‘The greatest act of resistance’: CrossBorder Photography exhibition reframes traditional conceptions

The exhibition “CrossBorder Photography: Images of US and Mexico from the Permanent Collection” at the Benton Museum of Art highlights stories from the border. (Emma Jensen • Student Life)

When you think of the US-Mexico border, certain images may come to mind: fences, walls, concrete. The border has become a divisive force, as the space has become increasingly politicized in recent memory, used as political material for discourse on immigration, xenophobia and racism.

However, art can breathe new life into our way of thinking about the border. This revitalization is the goal of the exhibition “CrossBorder Photography: Images of the US and Mexico” from the permanent collection of the Benton Museum of Art, which seeks to find new ways of apprehending the place of the border in the world that surrounds us.

“CrossBorder Photography” is a student-curated exhibition that aims to deconstruct and reformulate our stereotypical conception of the border as a static symbol of division. Instead, the exhibition encourages a more complex understanding of the border, recognizing that it contains the stories, lives and experiences of countless numbers of migrants.

The exhibition features the work of artists Gordon C. Abbott, Christina Fernandez, Nathan Lerner, Danny Lyon, Don Normark and Richard Ross. All artists were researched and curated by students Maelvi Nuñez PO ’22, Madeleine Mount-Cors PO ’22 and Grace Sartin PO ’21, under the direction of Rosalía Romero, Assistant Professor of Art History at Pomona College .

Nuñez, Mount-Cors, Sartin and Romero combed through the contents of the Benton to find the images for the exhibition and conducted extensive research to select the artists who would be featured.

“CrossBorder Photography” grew out of a border art seminar taught by Romero. The seminar “gave students an in-depth study of the different aspects around the border, especially the history of its formation and the policies that have been adopted to reinforce this territorial and physical barrier,” Romero said.

The seminar also examined the capacity of art as a visual medium, which allows it to complicate the fixed conception of the border as a place of militarization and securitization.

“We need to understand the role that art and visual culture play in how we relate to the physical space around us,” Romero said. “The way we understand that although there is a physical barrier and the barrier is built using strong materials, such as walls, fences, concrete and steel, it is important to remember that there are people living on the site who are based there and living their own rich lives.

This is the feeling that animates the exhibition: a memory and a celebration of the human stories contained within the border. The diversity of the artists presented allows the exhibition to embrace multiple facets of the border.

“The exhibit ranges from the outdated architecture of border institutions, depicted in Ross’ photos, to the deeply personal stories of people and communities in Mexico and the United States in Lyon’s photos,” Mount-Cors said.

“CrossBorder Photography” also tracks the historical development of photography over the century and how different photographers captured the same subject, albeit decades apart. This complicates the supposed objectivity of the medium, as the exhibition testifies to the myriad ways of capturing a single entity.

“The exhibition is a way of looking at the different techniques and styles of photographers during the 19th and 20th centuries, while basing it not only on the history of politics and militarization on the frontier, but also on the nature very personal of the border and how it affects people and their families,” Mount-Cors said.

“Visual media forces you to consider these issues because they are right in front of you. With other forms of media, you can’t see someone’s story the same way as if you were looking at a photograph. —Madeleine Mount-Cors PO ’22

The exhibit features pieces like “Eddie, the Mexican Chihuahua worker who built my house, with Stephanie in Llanito, New Mexico“, taken by Danny Lyon. According to a Benton booklet, in the photo, Lyon chooses to honor his decade-long friendship with Eddie, an undocumented Mexican worker who crossed the border several times. The photo is an intimate reflection on the stories held by the frontier and the many people whose lives have been fundamentally shaped by its presence.

The exhibition uses the unique and arresting medium of photography to reframe the complex issue of border politics.

“Visual media forces you to consider these issues because they’re right in front of you,” Mount-Coors said. “With other forms of media, you can’t see someone’s story in the same way as if you were looking at a photograph.”

“CrossBorder Photography” aims to deconstruct the sterile way in which immigration institutions have characterized the border by reminding us of its enduring humanity.

“The stories of people on the border are the greatest act of resistance,” Mount-Cors said. “One of the main goals of US border policy is to generalize and erase the stories that people carry. It is therefore especially important to value the stories of people and migrants at the border, so that they are told and memorized.

Tracey L. Sweeney