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Interview: Michelle Frankfurter's Destino

photo-eye Gallery Interview: Michelle Frankfurter's Destino Photographer's Showcase artist Michelle Frankfurter has recently completed her multi-year project titled Destino documenting Central American migrants traveling through Mexico to cross into the United States. The shooting now complete, Frankfurter is working on the final stages of the project — putting together the book. We were happy to have the opportunity to catch up with Frankfurter once again to talk about the end of the project.

Oaxaca, Mexico 2010  Michelle Frankfurter

Photographer's Showcase artist Michelle Frankfurter has recently completed her multi-year project titled Destino documenting Central American migrants traveling through Mexico to cross into the United States.  Riding on top of freight trains through the southern Mexican states, the trip becomes even more perilous as the migrants approach the notoriously violent border. Frankfurter's sensitive images are remarkable in their beauty and ability to capture both the danger of this journey and a sense of optimistic adventure. Frankfurter describes the project like this: "In Destino I seek to capture the experience of people who struggle to control their own destiny when confronted by extreme circumstances. Destino is both a social commentary on one of the biggest global issues of our times and an epic adventure tale. It conveys the experience of a generation of exiles, driven by poverty and the dysfunction of failed states, traveling across a landscape that has become increasingly dangerous, heading towards a precarious future as a last resort."

Rio Grande Valley Sector, Mission, Texas August 2013  Michelle Frankfurter 
The shooting now complete, Frankfurter is working on the final stages of the project — putting together the book. Destino will be published by FotoEvidence, a non-profit photobook publisher specializing in documentary projects centered on human rights and social justice. To help pay for the publication of the book Frankfurter has launched a Kickstarter campaign that is still in need of some support.

We've interviewed Frankfurter for photo-eye Blog several times as she's worked on Destino and we were happy to have the opportunity to catch up with Frankfurter once again to talk about the end of the project and the creation of the book.


Sarah Bradley:     When we last spoke to you in 2012, you had begun the process of shooting along the Mexico/USA border before having to cut the trip short. Tell us about shooting the final part of this project and how you knew it was time to stop.

Honduran migrants, La 72 Hogar Para Personas Refugios, Tenosique, Tabasco. January 2014
Honduran migrant, Tenosique, Tabasco. January 2014 
 Michelle Frankfurter
Michelle Frankfurter:     In many ways, the final part was probably the most challenging to photograph. The journey by freight train across Mexico ends in the northern border states of Chihuahua and Coahuila — territories controlled by drug cartels that have overtaken the smuggling trade. Getting out to some of the locations in the desert where migrants begin the last leg of their journey was risky and time-consuming.

In order to photograph migrants crossing into the United States, I had to petition Homeland Security for permission to accompany Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley sector of Texas and in Yuma, Arizona. The process for having the petition approved took months. So there was just a lot more waiting involved and more logistical factors to work out.

I knew I wanted to make a last trip to southern Mexico, partly to see if there was anything I had possibly missed, but mostly, I think, as a way of letting go. The story has been a huge part of my life for many years. I can always think of a legitimate reason to go back, make another trip, photograph the journey mutates as it into something new. Most recently, there has been a dramatic uptick in the migration of unaccompanied minors and women traveling with young children in hopes of being granted asylum in the United States. This is something I hadn’t seen before. I had also never been to the border of state of Tabasco, or seen the parallel migratory route originating in the town of Tenosique. I made one final trip in January of this year, and I just knew at that point, that I was done. Every picture I took was essentially competing with an image I had already taken. I spent close to a month in southern Mexico and I barely shot twenty rolls of medium format film. That is approximately 240 exposures. I shoot more than that in my first hour at a wedding. I realized I had a significant body of work and that the time was now to try and have it published as a book.

Guatemalan migrant with infant, Arriaga rail yard, Chiapas. January 2014, Honduran migrant, Jesus El Buen Pastor amputee clinic, Tapachula, Chiapas. January 2014, & Arriaga rail yard, Chiapas. January 2014  Michelle Frankfurter

SB:     You started shooting Destino in 2009. How did the project evolve over the years? Did your vision for it change? Did it change you as a photographer?

MF:     Initially, the series was part of a broader project called Borderland that I had began shooting in early 2000. That project never quite came together as a cohesive body of work; It was more like a loose coalition of images and themes. I experimented with different formats — 4x5 and various medium format shapes. In 2009, I read Sonia Nazario’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Enrique’s Journey, about undocumented Central American adolescents whose mothers had left them when they were very young to look for work in the United States. Predominantly from El Salvador and Honduras, these mostly teenage boys traveled by rail across Mexico in search of their mothers in the United States. Along the way, they faced a multitude of dangers. The book had a profound impact on me. Although a work of nonfiction, the narrative was so compelling that in many ways, it read like an epic adventure tale. I basically gutted the original project down to about 3 or 4 images that fit the Exodus theme.

The reality in Mexico has changed since I began taking these photographs in 2009. 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 think I’ve always been a good producer of the single image. This project, unlike anything else I’ve ever done, was an exercise in overcoming my visual ADD. It made me think about character development, plot, and most of all – chapters, as opposed to short paragraphs - much like writing a novel.

Sequencing with Tom Kennedy

SB:     You conceived of Destino as a book project from the very beginning and used a print-on-demand mock-up to show people what you were working on while shooting. How does that early incarnation of the book compare to what you're currently working on? Did showing that book to migrants influence choices you made for the final publication?

MF:     I used Blurb as an editing tool, but also to have something in hand to show people in Mexico. Among the migrants, the book went a long way in conveying my intent. Once they saw the pictures, they understood that I was undertaking some of the same risks. They opened up to me more. I always play close attention to what people respond to. The work has evolved over the years. Editing and sequencing isn’t my strength. I have received a lot of input and help from friends, editors at reviews, and professional consultants. I’m actually still working out the edit of the final book.

Oaxaca, Mexico 2011 and San Juan Diego migrant shelter, Mexico City, 2011  Michelle Frankfurter

SB:     You've used Kickstarter to fund both the expenses of shooting of Destino and now to help fund the publication of the book. Tell us about this most recent campaign.

MF:     Photography books are expensive to produce, especially when the subject matter is controversial and unprofitable. I had already shot about 75% of the project on my own dime by the time I launched my first Kickstarter campaign in early 2012. By then, people had seen the work and believed in it enough to support its completion. The current campaign will raise the funds necessary to cover the production costs of making 500 copies of the book. On the one hand, it’s lamentable that both the publishing industry and print media have been so negatively-impacted the economic downturn and by the changes in how we now consume information in the digital age. On the other hand, I see crowd-funding as a democratizing force — a kind of Stone Soup/Global Village approach to allow creativity to flourish, one small, individual donation at a time.

Arriaga, Chiapas, 2010 — Michelle Frankfurter

For more information about Michelle Frankfurter's work, please contact Erin Azouz at or call 505-988-5152 ext. 202.