April 9, 2021
Photography and words by Drew A. Kelley
Introduction by Melanie Meggs
Drew A. Kelley is a daily newspaper photojournalist who, whenever possible, tries to work in black and white film. Typically his deadlines are immediately after an event so using film is not an option. His only opportunity to use film is on projects that he pitches himself or on passion projects. This body of work is a passion project titled, VECINOS (Neighbors) and was shot on 35mm B&W film. Drew lives in Southern California and the border with Mexico is a constant in the news. He set out to document the reality at the border, combining his three loves: street photography, film, and people. It was important for him to give people who are unable to travel to the border an opportunity to see what it really looks like and to give the people living near the border an accurate depiction.
In 2018 a caravan of largely Central American migrants fleeing persecution and/or violence arrived at the border between Mexico and the United States. Hundreds of those migrants were forced to wait south of the border in Tijuana, MX for the opportunity to request asylum from U.S. border authorities. The situation quickly became a humanitarian crisis and their plight was covered by multiple news outlets around the world. I too was drawn to their story and traveled to the El Chaparral Port of Entry to give them a voice in my local community.
I then spent two days documenting the inner-workings of the camp. Medical personnel, volunteers and various authorities would come and go throughout the day to assist mostly mothers and their children. Once I found a local focus and the article was published, I realized how few people knew what was happening down there. As a person who calls California home, it was clear that regardless of how often the border makes the news, a portion of the population has never seen it firsthand or is indifferent.
My initial goal quickly evolved into a three year project to document the entire border between California and Mexico. I decided to take a linear approach by first photographing where the wall meets the Pacific Ocean and I followed it to the California/Arizona state line. Whenever possible, I worked on foot to engage with as many people as I could. Over time, I learned how much each side of the wall has in common with the other. Everything from recreational activities to social issues/norms are often mirrored on both sides of the line.
Parallels were commonplace throughout this project. Outside the city of Tecate, Mexico, I photographed a man enjoying a moment of tranquility by swimming on his back at a public pool and in the border town of Jacumba, California, I photographed a woman soaking in a natural hot spring which offered her the same feeling. Just north of the wall in Calexico, California, I met and photographed an inebriated man on the street and by chance I met and photographed his equal on the streets of Mexicali, Mexico.
Water drops organized by the nonprofit organization, Border Angeles were a regular occurrence. Their goal was to reduce the number of deaths along the US-Mexico border by distributing water to remote parts of the desert that are used by immigrants crossing by foot. I spent a day documenting one of these water drops at the border that included volunteers from the United States and Mexico. The volunteers came together, braved 109° heat, to help those searching for a better life.
Regardless of what country people called home, families separated by the wall were equally heartbroken on both sides. At the International Friendship Park, a binational park between San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico, their emotions transcended the rusty steel separating them and during editing, it was difficult to distinguish which photographs were taken on which side.