Originally published by The NY Times
Great news photos happen in an instant and are captured by instinct and experience. But sometimes they are also the result of years of preparation, research and commitment to an issue way before it explodes into the national consciousness and dominates the news.
Ten years ago, John Moore returned to the United States after almost two decades covering conflict abroad. Having lived in Nicaragua, India, South Africa, Egypt and Pakistan, he had come home with “fresh eyes” that allowed him to encounter his own country anew. He was struck by the human drama in the struggle over immigration from Mexico and the people fleeing poverty and violence in their own country. When Arizona passed a restrictive immigration law in 2010, the “fear and xenophobia toward immigrants” that he began seeing inspired him to spend much of the next eight years traveling the length of the United States-Mexico border, working in immigrant communities and covering law enforcement and protests.
It was a prescient decision.
“That fear of immigrants was of course channeled by then-candidate Trump during his campaign to create a potent campaign issue,” Mr. Moore noted.
Image Central American immigrants riding on top of a freight train near Juchitlán, Mexico, in August 2013.
CreditJohn Moore/Getty Images
Not only was he deeply immersed in the immigration story when President Trump was leading chants of “build that wall,” he also was prepared when the administration’s zero-tolerance policy that separated parents and children who illegally crossed the border triggered global outrage.
Mr. Moore, a staff photographer for Getty Images, now has perhaps the most comprehensive body of work of any news photographer covering immigration. His images — his book “Undocumented” was published by Powerhouse and Getty Images — are being highlighted in two projections at the Visa pour l’image festival in Perpignan, France.
Mr. Moore, who grew up in Texas, spent a lot of time with the United States Border Patrol and was on a ride-along as officers detained and frisked families before taking them to a processing center, where they might be separated. In what would lead to a widely circulated — and debated — image, he watched as officers, about to search Sandra Maria Sanchez, asked her to put down her daughter. As she did, the child started crying and Mr. Moore took a few frames. He spoke with Ms. Sanchez briefly and she told him that she and her daughter had traveled for months from Honduras through Mexico.
He filed his photos, making sure to point out that mother and child were taken for possible separation. “A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas” he wrote in the caption. “The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation.”
The images went viral. One photo of the crying child, Yanela, was often used as a potent symbol of the agony of family separation and led opponents of the hard-line policy to donate millions of dollars to fight for family reunification. When it turned out that Yanela and her mother actually stayed together, conservative commentators pounced on the image as an example of “fake news.” Time magazine featured part of the image in a cover photo illustration with President Trump towering over Yanela. The cover was pilloried from many sides in social media.
Border Patrol agents arriving to detain Central American asylum seekers in McAllen, Tex., in June. CreditJohn Moore/Getty Images
Even though the photo of the crying child triggered an intense reaction, Mr. Moore said it was similar to many others he had taken over the years. And the scenes he saw that day were not unusual for him.
“The best we can do, often as wire service photojournalists, is to photograph honestly and caption correctly,” he said. “Our photographs sometimes take on a life of their own later on. As photojournalists, we can’t always control that narrative. And this is especially the case on social media, when the original captions by some people can be stripped off the pictures.”
Mr. Moore was able to capture the dramatic moment of Yanela crying because of a decade of photographing immigration issues, relying on relationships and trust he has built with federal law enforcement as well as nonprofits and other groups that help immigrants along their torturous journey.
“The goal of this project over all these years has been to humanize the issues of immigration and border security,” he said. “Oftentimes, these things are discussed in statistical terms, which can be quite dry, and I’ve always tried to put a human face on this.”