The U.S.-Mexican border stretches 1,933 miles from Imperial Beach, California to Brownsville, Texas. It begins 80 feet out in the Pacific Ocean and travels across various mountain ranges, the Yuha Desert and El Camino del Diablo (The Devil’s Highway), 120 miles of rugged, barren terrain that was once considered a rite of manhood to cross through by the Papago Indians. The 12-foot fence is guarded by some 18,000 Border Patrol agents and is littered with signs that read, “No vale la pena (It’s not worth the trouble).”
For many though, it is worth the trouble, risking robbery, rape and death to cross over to the United States illegally. Photographer Vance Jacobs set out with Esquire writer Luke Dittrich on the first leg of his journey to understand the border the best he could – by travelling its entire length on foot.
For Vance, travel and photography have always gone hand-in-hand. He started out writing and shooting for an Australian magazine while studying abroad. While on an assignment in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, he met a successful photographer who had recently started a kiosk business. The kiosks functioned as both an ATM and a travel agency; users could research and book trips directly from them. The owner needed help creating content, so he taught Vance a few camera tricks, gave him some old gear and sent him out to take photos.
Vance later attended Savannah College of Art and Design for his graduate degree, where he met writer Luke Dittrich. The pair worked together for months on a project on child beauty pageants in the deep south that ran in Oxford American magazine. Since then, Vance and Luke have collaborated multiple times over the past 11 years, choosing projects that are thought-provoking, challenging and sometimes dangerous. Together they documented the search for a lost nuclear bomb, profiled a neo-Nazi bounty hunter, followed the life of the King of Southern Porn and journeyed through the Atchafalaya swamp with a spotty GPS. When Esquire editor Tyler Cabot presented the border idea to Luke, he immediately recommended Vance as his photographer. “It’s funny, but I don’t think they picked me because of how I shoot,” Vance says. “I think they picked me because Luke convinced them that with my interest in ultra-distance racing, I might actually be able to keep up with him.”
For the first seven days of the journey, Vance travelled with Luke on foot over 100 miles, from Imperial Beach to Calexico, CA. Approximately two weeks later, Vance caught up with Luke again via a Jeep as he was nearing the end of El Camino del Diablo. The 120-mile stretch of desert had no promise of water and it was decided only person could go. In total, Luke walked approximately 350 miles to Ajo, Arizona, averaging between 13-25 miles a day depending on the terrain. Luke carried all of his supplies in a baby stroller, including 120 miles worth of water for the path through El Camino del Diablo. At its heaviest, Vance’ backpack, with all of his gear, plus his camera equipment weighed in at 54 pounds. There were both political and geographical problems – the journey is only feasible along the Border Patrol dirt roads, but Border Patrol does not release maps of the roads to the public. With approximately nine Border Patrol agents per mile, they were constantly approached and questioned about their activities. They were often asked to show the soles of their shoes, since agents track illegal immigrants by footprints. In one of Vance’ images, a man has glued foam rubber to his feet to hide his footprints in the dirt, a common tactic used to avoid being tracked while crossing over.
Their trip was tracked using a SPOT II Satellite GPS Messenger that recorded and uploaded their location to a Web site every 15 minutes, which was watched by friends, family and Esquire editors. Many places along the border are dangerous and used by drug smugglers. Luke and Vance, concerned for their safety, carried bear spray, a machete and a pocketknife, but no gun. Despite their preparedness, they still spent a sleepless night in a ravine at the Bottom of La Gloria after a Border Patrol agent informed them they had picked the worst possible place to camp. Luke told Vance the next morning, “thank God you didn’t get the gun or the tent would have been shot to hell.”
Despite the challenges, Luke and Vance continued on, creating a portrait of the border that is rarely seen or understood. Vance varied between a Canon 5D Mark II and the Hipstamatic iPhone app to tell the story of the land and everything it represents, both personal and political. It was physically the toughest thing Vance has ever accomplished. He often had to stop to take the photos, then run to catch up with Luke. The tiring pattern left him missing three toenails and the skin on the balls of his feet by the time they reached Calexico.
Two things struck Vance as they walked – the first was how many Border Patrol agents they encountered versus illegal aliens. They did not see a single person attempting to cross over until the car ride back from Ajo to San Diego. The second was that many Border Patrol agents see their job as twofold, protecting the border from illegal entrance as well as rescuing illegals who have endured horrific treatement. Many are robbed, raped, or die from thirst and sun exposure before they ever reach the United States. These are the things that stayed with him long after his body had healed from their adventure down the border.
Vance Jacobs’ aim is to provide imagery that provokes discussion. His photographs go beyond viewing, and he likes to present them so that they become the catalyst for critical thinking. One of his favorite exhibitions was his project on Alan Crotzer, who spent 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The exhibition included a panel discussion with Crotzer, others who had been exonerated and a handful of lawyers who have dedicated themselves to help the wrongfully convicted. The exhibition was memorable and educational and he hopes to one day develop “Walking the Border” in a similar vein.
In October, Luke will return to the dividing line of the United States and Mexico to continue the second part of his trip. Vance hopes to accompany him again, to continue their search to understand the border, and to show the fringes of America that many will never see.
Click here to learn more about the Esquire story Walking the Border and to see a full portfolio of images and where they were taken on an interactive Google Earth Map.