In part seven of his Via PanAm project – a personal mission to travel the Pan-American Highway from Chile to Alaska – photojournalist and Nikon user, Kadir van Lohuizen, details his journey through Central America.
I find it a very strange feeling as I enter the US, a country that has felt as far away for me as it has for the migrants I have been traveling with in the last few weeks. What’s even stranger is that by waving my passport at the border I’m allowed a fairly routine entry into the country. More than ever I realise it’s just good or bad luck with which passport you are born with – and the impact it can have on your life.
My first entry into the US takes me into Nogales in Arizona, a lot smaller and quieter than an equivalent Mexican town and I have to say I miss the life on the streets instantly.
Nikon D700, f2.8 105mm, 1/20 Image © Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR
I check in to a motel where the receptionist wishes me a great day, even though it’s the evening. My first assignment takes me to the offices of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE). As expected, I’m in for a bit of a wait before I’m allowed clearance to visit one of the detention centres for migrants. I’m also keen to be at the airport when flights from Central America are leaving with people who are being deported back to their homeland.
As a photographer it’s often easy to work with the public, but as soon as authorities are involved, immediately there’s a lot of ‘red tape’. In this instance, to get the images I’m looking for, I need to be ‘screened’ by Washington before permission will be given to continue to take photographs. A letter from an international magazine helps, but it’s not an absolute necessity as long as you can somehow prove that you’re a professional photographer.
Nikon D700, f/3.2 30mm, 1/3200 Image © Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR
In the end I get the permission from the ICE to continue. One thing I’ve learned from my journey is that as soon as you get permission to shoot photographs from any authority, your time is often limited. In these circumstances you can get a better selection of images by spending some time planning your shoot before you arrive. Key things to consider are often how much light you will have and what options there are for different angles.
Being at the airport with the deportees feels strange. People look at me with hostility – they consider me as one of the people responsible for their deportation so I’m often met with some trepidation. A good photojournalist always looks at both sides of the story in order to produce a balanced report, but this situation does make me feel uncomfortable.
Once my time at immigration is over, I rent a car to drive from Phoenix to San Diego, in order to be able to stop and enjoy the desert. This is the same desert that’s also the enemy of so many migrants: getting lost, extreme temperatures (both hot and cold), and a lack of water make this a very treacherous journey for migrants looking to the bright lights of San Diego.
San Diego is right on the border with Mexico. For some reason I feel a little nervous about the US. I can’t imagine a story NOT being photographed in this country, so I do feel pressure that my potential US clients will be looking at this assignment very carefully to see if I try something ‘new’ in this country. I look to my colleague, Tracey, who helps me with research in California and points out that there are a lot of Iraqis here. Not just a few – in the San Diego area alone there are estimates of around 60,000, mainly in the town of El Cajon just outside the city. Tracey has good contacts in the area, which is a great help in meeting people as I’m really interested in capturing a story around how Iraqis feel about living in the US and how they see the future of Iraq. Do they want to go back at some point or are they becoming US citizens? Do they see the US as the liberators of Iraq or the ones that occupied?
Nikon D700, f/2.8 28mm, 1/100 Image © Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR
After leaving San Diego, I slowly drift north to Los Angeles where I will look for Sonia Munoz, a Salvadorian and the mother and wife of the family I met in San Salvador. Sonia went to the US six years ago to find work, because the family couldn’t pay their debts. It dawns on me how strange it is to look for one individual in a city this size, who I only vaguely know from my past trip to El Salvador. I find Sonia in an apartment she shares with her mother and other family members. In total I count seven people sleeping in just two bedrooms. Sonia works in Beverly Hills as a maid, earning $10 an hour. She dreams of going back to see her children and husband, who she hasn’t seen since she left, but she needs to work here in order to provide her children with some money to study.
Meanwhile back home in San Salvador, Sonia’s children, Irving and his sister Nancy, have started a breakdance school – the Iberia Breakdance Club – in a rough neighborhood. In an area dominated by gangs, Irving formed the group as an initiative to get more children off the streets and away from the gang culture that is rife in some parts of the city.
Nikon D700, 20mm f/3.5 at 1/250s Image © Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR
Nikon D700, f/2.8 35mm, 1/400 Image © Kadir van Lohuizen / NOOR
Kadir’s Via PanAm project is a 10-month, 15-country trip looking at migration in the Americas, and the role it has played in climate change, war and conflict, and economic issues. What do you think of Kadir’s fascinating journey? Do you have any first hand experiences of the countries he’s visited? Make sure you continue to check the blog for updates from his epic journey, featuring still images and videos from this fascinating project. The ‘Via PanAm’ app for the iPad is available in the app store here.