El Sueño Americano / The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer

October 17, 2019–March 8, 2020

About the Exhibition

How we treat the most vulnerable—including immigrants 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 immigrants as a reflection of who we are and who we want to be as Americans. Responding to the dehumanizing treatment immigrants 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 newly recorded video interviews with the artist and with migrants who have themselves crossed the border. Additional interpretation will outline 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.