Artist Audio: Tom Kiefer

Artist Audio & Transcription: Tom Kiefer

Transcription of Artist Audio: Tom Kiefer

TOM KIEFER: My name’s Tom Kiefer, and I’m an artist photographer. And for 11 years, my day job was working as a custodian slash groundskeeper at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility near the Mexico border about ten miles south of Ajo, Arizona. It was in Why, Arizona. So, what happened was the food that the migrants and people seeking asylum, the canned food that they were carrying with them in their backpacks, that was now just being thrown away.

So, one day I just kind of muster up the courage, went to the supervisor and I said, “Hey, can I bring this food to the food bank?” And the agent was really great. His exact words to me were “Bless you.” When I started to recover the food, I would see Bibles, rosaries, family photographs. This like holy cow. I mean, it was just—it was shocking.

I kind of realized that I was going to have to do something with these items. I mean, I was not going to leave them in the trash. I was not going to let them go to the landfill. So, I just started collecting. And it wasn’t until about six months, a year later, that I realized, well, my god, I am a photographer. I’m an artist. It’s like, holy cow, this is it, this is the way forward. 

The most important thing about how I am, the manner in which I approach this, is that to me, these objects are sacred. And I want to photograph them in a way that gives—that shows my deep regard and respect for them and also let the objects, the items do the talking.

You know, one thing that’s important for me and I have at the beginning—I receive some kind of, you know, criticism from my peers. Like the images were too beautiful, too designed. And they didn’t show the blood, sweat and tears, the dirt, you know, that—the journey itself, and I just kind of rejected that. I just you know—where I was coming from is like, who am I to even try to imagine what it was like to risk your life? Cross, you know, a backpack with all the important things that meant so much that were important to—essential. And yeah, it was just to let the objects—to present them in a dignified, respectful, and beautiful way.

Tom Kiefer, Trail Markers, from the series El Sueño Americano/The American Dream, 2015, Archival pigment print, Framed: 15 ½ x 19 ½ x 1 ½ in, Courtesy of the artist and REDUX Pictures (Photo credit © Tom Kiefer)

Artist Bio

Tom Kiefer is a photographer who grew up in Seattle, Washington and is currently based in Ajo, Arizona. Two years after moving to Ajo in 2001, Kiefer began supplementing his income from creative work with a part-time job as a janitor at the nearby U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility. In 2007, Kiefer was given permission to collect food confiscated from migrants and asylum seekers for donation to the local food pantry. Alongside the confiscated food in the trash, Kiefer found personal items – wallets, crosses, family photos, bibles, toothbrushes – that had been disposed of by border agents. 

In the hope of commemorating the people and stories held within them, Kiefer began quietly collecting and documenting these lost objects in a series of photographs that would grow into the project El Sueño Americano/The American Dream. In 2014, Kiefer resigned from his job to focus on photographing El Sueño Americano full time. His work has since been exhibited at the Skirball Cultural Center, the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, and Etherton Gallery, among others. You can find Tom Kiefer at tomkiefer.com and @tomkiefer.photographer on Instagram. 

Photo courtesy of the artist.

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