Some people say that a picture is worth a thousand words but in the case of Tom Kiefer’s “El Sueño Americano,” a picture can also tell a thousand stories. After relocating to Arizona, Kiefer took a job at an immigration detention center as a janitor. He noticed the large amount of food and personal items belonging to the immigrants that would be thrown away having been deemed “unnecessary” or “dangerous.”
Some of the items labeled unnecessary included shoes, birth control, Bibles and other religious artifacts, duct tape, water bottles, toys, clothes and toothbrushes. The items deemed too dangerous included belts and earphones. They were taken to prevent self-harm. Kiefer then decided to save some of the personal items and photograph them for his powerful photography project.
The photos Keifer took presented a strategic simplicity to emphasize the mundane nature of the objects in order to help their audience relate to the immigrants who the items had been taken from. Most of the photos depict either a single, posed object on a colored or textured background or a collection of items grouped to portray the abundant amount of said items taken from immigrants.
Some of the highlights of the gallery included a photograph of a box of muddy rubber ducks that Kiefer later discovered were trail markers left for other immigrants to find along their journeys. Another photo presented an immigrant blanket in front of Kiefer’s own American flag as the backdrop. This created a beautiful juxtaposition between the plight of the immigrant and what is considered American values.
Lastly, there was a beautifully staged photo of the famous sonnet by Emma Lazarus which is also printed on the Statue of Liberty. However, the entire sonnet was spelled out in dried up alphabet soup noodles. There are three of these photos, each presenting the sonnet in a different language: one in English, another in Spanish, and the final one in French.
In an interview with The Retriever, Keifer said that his favorite part of creating this project was “recovering the items that would have otherwise been thrown away.” He also said, “I hope people can relate to the photos and the people behind them.” With that, Kiefer was successful. People can relate to his photographs and the common objects they depict.
When asked what advice he had for young artists wanting to make a statement and tell a story with their art, Keifer replied, “It is important to take risks and stand up, but also to take accountability for the ways we have contributed to social misjustice.”
The story Keifer is telling is not only one of immigrant hopes and dreams but also injustice and racism in the United States. The photos of personal photographs show real people looking for better lives in America. The photos of confiscated women’s birth control serve as a reminder that many women aren’t given control and discretion over their own bodies.
The photos in Keifer’s gallery, “El Sueño Americano” or translated, “The American Dream” are powerful reminders that immigrants coming to America are humans with the same needs and wants as the people looking at the very photos. The photos open the eyes of the viewer to the hard journey and the inhuman treatment immigrants receive upon entering the States.
“El Sueño Americano” will be showcased in the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery until May 23. It is a great gallery that presents issues very relevant to this day. Kiefer not only made art, but he also made an impact.