On a narrow road jutting off a rural highway in Central Louisiana is a massive detention center, tucked behind towering pine trees in aptly named Pineville, Louisiana. Rising nearly as high are rows and rows of barbed wire fences with watchtowers placed every few hundred feet. Besides the flags flapping in the wind, the only sound outside the facility is the quiet whirring of security cameras as they pan back and forth. On the other side of the road is a mix of abandoned and decaying homes alongside stretches of mobile homes that are defended by half a dozen dogs, all barking.
At 8 a.m. on a dreary and unseasonably cold March morning, I arrive at the detention center wondering to myself how long I can take pictures before I get kicked out. I didn’t have to wonder very long—it took three minutes before a small crew of security guards and a warden caught up to me and escorted me off the premises. So it goes.
A few hours later I would be back, this time joined by Loyola University Chicago Law students who were volunteering their time to help detained immigrants in the facility. As they entered the facility I discreetly photographed them from my car before speeding away to avoid detection. It was my job to tell their story, all without being able to photograph really anything the students were doing.
I’ve encountered this challenge a few times before, perhaps most similarly when I worked on a story photographing rural population loss in Wisconsin. When I embarked on that trip I remember trying to explain to my editors how I was going to photograph the absence of something. I don’t remember what I told them, but it must have been believable enough for them to trust me on the project that would span over months and thousands of miles driving.
And here I was again, this time in a completely foreign state to me and with less than 48 hours to shoot a whole project. Fortunately Louisiana, especially the rural areas, are remarkably photogenic. Though I’m not sure everyone would agree with me that decaying swamps and bayous are beautiful, their exoticism to a man who grew up with rolling hills of red farms and corn/soybean fields is undeniable. After just a few hours of meandering the middle-of-nowhere roads it became apparent that my project was less about what the students were doing and more about where they were doing it. The photos became less literal and more metaphorical—or as I joked with the students, I got to do some capital “A” Art.
The two detentions centers outside Alexandria, LA., visited by the law students were picked because they exemplify a growing issue within the immigration crisis. That is, the Deep South is becoming the home of detained immigrants, with many of the facilities that are supposed to be run by the Department of Homeland Security being operated by private, for-profit companies. Detainees are sent from all over the United States to a handful of these for-profit detention centers dotting the rural South. Compared to similar facilities near large cities in the North, these detention centers operate with very little oversight from media outlets or the towns they border. In the case of the Louisiana facilities, they provide a huge portion of minimum wage jobs for those in the community, making them locally popular for residents that have few other employment options in rural communities.
Partnering with a local non-profit, the Loyola students were tasked with interviewing detainees to see if they might be eligible for lower bail or other legal relief. In the vast majority of cases, detainees are arrested for low-level offenses—such as driving without a license—and are sent to detention centers indefinitely, without a trial because they are undocumented and not citizens.
These issues, in a nutshell, were what I was to represent visually. So while the students were volunteering in the detention center that I couldn’t be in or photograph, I went for a drive to find locations to shoot interesting portraits of the student trip organizers. In fact, I did a lot of driving—over 800 miles in the 40 or so hours I was there. Not far from the detention center I stumbled across a portion of a national forest that had just gone through a controlled burn, lending it a very eerie appearance. (Huge kudos to the students who woke up at sunrise so I could get the lighting I wanted.) Our story will be coming out sometime in May and I’ll provide a link to it then.