Photographing the U.S.-Mexico Border Fence
Ski lifts in the height of summer, a concrete zoo habitat with a smattering of plants: It is disquieting when human constructions clash with nature. Nature does not have intentions. The manmade does, and it can’t hide them.
The Spanish photographer Ignacio Evangelista has made a career out of framing these unsettling contrasts. In the past few years, he’s aimed his camera at the artifice of national borders. “After Schengen,” featured on CityLab in 2014, captured nature’s takeover of European border checkpoints following their abandonment after the 1995 Schengen treaty.
But Evangelista’s latest project focuses one of the world’s few physical border lines: The fence dividing Mexico and the U.S. Produced during a recent residency in Hermosillo, Mexico, “The Line on the Map” comprises provocative portraits of the infamous fence in sections, set against a range of largely natural backdrops. The title of the series is telling: Evangelista’s photographs call into question the usefulness of physical borders, as well as the way maps tacitly draw them onto our view of the world.
“In real life, borders are located in real places,” Evangelista writes in an email to CityLab. “It’s not like looking at a map, [where] they seem to be just black lines separating two areas of different color. I think it’s interesting to show the place around the borders, giving a real and visible dimension, visualizing those colored areas.”
In these images, not a single person is in sight. This is true of much of Evangelista’s other work: It’s a way of highlighting the artifice of these spaces. There’s also a paradoxical effect: “I think that… to show these spaces without people, emphasizes the humanity of the places,” he writes, adding, “[M]ost of these [photographs] are of places where nobody passes… at least during the day. Many people try to cross the fence, but they usually do into the night, or across tunnels, or by remote areas of the border (and some of them die).”
That the United States’ southern border fence is arguably responsible for more than 6,000 migrant deaths since 2000 is a terrible and fearsome thing to imagine. Yet looking at Evangelista’s photographs, the fence often makes a beautiful, almost sculptural, line across the landscape. It’s a challenging juxtaposition—especially when the fence extends all the way into the sea at Tijuana.
“I had seen images of that [on the] Internet before going to Tijuana, but the first time I saw it, I was absolutely shocked,” Evangelista writes. “In that part, the fence is made with bars, I suppose because of the strength of the ocean. [But] it´s really strange to be able to look at the other side and touch the American sand.”
It’s also a jarring extension of the so-called “line on the map.” On most maps, borders don’t reach into the ocean. But Evangelista forces us to consider what those innocent lines mean in reality.
“Most borders are mental constructs: You cannot see the lines of the borders on the territory, as you are not able to see the Equatorial line or the Polar circle,” he writes. “But in the northwestern border between Mexico and the United States, that imaginary line becomes tangible in the form of the border wall. The fence I've been photographing in this project IS the line on the map. If you cross the wall, you are crossing the line of the map.”
All photographs courtesy of Ignacio Evangelista.