Unforgetting, The Story Behind a Photograph

Visit AustinKocher.com for more short articles about the current state of the US immigration system.

We arrived in Dilley, Texas on a Sunday, all seven of us committed to working with refugees for a week at the South Texas Family Residential Facility.

The name is a euphemism. It sounds like a boarding school, but critics argue that it has more in common with the Japanese internment camps of World War II.

Up to 2,400 women and children, refugees from Central America mostly but other places in the world, too, are detained here, isolated amid the Texas oil fields 100 miles from the border, with the bare minimum of care and threats to sign their own deportation orders or spend months or even years locked up with their children.

Despite valid yet complex claims to asylum, the US government doesn’t provide these women with immigration lawyers. But the private company that takes taxpayer money for each detention bed does occasionally provide Zumba classes. They’re not monsters after all.

This week, we were the volunteers on duty. A few attorneys. A few bilingual volunteers. None of us specialists. We all agreed that the detained families deserved much better than us, but what could we do? We were here. Others weren’t. That’s how the world works more often than we’d like to admit.

After our Sunday evening orientation, which consisted of a crash course in immigration law and a division of labor, we drove towards our hotel in the dark South Texas night. To get to the hotel, we had to drive past the detention center.

As we approached the entrance to the detention center, I asked the driver to slow down and pull off to the side of the road. From previous trips to Dilley, I knew there would be no time to spare in contemplation during the week. I wanted the team to see the detention center before we dove headfirst into the heavy work before us.

As we sat there, it occurred to me that the facility was more visible at night with its bright lights than during the day when the archipelago of FEMA trailers that forms the facility is barely visible from the road. Even the sign for the facility is located partway down the access road, not near the road where it would be easier to see by passers-by. In fact, many first-time visitors completely miss the turn-off on their first visit.

I decided to take a photograph. The facility is off-limits to photos from the property, but I was on the public road. I remembered thinking that photography is about space and vantage point, legality and territory. Who has the right to see what and from where. Photography and geography are bound up together. Just ask Trevor Paglen.

I pulled my camera out of my bag, stepped out of the van, took the picture.

It’s all floodlights and darkness and a dirt road leading to some indiscernible place. No context. No markers. Exactly how the US government intended it.

If you’ve ever seen the photographer Greg Constantine’s portfolio on detention centers, you’ll know what I mean. Bare landscapes that hide the violence behind a topography of banality.

My picture of the family detention centers is not a great picture, I know. But I’ve used it in many presentations and for teaching undergraduate students about geography. Usually it goes like this.

What do you see? Darkness. Flood lights.

What are the flood lights illuminating? Where are they pointed? They are pointed inward. Down and inward.

What does that tell you about what is being watched? Not what. Who. The people inside the compound.

A panopticon of light that illuminates not only space and people, but the relationships of power that make immigration control possible.

Does anything look strange to you? You can’t see the buildings.

Why? They are far away.

They are. But what else? The buildings look like they are in the ground.

They are in the ground, below grade. Why would a detention center be built that way? Because they don’t want people to see what’s going on.

Because we don’t want to see the faces of people who pay the price of our privilege.

Because unlike the Medieval State, the modern State likes its violence slow, out-of-the-way, just beneath the horizon. Not invisible exactly, just forgettable.

The detention center in Dilley is still there. A week ago I was flipping through a magazine and saw a story in Oxford American by Emily Gogolak about the town of Dilley and the failed promise of jobs and revitalization the facility was supposed to have for the city. Gogolak quotes the geographer Ruthie Gilmore: “forgotten places are not outside history.” Reading the article, I was reminded that not just the facility but the people of Dilley themselves were part of landscape of slow economic violence made possible by America’s ability to treat entire populations and places as sacrificial, marginal, forgettable.

Photographs can play a role in violence and in the machine of forgetfulness. But I also believe that photographs can also play a role in acts of unforgetting. This photograph, empty as it may seem, does that for me each time I see it and each time I use it as a storytelling tool with students or audiences.

Do you know of photographers whose work engages in acts of unforgetting? How do your photographs serve as a tool for remembering and storytelling?

Critical geographer studying immigration, policing, and courts. Visit AustinKocher.com for more on the current state of the US immigration system.

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