Elliot Ross’s serene pictures of the American Southwest belie the contentiousness often associated with geopolitical borders. Through a blend of portraiture and landscapes featuring divisive infrastructure, Ross’s series, “American Backyard,” looks at the complex reality of Americans who live along the country’s border with Mexico. Though the physical separation profoundly disturbs lives, it has also engendered a quiet cross-border camaraderie.
To create “American Backyard,” Ross spent weeks covering all 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. The images he made are full of soft pink, orange and tan hues. The contrasty tones one might expect from a story about physical and ideological barriers––captured in the hot light of the southwest––are not present.
In one reserved image, members of the Tohono O’odham Nation coolly exchange gossip over a vehicle barricade fortified with steel rope and barbed wire. The nation straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, and with the current regulations this means family members from the largest native reservation in the U.S. are forced to live on each side of the barricade. Border Control monitors the line so closely that tribal members cannot cross freely to visit family and friends, conduct business, or attend tribal gatherings.
A vast rolling sand dune is crossed by a distant rust-colored wall. In the gentle light of dusk, the structure doesn’t appear sinister. Yet this seven mile, forty million dollar section of floating wall is designed to shift above the ever moving sand dunes. It’s nicknamed “The Sand Dragon” by border patrol agents.
The story “American Backyard” reflects is less transparent than the ubiquitous story about towering metal walls, immigration, security, and xenophobia. “For all of the thousands of people we met, we only met a handful who were pro construction of the wall,” says Ross in an interview. The most surprising thing Ross learned while making “American Backyard” is that “this core issue of building a wall [is] not this really divisive thing. Within the national discourse it is, but once you get to the borderland and meet the people who live with borders as part of their daily life…rather than it being a divisive issue, it’s one that brings people together in opposition.”
“American Backyard” opens tonight at Filter Space in Chicago. Copies of the corresponding publication, American Backyard, which features essays by Genevieve Allison, are also available for purchase.