Tom Kiefer’s Photos at the Skirball


A new photography show is a timely reminder of the physical and emotional atrocities suffered by migrants crossing the border into our country. The work is simple and powerful: collections of items rescued from trash bins at detention centers are presented in a heartbreaking arrangements.

The Skirball’s current show El Sueño Americano | The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer  is a small but mighty exhibit that has received incredible press (locally and nationally).

Here is a New Yorker profile of Tom from 2017.

Here is Tom’s Instagram account.

Here is an LA Times article about the show.

If, as all good writers say, “God is in the details,” the specifics of this show simply speaks of the strife these families face. You can see it through March 8, 2020.

From the Skirball’s website: How we treat the most vulnerable—including migrants seeking a better life—defines our character as a nation. Drawn from the photographic series of the same name, El Sueño Americano | The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer asks us to consider how we treat migrants as a reflection of who we are and who we want to be as Americans. Responding to the dehumanizing treatment migrants face in detention, Kiefer carefully arranged and photographed objects seized and discarded by border officials—objects deemed “potentially lethal” or “non-essential” among a variety of belongings crucial for sustenance, hygiene, protection, comfort, and emotional strength.

Kiefer found these items in the garbage while working as a janitor at a Customs and Border Protection station in Ajo, Arizona from 2003 through 2014. While obtaining permission to donate discarded food items to a local pantry, Kiefer noticed the deeply personal items he also found discarded each day: letters, clothing, toys, medications and toiletries. Moved by the untold stories these objects embody, Kiefer commemorates them in photographs akin to portraits, salvaging and preserving traces of human journeys cut short. 

El Sueño Americano | The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer presents a selection of more than one hundred photographs from Kiefer’s ongoing project, along with a newly recorded video interview with the artist and a migrant who herself crossed the border. A take-home printed guide outlines the history of restrictive immigration policies in the United States and connect visitors with organizations involved in legal and humanitarian aid and advocacy.

Blending documentary and fine art photography, Kiefer’s images are a poignant testament to the hardships of migration and a call to return to human decency in how we treat each other.

Always visit the gift shop at the Skirball, which has ever-changing topical items for salethat can help extend the conversation and experience with your family.