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Photographer's Showcase: Destino

photo-eye Gallery Photographer's Showcase: Destino We are happy to present a new edit of Michelle Frankfurter's Destino portfolio on the Photographer's Showcase. Frankfurter's stunning black & white images tell a migrant's tale, specifically, the journey of undocumented Central Americans making the long hard trek across Mexico in hopes of crossing the border into the United States.

We are happy to present a new edit of Michelle Frankfurter's Destino portfolio on the Photographer's Showcase
Oaxaca, Mexico 2011 -- Michelle Frankfurter
Frankfurter's stunning black & white images tell a migrant's tale, specifically, the journey of undocumented Central Americans making the long hard trek across Mexico in hopes of crossing the border into the United States. Photographing in migrant shelters and on the freight trains hopped by migrants, Frankfurter approaches her subjects with palpable empathy. Her images at once embrace the emotional hardships of the people she photographs, but also the element of adventure intrinsic to such a journey. While Frankfurter has a background in photojournalism, I can't help but think that her masterful technique has been further honed through her practice as a wedding photographer, a job that requires the attention of a journalist and the eye of an artist. Shooting medium format, Frankfurter's images form a loose but clear narrative. Her choice to photograph many along the way rather than focus on a specific individual universalizes the tale, yet as viewers we do not lack connection with the subjects of Frankfurter's photographs. She has described Destino as a visual epic poem; indeed, it is a human story bigger than any one person.

Frankfurter's own willingness for adventure and fluency in Spanish has thus far allowed her to undertake her project without the aid of guides or fixers, however the last portion of the journey presents new challenges. To complete Destino Frankfurter must photograph along the Mexico/United States border controlled by notoriously violent drug cartels. For this reason she has decided to hire a fixer and has looked to the photography community for help, crowd sourcing the financial support needed for this most dangerous part of her trip through the website Kickstarter. The response has been tremendous, her funding goal was met in the first few days. (If you'd like to pitch in, there's still two days left to contribute!) The outpouring of support is a testament to the importance and power of Frankfurter's work and its ability to connect with its audience.  They are emotionally powerful images, memorable in their frankness and beauty.

On the occasion of her new portfolio opening, we asked Frankfurter to tell us a bit more about her background, the process of making Destino, and her ultimate plans for a book. -- Sarah Bradley

photo-eye:     You have a very interesting background, having spent time as a photojournalist working in the US but also Haiti and Nicaragua, and have worked with human rights organizations. How has your background influenced and informed your work?

Michelle Frankfurter:     The historical and political foundation of the project stems from my experiences in Central America during the late 1980s and from my continued interest in the region. I learned a lot about the role the United States has played in the political meddling of the region and the effect that had on Central American societies. In a way, the time I spent in Nicaragua and Guatemala was like a loosely structured International Studies and Geopolitics immersion program. The current immigration crisis did not evolve in a vacuum.

My family background and childhood possibly had an even stronger influence, as far as shaping the emotional trajectory of the storyline. My family immigrated to the United States from Israel when I was six-years-old, shortly after the Six Day War. Having survived the Holocaust in his native country of Hungary, my father was later forced to flee Communist rule, arriving in Israel as a refugee in 1950, at the age of 16. My parents met in the Israeli army and married shortly after they both completed their mandatory military service.

We moved to a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in a suburb of Syracuse, New York after my father accepted a teaching position at Syracuse University. My parents were determined that my brother and I knew about the Holocaust - not only about the tumultuous events that transpired in Eastern Europe and Germany, but of the complicity of average citizens as well, who collectively enabled such events to occur. To that end, we watched a lot of grainy documentaries containing choppy footage of bulldozers shoveling emaciated naked corpses dusted in lime into open trenches. When I was twelve, I read Jerzy Kosinski’s violently graphic semi-autobiographical novel, The Painted Bird, based on his experiences as a child during the war in the Polish countryside.

Maybe because my family was different - we were the newcomers on the block, the parents with the weird accents and a funny last name, I was singled out for the quintessential childhood bullying experience. Being bullied by members of my own tribe effectively dispelled the myth, at least in my mind of Jewish cultural superiority. I concluded that brutish behavior was something that we, as human beings were all perfectly capable of. I developed a deep and fundamental awareness, both on a microcosmic and colossal scale of the potential for human betrayal. If Destino were yet another study in misery, it wouldn’t have taken such a hold on me. I’m always searching for some kind of affirmation of humanity. Although much of the storyline is grim and heart wrenching, there are moments of redemptive beauty as well.

Oaxaca, Mexico 2010 and Orizaba, Veracruz, 2010 -- Michelle Frankfurter
PE:     You've previously mentioned that Cormac McCarthy's book The Crossing was influential in the genesis of Destino and have described your project as a combination of a socially relevant tale and adventure story. I imagine that shooting also has required an amount of fearlessness on your part, riding the train with the migrants and venturing into places without a fixer. Do you think that this willingness to undertake your own adventure has influenced how you go about shooting this project?

MF:     Knowing Spanish well has enabled me to function as my own fixer, at least thus far. The more proficient you are in a language, the more culturally nuanced you become. It goes a long way towards being accepted by the people you are photographing. As important as it is for me to get to know people, I want them to get to know me as well. I don’t want to do that through an interpreter. For the record, I have only ever done one leg of the journey by train – the thirteen-hour trip from Arriaga, which is in the southern state of Chiapas to Ixtepec in Oaxaca. I’ve made that same trip three times, at different times of the year, under various weather conditions. For personal safety reasons and because of budget limitations, I’ve never traveled beyond the first leg of the journey by train (from Oaxaca, I continue north by bus). I’ve stayed within certain parameters defined by what I thought I could reasonably accomplish with the limited resources I had available. Having a fixer, or at the very least, a driver who could meet me at points along the way would have been extremely helpful, especially considering the current situation in Mexico (criminal organizations target Central American migrants for kidnapping and extortion). I’ve had to weigh the benefits of what I might be able to document against the potential risk of working alone.

Ideally though, I would prefer not to have to need a fixer. I worry I’ll start thinking about them instead of being able to focus on the work: Are they bored? Do they wish they were somewhere else? Are they getting in the way? Do I feel like chatting up the fixer more than photographing the migrants? It’s a distraction. However, the heavily militarized U.S./ Mexico border is controlled by warring drug cartels, which makes it especially dangerous. I don’t feel comfortable working there on my own and I seriously doubt that I would be able to gain any kind of access to the story. Cartels such as Los Zetas and Las Aztecas control the smuggling trade. The border presents a very different and much more dangerous situation than the migrant shelters run by sympathetic clergy.

Home of Mercy migrant shelter, Arriaga, Chiapas, 2009 -- Michelle Frankfurter
PE:     What are the reactions to Destino of the people you've photographed for the project? Do you tell them about what you are doing before shooting? Have any of your subjects seen the photographs you've taken?

MF:     For the most part, reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Occasionally, there are people who ask me not to photograph them, but more often than not, people are very receptive to talking and being photographed. For one thing, there isn’t a whole lot to do inside the migrant shelters, except watch American movies dubbed in Spanish on TV, smoke and talk. You’re essentially just killing time, waiting. At the very least, I’m a novelty. Every year in Mexico, where racism against Central Americans is prevalent, immigrants simply vanish without a trace. The relatives of the disappeared get little to no cooperation from the Mexican government. I think they feel anonymous and disposable – like their lives don’t count. They want to be seen as individuals. Overwhelmingly, I felt that they appreciated my interest in them.

On my most recent trip trip, I brought along an 8x8 copy of my first Blurb edit. I kept it wrapped in a plastic Ziploc bag inside my camera bag. People were extremely enthusiastic about it. A crowd of migrants would invariably gather as soon as I took it out. They saw it as a visual diary of their experiences. They passed it around with a great deal of reverence, as if they were handling a sacred or fragile text. Sometimes, they recognized individuals in the book. Occasionally, I met people I had photographed during previous trips, who had subsequently been caught and deported and were making another attempt. The little book earned me a degree of respect, in that they could see I was taking some of the same risks. Sometimes, I was met with skepticism from individuals who found it difficult to believe that the project wasn’t a commercial venture from which I stood to profit monetarily. They wanted to know what my angle was. Other times, I felt like they bestowed upon me altruisms I didn’t deserve. I explained that my motivations were a mix of artistic, ego-driven self-interest and personal outrage.

Hermanos en El Camino migrant shelter Ixtepec, Oaxaca, 2009 and Orizaba, Veracruz, 2010 -- Michelle Frankfurter
PE:     Strictly speaking, the project falls into the classification of documentary, yet your images are not a straightforward description of the events in these migrants' lives. We see their surroundings, know their journey, but your images are more strikingly emotive -- we connect with the subjects on an emotional level more than we understand the specifics of an individual's journey. There's a clear element of storytelling in these images, your subjects are individuals, but also stand-ins for all those who make this trip every year. Can you discuss your process for putting together this loose narrative? How do these goals affect what images you look to make and which images you select when editing?

MF:     I see it as a work of historical fiction - a kind of dark Exodus tale featuring a cast of unlikely hero protagonists. It’s a classic storyline of the epic journey across a hostile wilderness. The reality in Mexico has changed since the time I began taking these photos in 2009. Increasingly, Central American migrants are caught in the crosshairs of Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s war against the drug cartels while a stagnant U.S. economy has prompted lawmakers to lobby for harsh anti-immigration legislation in the United States. There is a growing climate of lawlessness and depravity within Mexico to which migrants are especially vulnerable. Early on, I made a few images that defined the arc of the narrative. But what originally began as an odyssey towards a promised land has evolved into the journey of a generation of exiles across a landscape that is becoming increasingly dangerous, heading towards a precarious future as an option of last resorts. I took a sequencing workshop last summer with Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb. They helped me refine the narrative with a pattern of sequencing that emphasized the emotional journey of the storyline over the chronological or literal journey. I paired some of the textural details with the portraits, repeated spreads of panoramic landscapes, while circling back to the train as the connective tissue. In the last third of the book, the images get progressively darker, both literally and emotionally.

Michelle Frankfurter photographing in Mexico
PE:     You describe this body of work as being a book project, where are you in the process of getting a book made? From what you've mentioned on your Kickstarter page, it sounds like you have put together at least one edit of images. Are you working with a publisher?

MF:     I’ve always seen this as a long-term book project. There really isn’t any other outlet for photography, aside from independently produced photography books that interests me at this point. So far, I’ve used Blurb to make two edits of the project, which has helped me conceptualize the work. I honestly haven’t thought about the actual process of publishing yet. I’ve been scrambling to figure out how to actually finish shooting. So far, it’s mostly been a dream, but as I get deeper into the work, I can actually see it becoming a reality. David Alan Harvey has been a huge motivating influence on me as well, as far as helping me see its potential. I took a bookmaking workshop with him two years ago, at a time when most of the work hadn’t been seen by anyone. He’s been a mentor and a friend ever since. I was accepted to Review Santa Fe, where I was hoping to possibly book reviews with people in the world of photography book publishing. But I had to take a pass for this coming year. I’ll be back in Mexico during the review. I am mostly concerned with trying to create a body of work that transcends its immediate news relevance. It’s still a work in progress.

See Michelle Frankfurter's portfolio on the Photographer's Showcase here