Seeing More Than A Fence: Road Trip Along The Southern Border

This photograph is included in an exhibition currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, <em>Photography In Mexico.</em> (Border fence, near Naco, Ariz., 2010)
This photograph is included in an exhibition currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Photography In Mexico. (Border fence, near Naco, Ariz., 2010)

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Victoria Sambunaris is standing on a cliff overlooking the Rio Grande in Roma, Texas.

From her vantage point, she says, she can view children swimming in the river while their families sit at picnic tables and barbecue across the bank. Some of the children race on their Jet Skis, trying to keep up with U.S. border agents patrolling the river on pontoons.

This portion of the Rio Grande divides Roma from Ciudad Miguel Aleman in Mexico. It's one of many border towns that straddle the U.S.-Mexico border, which spans nearly 2,000 miles — separating four U.S. and six Mexican states.

This is also one of many stops Sambunaris, a photographer, has made along the border this year. Over the course of eight months, the New York-based Sambunaris has journeyed west from Del Rio, Texas, to San Diego, documenting the landscape with a large-format, 5-by-7 field camera. She calls it her "Border Series."

"I might say that I relate to this place for many reasons, being first-generation Greek with immigrant parents who came to this country in search of the American dream," Sambunaris writes in an email interview with NPR.

Her collection documents the physical landscape, which is an inherent part of the debate over immigration policy, as well as the violence erupting in border towns ignited by Mexican drug cartels.

"When I leave New York my friends are terrified for me," says Sambunaris. "They don't see the ... truth of the border — what the border really is — which is this incredible, rich place. It's beautiful."

A sense of place is evident either from Sambunaris' photos taken from high, or even on flat terrain. At first glance, some may not appear to be taken at the border; look closer, though, and many do have some trace of the border fence running directly across the center of the image.

"I'm trying to convey that it is one: one landscape and one place, although they're two different countries," says Sambunaris on the phone from Santa Fe, N.M., where she's taking a break from her latest road trip.

She says it's not long before she will be drawn back to the border's edge.


"You have all these border towns, and they're all unique in their own way, and there's a beautiful culture there," says Sambunaris. "Life still exists regardless of what's going on."

During her drives, border patrol agents have offered their own advice, acting as tour guides and telling her the best vantage points. Sambunaris says they've even offered her lifts and guided tours. Driving through remote areas, it's hard not to be noticed.

"Driving a dark gray Suburban with tinted windows and New York plates along the border fence definitely requires I tell Border Patrol I am there and why."

The focus of her next series examines the border's commerce and the many cars, trucks and trains that travel across it. Despite warnings of violence, her goal is to cross over to the Mexican side of the border, which she has begun to do, and take photos from there, too.

Photos: Border Series

Untitled, 2010 (Victoria Sambunaris/Yancey Richardson Gallery)
Man on horse, Big Bend National Park, 2009 (Victoria Sambunaris/Yancey Richardson Gallery)
Levee, Presidio, Texas, 2009 (Victoria Sambunaris/Yancey Richardson Gallery)
Santa Elena Canyon, 2010 (Victoria Sambunaris/Yancey Richardson Gallery)
Train from Cristo Rey, Sunland Park, N.M., 2010 (Victoria Sambunaris/Yancey Richardson Gallery)
Border View south from grasslands, Hereford, Ariz., 2010 (Victoria Sambunaris/Yancey Richardson Gallery)
Border road east, Douglas, Ariz., 2010 (Victoria Sambunaris/Yancey Richardson Gallery)
Farm with workers, Jacumba, Calif., 2010 (Victoria Sambunaris/Yancey Richardson Gallery)

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