South of the (Nevada) border

From there to here: A focused look at immigration

A version of this story ran in Las Vegas Citylife.

I met French photographer Marie Baronnet last year, after she’d come to Las Vegas to shoot a world championship boxing match for Newsweek. While passing some time together, I asked if she’d had any other photos lying around I might enjoy. I was unprepared for what came next. She plopped her laptop in front of me and pushed a button. A series of pictures from her two-month-long solo trek along the U.S.-Mexican border paraded across the screen. Instantly, I was hooked and emotionally moved by the relentlessly human, and humane, gravity of the images.

Every picture from this journey tells more than a story. Each one captures the hint of a lifetime of layered tales beneath the telling flesh of its subjects—such as the defiant hubris of Tea Party confederates at a barbecue in Arizona; the effervescent hope of kids illegally crossing the border into America; or the fatal futility of a truckload of dead bodies picked up from a scorched summer desert outside Tucson. These photos pull the viewer into the story as if the viewer were a participant in the narrative; thus, the gravitational attraction to the humanity in Baronnet’s work.

Born in 1972 to a husband-and-wife team of French filmmakers, the tall, lithe Baronnet is married to the famous war photojournalist Stanley Greene. Herself a foreigner in America, she enhances her international work with additional in-depth video interviews of her subjects. More than a photographer, she is a meticulous chronicler of oral histories. And her seemingly innocent French accent and striking good looks work as currency to gain access into the restricted, darker fringes of society. She works these assets well, having wedged herself into situations so isolated and dangerous—along the U.S.-Mexican border—that friends and colleagues sometimes have feared for her well-being.

Huilfrido Higuera Murillo lives outside, in the open, along the border, 2009.

The border cuts across the lower abdomen of North America like a ragged scar from a botched appendectomy. This line of demarcation became basically fixed after the Mexican-American War, in 1848, when Mexico lost the following to the United States: California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah, plus sections of Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. Today, some people argue that the present-day migration back into these states via the porous border is simply Mexicans reclaiming their occupied territories. Others maintain that the recent and profound influx of people from Mexico, and points south, is the modern version of the vast migrations from central Europe to America at the turn of the 19th century—or the tired, the poor, the hungry looking for a little hope.

However you slice it, the border creates a unique 2,000-mile strip with its own culture and economy. With an estimated 350 million crossings annually, life, death, money, love and families gravitate there. To where human life frequently has little value.

The moment of truth: crossing into America.

By example, according to Charles Bowden in his book Down By The River—in Juarez, the Mexican city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, “the world has been reduced to this: Between 1993-2001, at least 2,800 people were either murdered, kidnapped or simply vanished.”

And since the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, with its inadvertent displacement of Mexican farmers, an estimated 10,000 people have perished in their attempts to illegally cross the border.

If history predetermines destiny, then the destiny of Nevada, which was originally part of Mexico, seems to have been written before it became a state in 1864. Marie Baronnet’s photos, though taken south of the (Nevada) border, reveal some of the forces behind the living history being made today—here, in our state. Enjoy the journey.