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Photographer documents immigration and life inside detention facility


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Amna Nawaz: There have been more than two million apprehensions at the U.S. Mexico border in the last year. That's a record high.

And since 2018, photographer Pablo Allison has documented the human stories behind these statistics.

Laura Barrón-López is back now with this conversation as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Laura Barrón-López: From the crowded tops of freight trains in Mexico to quiet moments of rest, Mexican-British photojournalist Pablo Allison has documented the journeys of migrants from Central America to the U.S. Southern border for the last five years.

His latest project, the "Detainee Handbook," explores what it's like for migrants detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from inside the detention center where he found himself in 2019.

How did you start photographing migrants making their way to the U.S.?

Pablo Allison, Photographer: I was driven to wanting to investigate the landscape of Mexico traveling on trains from the southern border of Mexico up to New York. That was the intended journey.

I could not avoid but to photograph the situation that I was surrounded by. That one journey ended up in about four years of on-and-off documentation of migrant caravans, individual journeys, following small groups of people migrating to the United States.

Laura Barrón-López: What are some of the forces that drive people to flee and make this difficult journey?

Pablo Allison: The first journey I did, I was in El Salvador, and I heard about the story of a kid was being recruited by the gang, and he didn't want to be a part of the MS-13 gang.

And, therefore, he escaped his neighborhood. That was a vivid and direct account of what I had been reading in news and books, specifically while I was working at Amnesty International, which is where I got to know more about the situation in Central America.

My task was to find stories of human rights abuses and atrocities like the one of this kid. I have heard hundreds of stories of people that I have met along the route. The pattern is violence over poverty, although they go hand in hand.

Laura Barrón-López: What are some of the themes about humanity that you explore in your work?

Pablo Allison: I have found elements of love through meeting people that have a lot of love for themselves and the lives they live.

Migrants is a concept that's used, like many other concepts, as categories to dehumanize. And so, for me, I try not to use the migrant as a concept, but rather use names sometimes, Carlos, Pepe, Javier, Maria, Carmen, who are people that I have met along the way.

And it's people that I have befriended. Those are key elements in the work that I do.

Laura Barrón-López: There's this photograph that struck me that I think gets at what you're talking about with love. It was in 2019 that you took it, and it shows this young Honduran couple. And it really evokes hope.

Do you remember what that couple's aspirations were, what they and others with them were hoping to achieve as they traveled to another country?

Pablo Allison: It was early in the morning, and the sun was rising. No one was awake. I took a picture. And she spotted me. And she looked at me.

And then, when they woke up, I remember telling them that they were a beautiful couple and that they were very lucky to be together traveling and protecting one another. I don't remember asking them, but I just assumed that their aspiration was to seek for a better life, like everyone is trying to do from places where conflict and poverty exist.

Laura Barrón-López: And, as you started this journey of photographing people who make this trek for a better life, you also said that you never considered visiting a U.S. immigration detention center as part of your photography work.

But, in 2019, you yourself were detained for several weeks after your U.S. visa expired. What was that experience like?

Pablo Allison: When I was going through immigration on the border between Mexico and the United States, I went through it, and no questions asked, no stamp on my passport, because I had gone in with my previous entry and not with a new one, which I thought had been the case.

It was an administrative error. I didn't know very well. They didn't explain. And then I ended up being there for almost a month. It is a detention center, yes, but it smells, looks and tastes like a prison. Luckily -- sadly, but luckily, I was able to document this.

Facing the terrible situation of being inside a detention center in the United States allowed me at least to be able to focus on that side of the story, which I never in my life would have thought I would have -- I would have ended up doing.

Laura Barrón-López: And that side of the story is the new book, the "Detainee Handbook." It contains sketches, diary entries and much more from your time there.

So what was it like to document that experience without your camera?

Pablo Allison: It allowed me to stay calm for the time that I was there, which was almost a month. I focused on portraits of detainees. And I also asked many people in there to write their stories or ideas related to incarceration, migration, family, freedom, et cetera.

So, what you have in the book is a participation or a collaboration between people and my sketches of people.

Laura Barrón-López: Pablo Allison, thank you so much for your time.

Pablo Allison: Thanks very much.

Amna Nawaz: A powerful conversation and some powerful pictures.

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