April 9, 2021
Photography and story by Drew A. Kelley
Introduction by Melanie Meggs
Amid the heated political debates and ideological divides that often characterize the US-Mexico border, Drew A. Kelley takes a moment to step away from the fray, and instead, to observe and document the lives of the people who inhabit the area. A daily newspaper photojournalist and self-proclaimed lover of street photography, film, and people, Drew is passionate about capturing moments of connection and community that are often lost in the chaos of politics.
Drew’s latest project, VECINOS (Neighbors) is a personal passion project driven by his dedication to celebrating the humanity that resides in the borderlands. He has decided to use his photography to create a visual narrative of life at the US-Mexico border — one that tells stories of resilience, strength and compassion that are often overlooked. To do this, Drew has turned to 35mm black and white film. While deadlines often require him to shoot digitally, Drew has taken advantage of this chance to explore his love for film photography.
Through his photography, Drew hopes to bring attention to the realities of daily life at the border. And by viewing these moments through the lens of black and white film, Drew seeks to provide a powerful and empathetic exploration of life on both sides of the divide. Through this extraordinary body of work, Drew invites us to look beyond the headlines and discover what lies beneath.
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.
By documenting the physical border between the United States and Mexico, I hope any preconceptions people may have will be broken down and eventually replaced with empathy.
These photographs are a testament that regardless of the man-made barriers between us, we are all human beings merely separated by nationality.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily shared by The Pictorial List and the team.