West Virginia based visual artist, educator, and documentarian Lisa Elmaleh has been traveling across the United States documenting American landscapes, life and culture since 2007.
Elmaleh's latest series of work, titled Promised Land/Tierra Prometida, started around three years ago when she began volunteering with humanitarian aid groups at the US-Mexico border. This is where she'd return time and time again to photograph the landscapes, aid workers, and migrants along the border.
Elmaleh's photojournalistic approach is different to what one might usually see in the news or on social media. Through the slow process of making photographs with her 8x10 camera alongside her active volunteer work, she is able to bring a sense of compassion and understanding to her subjects.
"By being an active participant in supporting the lives, and at times the recovery, of the humans caught in the midst of this issue, I ask, how do I convey a sense of empathy through the photographs I am making? How do I pass this empathy along, and is it possible to do so?" says Elmaleh in her project statement for Promised Land.
Thanks to her work, which actively bears witness to different aspects of migration, she is a recipient this years esteemed Creator Labs Photo Fund through Google's Creator Labs and Aperture Foundation.
Elmaleh has very kindly sat down with us to discuss in depth the making of Promised Land.
Hi Lisa, welcome to Lomography Magazine! Can you please start off by telling us a bit about yourself and your work in general?
My mom named me Lisa because she said she never met a Lisa she didn’t like. I was raised by her in a small apartment in Miami.
For the past 10 years, I’ve lived in a simple, partially off-grid cabin in the woods in West Virginia. Last summer I lived with a wild corn snake who would come in at night to sleep on my stack of sardine cans. My outhouse blooms bright yellow with forsythia in April. When I am not here, I am along the border between the United States and Mexico, working with a fierce community of humanitarian aid and migrant justice organizations.
The work I create as a photographer has always been personal. I embed myself in the communities in which I am photographing. I use an 8x10 large format camera, which I started using in college. I like working slowly, methodically. I find working in the darkroom to be therapeutic, I like watching the faces and places come up in my darkroom trays. It’s like having the opportunity to visit with my friends, again, even though so many are far away.
Can you tell us a bit about the process that went into making Promised Land/Tierra Prometida?
Promised Land/ Tierra Prometida is a photographic body of work I have been developing since 2020. This project was inspired by and in contrast to the visual culture and discourse circulating about immigration in mainstream news during the Trump years. The rhetoric about the wall catalyzed this inquiry, propelling me to travel along the U.S-Mexico border to document and volunteer with humanitarian aid organizations. As both an active participant in the migrant justice community and as a photographer, I am focusing on interrogating the myth of the American Dream by creating photographs of the borderland environs, the people seeking asylum in the United States, and the volunteers and groups who are engaged in helping migrants with vital needs such as food, shelter, health care, water, as well as those facilitating search and rescue in the desert.
Are there any photographers that inspired this work in particular?
I often think about the work of Dorothea Lange, particularly the work she created of the Japanese internment camps in the United States during World War II. Much like the policies surrounding migration, the effects of the Japanese Internment camps were invisible to the general public. Her work was an important historic document of that period in American history.
Like Dorothea Lange, I strive to humanize through the imagery I am creating. I think of all the stories I have heard from the people who have sat in front of my lens, people who didn’t want to leave their homes but were forced to leave due to violence, or political persecution, or for the safety of their children. My hope is to convey a need for empathy, for compassion, through my photographs.
Just as important an influence are the literary works of Javier Zamora. I have kept his book of poetry Unaccompanied with me while I’m working. His book Solito recounts his journey crossing many borders, and ultimately through the Sonoran Desert from El Salvador as a 9 year old child.
The humanitarian works of Eugene Smith have also been an inspiration. I read a hand typed letter by Eugene Smith at the CCP in Tucson – and I want to quote his intent, here, which I immediately identified with: “I wanted pictures of the emotions of war, that might reach out and grasp people by the throat until the nature of war was forced into their thought channels— I wanted somehow to make those people think, and think enough until they were determined that there should be no more wars.”
As photographers, it is our duty to make visible and humanize these struggles. I want people to think about how and why people are forced to flee and the ways a country like the United States continues to demonize and reject those seeking refuge and protection.
8x10 cameras are pretty big and can alarm those not familiar with photography— how did you introduce the camera to your subjects while still keeping them comfortable? Why is it important for you to work with your subjects on creating photographs on their own terms?
On the contrary, digital cameras can cause great alarm for asylum seekers who are escaping violence. The 8x10 camera is identifiable to everyone as something that’s old, that’s historic, it uses film, and that film needs to be processed, nothing can be immediately uploaded to the internet. I let people look through the camera, play with the focusing knobs. Most people I am photographing have not ever looked through a camera like mine.
The person in front of my lens is someone that I am paying homage to, and have great respect for— of their journeys, of their experiences, of their resilience. It is understood that I am making a historic document of this moment in their life. Migration is a chapter in a person’s story; it is not their entire story. The 8x10 camera, with all of the time it takes to set up, gives us time to converse. It is in this setting where I hear stories— harrowing, intense, violent journeys, stories of loss, memories of a home where this person cannot return to. When I am making the photograph, there is nothing between us, I am standing at the front of the camera, working the shutter. The act of making the photograph has to be collaborative, consent has to be given, and we are making that photograph together. My intent is to communicate the necessity for empathy, and to achieve this, the photographs must be made with compassion.
In your project statement you say, "I wanted to know how US policies were affecting human lives on both sides of the border." How has photography specifically helped you explore this?
For the past three years, I have witnessed the effects of Title 42, which prevented all asylum claims from March 2020 until May 2023 in the United States. When migrants, mostly families, arrived at the doorstep of the United States, they found that they were unable to plead their asylum cases, and were forced to wait in border towns where there is a strong mafia presence with no recourse. I was often asked, “do people on the other side (the United States) know what is happening here?” “No,” I would reply, “they have no idea.”
By working slowly, by participating in the migrant justice community, my analogue images offer a counter narrative to how the media often depicts migration, humanizing through photography.
The large format 8x10 camera has been my main tool for documenting this: the slow time it takes to set up is important to me. I take each image on a sheet of film, I process them in my machine, which I take with me, I bring those images home and I print them in the darkroom. I use photography to put a frame around the people and places that I want to remember.
Has your perspective as a first-generation American shifted at all in the process of making this work?
I recognize my privilege— which is based on the ownership of a document that states my citizenship— that allows me to walk freely on both sides of the US-Mexico border. It is
important to me to utilize this privilege by way of this work that I am doing.
Where do you see yourself and Promised Land/Tierra Prometida going from here?
With the help of this grant, I will be heading back to the border this January to continue working on this project: volunteering, aiding in water drops, doing search and rescue, and, of course, photographing.
You can see the rest of Aperture's 2023 Creator Labs Photo Fund winners here.