looking at a random pile of things,” says Kiefer. “What would be the point of showing a bunch of wallets in a pile? I wanted to photograph them in a way that’s not exploitive. I can’t imagine what that journey is like, what they’re fleeing from and the risks they’re taking. The least I could do is take these objects and photograph them in a dignified, respectful and artful way.”

The Skirball showcases 151 of Kiefer’s works, including pictures of baby shoes, CDs, cell phones, water bottles reinforced with duct tape, tuna cans, and Snickers bars. One image of a diary entry reads: “Blanca, I want you to know that I have loved you since I met you. You know I love them—your beautiful eyes remind me to be yourself forever.” And in another image, Kiefer uses dried letters from alphabet soup to write Emma Lazarus’ poem engraved on the Statute of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your hungry, Your poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, 2014

Kiefer isn’t trying to be overtly political. Instead, he wants viewers to connect with both the items in his photographs, which many of us take for granted, and their previous owners.

“I just hope there’s something that compels them to get involved, whether it’s with their church or a shelter or a humanitarian aid organization or making sure they vote,” says Kiefer. “Whatever action they take—good for them.”

In conjunction with the display, Kiefer will take part in a discussion in November with Francisco Cantu, a former USCBP agent who wrote the book, The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, and Dora Rodriguez, a migrants’ rights activist.

RELATED: Shirin Neshat Brings the Nostalgia and Rage of Her Immigrant Experience to the Broad

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