Review by Melanie Chapman •
Have you ever enjoyed a novel, or fallen in love with a painting or film, only to later learn something uncomfortable about the creator or the situation in which the work was produced? Did you find yourself rethinking your reaction based on that new information, or were you able to set the context aside and focus purely on the work?
I begin my review of Ken Light’s MIDNIGHT/LA FRONTERA with the admission that I initially misunderstood the context in which these images were made, and to offer an explanation as to why that may have been good. If you are like me and prefer to experience new work without any advanced knowledge or prejudice, perhaps you should stop reading now and obtain a copy of this compelling and beautiful TBW photobook.
All photographed at night, the 66 black and white images which comprise MIDNIGHT/LA FRONTERA were made by Light between 1983 and 1987 utilizing a Hasselblad camera and flash. All images are of migrants, primarily men; some hiding in the underbrush, some climbing over a chain link fence, some lying on the ground. Not one person looks happy or comfortable, some stare directly into the lens, some stand with arms folded and their eyes cast down. If you have ever had an unexpected bright burst of flash pointed in your direction, casting one’s gaze away is a natural response. However, as Light’s visual story unfolds, it becomes more evident that the people in these images have not just been “captured” by the photographer’s gaze, they have been caught in the most actual sense of the word.
What is obvious is these photos are of people trying to cross the southernmost borders into the United States. My initial misunderstanding was that these were images taken by someone who was also traveling through the desert under the cover of darkness, also making a treacherous trip. Thus, the ever-present flash (which so beautifully illuminates figures otherwise hidden and results in gorgeous tones of deep black made all the richer by TBW’s high-end printing) seemed a surprising risk amidst a group of people whose collective goal was to remain undetected. More impressive still was the (incorrect) idea that one of these travelers would have the equipment and inclination to document the treacherous journey when the ever-present threat of being arrested loomed in the shadow or just beyond the ridge.
Perhaps this experience will cure me of my habit of approaching images with little-to-no advanced knowledge about their creation. Had I read more carefully the foreword essay “The Jaguar’s Path”, written by Jose Angel Navejas (presented in both English and Spanish), I would have understood these treacherous details of one migrant’s journey were not those of the photographer himself. As is explained in MIDNIGHT/LA FRONTERA’s afterword notes, Light was not traveling the vast expanse with these migrants; rather he was a passenger riding with the US Border Patrol. The people he photographed had only moments before been discovered hiding under truck tires or trying to scale a chain link fence. Light’s images captured their capture, and just when these migrants’ dreams have ended is the moment in which his flash goes off.
Light is clearly a talented photographer. Many images have painterly qualities; expressions are haunting, the framing and timing precise. The presentation of this work is also quite impressive; the pages have the luxurious feel of actual prints, the physical book among the finest in my collection. However, I cannot see the work with the same eyes ever again. As a veteran photojournalist recently pointed out when viewing an image of a sleeping homeless man, these people had no agency about having their picture taken. They are facing at the very least an unpleasant future, probable deportation, certain arrest. Mothers hide their own faces while holding their children close, knowing they cannot protect them from what is to come. Can we as observers, as people who love photographs, divorce ourselves from these circumstances?
Do we feel empathy for these people? Does the photographer? Does the Border Patrol?
One hopes the answer is yes.
Given Light’s career as a social documentary photographer and educator, including published books about Death Row and the dangers of coal mining, it feels safe to assume his sympathies are with the migrants. Thus, the discomfort I felt after looking through MIDNIGHT/LA FRONTERA was not from the context in which these images were made, but rather the uncomfortable knowledge that thousands of migrants have suffered and died in their own pursuit of the American dream. For the migrants and their supporters, in the decades since these images were made, America has become an increasingly hostile place, even if they do succeed.
MIDNIGHT/LA FRONTERA, Ken Light
Photographs by Ken Light, born in the Bronx, NY, currently based in San Francisco, CA
Publisher: TBW Books, Oakland CA, Copyright 2020
Introduction: Excerpt from “The Jaguar’s Path” by Jose Angel Navejas, Afterword by Ken Light
Texts: English & Spanish
Hardbound, tip-in on front and verso, stitched binding, printed in Turkey, ISBN 978-1-942953-43-2
Book Design & Editing: Ken Light, Lester Rosso and Paul Schick
Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).