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  1. Visual Arts

Wallets and love letters: A photography exhibit reveals items confiscated at the U.S. border

SCOTT KEELER  |   TimesEl Sueno Americano is a photography exhibit by Tom Kiefer, who worked as a janitor on the border with Mexico and collected the items migrants were forced to leave behind, including a love letter, many cards of saints, kids  toys, even toothbrushes and soap. The exhibit runs through November 5 at The Arts Xchange in St. Petersburg.
SCOTT KEELER | TimesEl Sueno Americano is a photography exhibit by Tom Kiefer, who worked as a janitor on the border with Mexico and collected the items migrants were forced to leave behind, including a love letter, many cards of saints, kids toys, even toothbrushes and soap. The exhibit runs through November 5 at The Arts Xchange in St. Petersburg.
Published Oct. 30, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG— Wallets. Toothbrushes. Toys. Birth control. Religious icons.

These are the "non-essential" things confiscated from undocumented migrants by the U.S. Border patrol at the Customs and Border Patrol processing center in Ajo, Ariz., where photographer Tom Kiefer worked as a janitor.

Now they're the subjects of Kiefer's powerful photographic exhibition, "El Sueño Americano" (The American Dream), on display at the ArtsXchange in the Warehouse Arts District.

Kiefer, who lives in Arizona, took the job as a way to earn money while he focused on being a photographer. He found highly personal items at the bottom of a dumpster, including wallets with identifications still inside. He began stashing items and photographing them. From 2007 to 2014, he amassed 600 photographs, forming a deeper connection to the plight of immigrants coming through the border.

The exhibition has been on display in galleries and museums around the country, garnering attention from the New York Times and the New Yorker. The exhibit makes its Florida debut at ArtsXchange, a project of the Warehouse Arts District.

"One of my favorite mediums of art is found objects," said the district's executive director Diane Morton. "Tom's work is the more dramatic 'seized objects.' His attention and compassion for the human experience of traveling far from home is evident in this work."

The exhibition includes 64 small photographs and four large ones. Kiefer's background in graphic design contributed to his knack for color and arrangement. Yet the elements of loss and displacement are rooted solidly at their foundations.

Kiefer arranges multiples of the same item in the larger photographs. The voyeuristic Billfolds and Wallets reveals what people hold dear enough to carry at all times. Religious cards remind us how many devout Catholics are seeking refuge.

An especially moving item is a love letter. Had it already been delivered, or was it en route to someone? And a child's shoe and a Disney princess wallet stir up images of families separated at the border.

There's a quote from Kiefer on the wall of the exhibit.

"I'm presenting these deeply personal objects in a way that is reverential and respectful."