Equity & Diversity Photo Essay

Documenting the Immigrant-Children Influx

By Education Week Photo Staff — June 27, 2014 2 min read
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Associated Press photographer Eric Gay gives Education Week a behind-the-scenes look at his recent assignment photographing immigrant children being held at a U.S. Customs and Border processing center in Texas.

Gay’s photos were used in a recent Education Week story on the ways schools are preparing for an unprecedented increase in the flow of Central American children and youths streaming across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Here’s his account of the assignment:

The instructions were simple, “….show no faces of children, show no faces of agents, and show no computer screens.” Following the instructions would not be easy!

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents work at a processing facility for unaccompanied children in Brownsville, Texas, earlier this month. The facility is one of many along the southern border of the United States tasked with processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since Oct. 1.

As the number of unaccompanied children crossing illegally into the United States has surged, the media was allowed a rare opportunity to tour temporary immigration holding facilities in Texas and Arizona earlier this month. In Brownsville, Texas, “pool” access was granted for about 20 minutes to the Customs and Border Protection processing center; one television camera for video, from NBC, one reporter, from NBC, and one still photographer, myself, representing the Associated Press.

We were first escorted into a processing area with several holding cells. “No faces, no faces, no faces” raced through my head. We were met at the first holding cell by a group of boys with their hands and faces pressed against a large window staring back at us. Great photo opportunity, but because their faces were showing, I couldn’t shoot that!

A young detainee looks through the door of a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas.

It was still morning, and the next two holding cells proved it. Both rooms were filled wall-to-wall with children sleeping in blankets, the first with boys and second with girls. This scene offered something to photograph, since most of the children had all or parts of their heads covered with the blankets.

Two detainees play as others sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility. Boys and girls are separated, but the very young stay with their mothers.

With a glance back at the first cell, I was able to photograph some of the boys peeking through the door windows and corners of the glass window, the gestures helped obscure parts of their faces so I could photograph them.

Child detainees sleep in a holding cell at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas. The detainees sleep on the floor, and there is a toilet in the corner of each cell.

I spent ten minutes there photographing children, parents, and agents from the back, side, out of focus, obscured, faces cropped … anything to make a usable and “allowable” photo.

We followed the same drill in an outdoor area where we were shown portable showers, a play area, a clothing tent, and portable laundry room.

Clothes for detainees are sorted in a tent at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility. Clothes and shoes are provided for those in need.

While shooting inside, I recall thinking some of the agents might actually have been glad we were there. One agent pointed out a toddler saying, “Did you see that one over there!” Another agent opened the door to a holding cell so we did not have to take all of our images through a window.

The time flew by as I knew it would. I tried my best to be quick, ensuring a variety of images while still focusing on the people, trying to tell their story through meaningful photographs.

Detainees color and draw at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas. Portable showers, laundry facilities, and a play area are located at the facility.

I left feeling like I could spend the entire day, if not week, at the facility. The tour we took just scratched the surface of the story. And with the constraints on shooting, it would have been a luxury to have more time.

About: Eric Gay joined the Associate Press as a staff photographer in the Dallas bureau in 1986, and moved to San Antonio in 1999. Prior to working at the AP, Eric was a staff photographer for the Dallas Times Herald.

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A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.

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