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Skirball Cultural Center

This is a past exhibition

This exhibition was on view at the Skirball
October 17, 2019–March 8, 2020

About the Exhibition

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.

More to Explore

Los Amuletos Migran (The Amulets Migrate), 2019

Listen to migrants’ rights advocate Dora Rodriguez's story of crossing the US-Mexico border in 1980 and the context and meaning she gives to Tom Kiefer's collection of items that were taken from migrants at the border.

Donor Support

The exhibition and its related educational programs at the Skirball Cultural Center are made possible by generous support from the following donors: