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Best Books - Book Reviews: Left Behind

Left Behind. Photographs by Jonathan Hollingsworth.
Published by Dewi Lewis, 2012.
Left Behind
Reviewed by Joscelyn Jurich

Left Behind
Photographs by Jonathan Hollingsworth. Foreword by Gregory L. Hess MD.

Dewi Lewis, 2012. Hardbound. 112 pp., 75 color illustrations, 12x8-3/4".

A man unlocking a morgue door is the first image in Left Behind. The next is a two-page spread of bodies stacked one atop another in a morgue, one with a red tag attached by a string to the body bag zipper with "Doe, John" written on it in black marker. The final photograph shows two "Personal Effects" tags of individuals only identified as "John Doe."

Hollingsworth's provocative project permits the reader to enter a rarely seen world, the often deadly and anonymous world of border crossers. Every year, between 150-250 Mexican migrants die crossing from Mexico into Southern Arizona. The Arizona Human Remains Project, a grassroots human rights NGO, reports that between 2011-2012, the remains of 179 migrants were recovered. The vast majority were male and under the age of 40. Some of the remains were not intact enough for this basic information to be determined.

A short essay by Gregory Hess, Chief Medical Examiner of the Pima County Forensic Science Center in Tucson prefaces Hollingsworth's carefully structured visual narrative and clearly identifies its intention. "Let conversation cease. Let laughter flee. This is the place where death delights to help the living," wrote 18th century physician Giovanni Morgagni, who pioneered the field of pathological anatomy. His statement hangs in the offices of contemporary pathologists like Hess, who granted Hollingsworth access to the Center. "It reminds us of the purpose of investigating the dead," writes Hess. "To help the living." Like the physical bodily and personal remains of the deceased, photographs are documentary evidence. Hollingsworth's images of physical and personal remains of migrants who died on the Arizona-Mexico border, Hess writes, may be another way the dead can help the living.

Left Behind, by Jonathan Hollingsworth. Published by Dewi Lewis, 2012.

The book is divided into three distinct sections, like a triptych whose three panels portray the autopsy process, the documentary remains of the deceased and the exterior of the borderlands between Arizona and Mexico. Its first section is a visual guide to the recovery process. Hollingsworth brings the reader from the recovery van to the receiving room and into the autopsy room with stark individual shots of each space. Metal receiving room gurneys sit in the corner of a seemingly empty room, shot to emphasize the contrast between the gurneys' glistening legs and the dull, soiled floor on which they stand; an autopsy table is photographed to emphasize its functionality, in an attempt to reveal and demystify the post-mortem process. Perhaps the most jarring image in this section is not the photograph of skeletal remains resting on a white sheet, but a list of the vital organs in black capital letters pasted on an autopsy whiteboard, ostensibly a check-list for the examining pathologists. The clinical nature of these spaces is rendered only semi-intimately as Hollingsworth shoots to reveal essential detail but also to maintain a degree of distance.

Left Behind, by Jonathan Hollingsworth. Published by Dewi Lewis, 2012.

If the first images emphasize the repetitive and anonymous nature of the post-mortem, the book's central section reveals individual photographs of the "personal effects" of twenty-eight Hispanic migrants who died on the border. Combs, watches, multicolored cigarette lighters, family photographs, ornate and colorful saints' cards, one-dollar bills, two-dollar bills and identification cards are all photographed against a bare white background. The first photograph shows what are representative and repeated items in many of the images: a 100 peso bill; a $30 phone card; a macramé crucifix; the stub of a pencil; a wallet; some scraps of paper scrawled with names and phone numbers.

Left Behind, by Jonathan Hollingsworth. Published by Dewi Lewis, 2012.

Each deceased individual's personal remains are photographed separately, accompanied by descriptive text from the Pima County Forensic Center about the individual's gender, approximate age and ethnicity as well as information about how and where the deceased's body was found and the body's condition at the time of discovery. The text provides poignant and revealing details in juxtaposition with the individual's objects: the reader learns that a one-dollar bill, Bic lighter, Guess! wallet and a few scrawled phone numbers belonged to "Male, 20-35; Hispanic Latino; Not recognizable/Putrefaction." Several of the individuals are described as being mummified. These descriptions bring the reader into the experience of finding the deceased: "Pinal County deputies were flagged down by a female in distress and advised of the location of the deceased," reads one; another is just as disturbing: "Decedent found partially suspended by tree by shoelaces tied around neck." Hollingsworth understands the visceral power of simple factual information, both textual and visual, and uses them to potent effect.

Left Behind, by Jonathan Hollingsworth. Published by Dewi Lewis, 2012.

The book's last section brings the reader away from the interiors of autopsy rooms and individuals' stories and outside to the US border patrol in Nogales, Arizona and a common pick-up stop for migrants in Green Valley, Arizona. Hollingsworth's photographs of the landscape are the most powerful of the few images included, particularly the final photographs of Mesquite trees, flying vultures and the Pima County Indigent Cemetery, where the unidentified remains of migrants were buried with "John Doe" and "Jane Doe" markers (the county now cremates the remains).

Left Behind, by Jonathan Hollingsworth. Published by Dewi Lewis, 2012.

Hollingsworth concludes with his own thoughtful reflection about the process and intent of creating Left Behind, which is dedicated to the migrants who died trying to reach the US. "For those who die in the desert," he writes, "Pima County Forensic Science Center is their Ellis Island. It is through the cooler doors that they all pass, their belongings catalogued and their analyzed, each bearing a number instead of a name. But instead of some manifest destiny that the nation's dream is built upon, theirs is one of long, quiet waiting."—JOSCELYN JURICH

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JOSCELYN JURICH is a freelance journalist and critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Bookforum, Publishers Weekly and the Village Voice.