Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

Women at the wall in Friendship Park, Tijuana, Mexico. Photo © Bill McLaughlin.

soy de aquí

y soy de allá

I didn’t build

this border

that halts me

the word fron

tera splits on my tongue

from “Where You From?” by Gina Valdés


Hope is the last thing you’d expect to find in the faces of people trapped in the border city of Tijuana. They’ve traveled from all over Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and beyond in hopes of finding a life in the promised land of the United States. They endure hardship, suffering and loss. Stuck at the border, some for months or years, they wait. And hope.

Bill McLaughlin captures that hope in a series of portraits he made late in 2019 before the Pandemic shut the border even tighter and challenged what hope the migrants and refugees still had.

McLaughlin left his home in Chenango County, took a train to San Diego and then the trolley to the border to meet and photograph people a world away from the rural landscape he calls home. He is passionate about the land and talks reverently about the bonds one forms by planting and cultivating. He’s primarily a painter but began photographing landscapes in and around Chenango County, which connected him with people, and he expanded into making their portraits. He became fascinated with what he calls “the power of the portrait, people looking right back at you.” 

The cover of the photozine available for purchase. Photo © Bill McLaughlin.

Meanwhile, McLaughlin was hearing about the humanitarian crisis at the United States southern border and was upset. Photos in the media “showed migrants as dangerous, threatening, in the worst possible condition,” McLaughlin says. “It was a terrible misrepresentation, combined with hateful rhetoric, a formula to otherize people.”

Not for McLaughlin. “I wanted to put a face on the tragedy; take what I’d been doing about making portraits and apply it to the greater good.” 

For McLaughlin, the atrocity that moved him to act was the drowning deaths of Salvadoran Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, as they tried to cross the Río Grande in June of 2019. The photograph of their bodies, face down in the shallow water, was seen by millions and sparked outrage. But people soon went back to their lives and the outrage faded.

So he went to Tijuana. Once there, he connected with Hugo Castro, who led relief efforts in Tijuana for Border Angels, a San Diego-based volunteer group that provides aid for migrants on both sides of the border. Castro helped put him in touch with shelters providing support to migrants stuck in Tijuana as they awaited an opportunity to cross legally into the U.S. He rented an apartment in Las Playas, on the coast west of the city where the border wall reaches the sea. From there, with the help of Castro and others, he was able to go into Tijuana each day and connect with people in shelters. He even stayed a couple of nights in one of the dozens of shelters in Tijuana.

McLaughlin was impressed by the warmth and compassion he found among people who have nothing. “Here they are, 1,000 miles from home,’ he says, “food insecure, future insecure, they can’t go back, they can’t go forward and the camaraderie among them was really inspiring.”

He doesn’t speak a lot of Spanish, so communicating his aims in making the portraits was not easy. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that many migrants are fleeing danger at home and in Tijuana, and do not want anyone to recognize them in a photograph. But many were willing to pose for portraits and when they did, they showed their resilience, faith and hope.

The road leading to Shelter Embajadores de Jesus in Scorpion Canyon, Tijuana. Photo © Bill McLaughlin.

The portraits show people of all ages, from children to grandmothers. In most of them, there is a slight smile, tinged with sadness but not self-pity. McLaughlin only identifies them by their first names. Ruth, a mother from El Salvador, looks away from the camera with a slight smile, and a face that shows wisdom without resignation. In another striking family portrait, a. young Mexican mother holds her small son in her arms. He is looking at her, but her young daughter, perhaps five years old, looks straight at the camera, cautiously, curiously. The mother also looks directly into the camera, a slight smile showing hope. And faith.

One young man from Honduras thought long and hard about whether he should have his picture taken. After pondering it overnight, he approached McLaughlin in the morning and said yes, he’d like a portrait of him and his family. His family turned out to be him and his wife. The portrait shows a proud man, looking directly and confidently at the camera, as if posing for a formal portrait. McLaughlin compares it to the formal portraits immigrants to America traditionally made upon their arrival in a new land. The young man’s wife is also looking directly at the camera, but a little more apprehensively, as if the journey and the experience weighed more heavily upon her. McLaughlin would like to give them a copy of the. portrait, but he doesn’t know what happened to them and cannot find out anything about them.

But it’s the photograph he missed that haunts McLaughlin. One night, after the daily religious service at the shelter, he sat talking with a young woman in the dark. “She was maybe 19,” he says. “It had taken her months to get to the shelter and she was pregnant the whole time. She had the baby in the shelter but lost it a month later.”

He was struck by her attitude. “There was a sadness about her, but it wasn’t a neurotic sadness. She was not being a victim. She struck me as still hopeful.” 

She agreed to have her portrait taken the next day, but in the morning, McLaughlin couldn’t find her. He has no idea where she is now or what happened to her.

What has happened to her, and the young family man from Honduras and all the others who look out from these moving, affecting portraits? Some may have made it to America. Others may have lost hope and gone away. Others are still waiting in Tijuana. Wherever they are, McLaughlin’s portraits remain as a living reminder, at once static and vital, of lives lived on the border of hope and despair. 

Note: An exhibition of McLaughlin’s portraits, “Living in Limbo, Portraits from the Border,” was on display recently at Hamilton Center for the Arts in Hamilton, NY.

No other shows are planned right now, but a photozine is available for purchase.

More information about McLaughlin is on his website.

More information about Border Angels is on the organization’s website.

Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He was among a group of volunteers who went to Tijuana to provide humanitarian aid a few months before McLaughlin’s visit. The poem by Gina Valdés uses the word “frontera,” which means “border” in Spanish.

10 thoughts on “Central New York artist puts dignified face on migrants in limbo

  1. Jim McKeever says:

    Reblogged this on Jim McKeever and commented:

    Insightful interview with an artist/photographer who took portraits with dignity in Tijuana, Mexico.


  2. beth says:

    what amazing work

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dennnisharrod says:

      It is amazing work and if you have a chance to see the large-scale portraits in an exhibition it’s even more moving. If there’s another exhibition, we’ll let you know.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Pat Greenberg says:

    Dennis this is an enthralling piece about a great topic. I love the photographer’s perspective on these fellow human beings, all the more so for having been part of the group at the border.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dennnisharrod says:

      Thanks, Pat. I wish we had gotten the story out earlier while the exhibit was still up in Hamilton. He’s printed them nearly life size, so it’s nearly like meeting the people face to face. Here’s hoping another exhibition will happen.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Katherine B Polhamus says:

    We saw the show in Hamilton and it was moving to see this exhibit. Thanks for your article, Dennis.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dennnisharrod says:

      So glad you had a chance to see the show. It’s moving, isn’t it? Here’s hoping it’s shown again somewhere soon. Thanks for reading.


  5. dennnisharrod says:

    If you want to see more of Bill McLaughlin’s work, he has an exhibition of his paintings on now at the New Woodstock Library. His Tonalist landscapes “strive to express not only his emotional connection to the land but also the urgent necessity for the active stewardship of our lands and water. ” Anyone who loves the land in Central New York will enjoy this exhibition. More info is here:


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