The Los Angeles Times/Courtesy Photo

Right now, one of the most heated topics in the United States is how to handle southern immigration from Mexico. The term “immigrant” has many definitions for different people — from the founders of our nation to families looking for a fresh start in a new country to thieves, killers and rapists coming to America only to do harm. In Don Bartletti’s photo essay, “The Roads Most Traveled: Causes and Consequences of Illegal Immigration,” Bartletti takes a closer look at the people coming across the border, what their motivations are and how their journeys unfold.

In Chumash Auditorium Monday night, Cal Poly International Students and Scholars welcomed Bartletti as the keynote speaker to celebrate International week. The week’s theme is “supporting our students beyond their borders,” and the presentation of the photojournalist’s images opened up conversation about the impact of immigration during the last few decades.

Bartletti is a recently retired photojournalist who previously worked for the Los Angeles Times. A Pulitzer Prize winner, among other accolades, Bartletti has been telling the story of life south of the U.S. border for more than 30 years. His images have been used in pop culture as symbols for both sides of the issue, so Bartletti’s work is considered an unbiased representation of immigration.

The photos presented were a mixture of detailed close-ups and broad, panoramic pictures. One showed hands grabbing  food through the gate separating the border. An aerial shot showed the urbanization of southern California juxtaposing the untouched green of Mexico.

A major topic that Bartletti talked about was the wage disparity for immigrants. His photos showed immigrants sleeping in camps alongside highways and walking with only a backpack and the clothes on their back. These same people told him about the homes they had back in Mexico and the sacrifices they were making in hope of better wages in America.

Bartletti’s photos also highlighted dangers associated with crossing the border. Some immigrants are willing to risk their lives and limbs to make it to America by wading through rivers and jumping onto trains. For some, it’s worth the risk even for minute success in America.

Additionally, Bartletti depicted drug cartels and gang violence through his photos.

“It’s not as cute as ‘Breaking Bad’,” Bartletti said. “It stinks, it smells like blood, it smells like sweat, it sounds like screams and yelling.”

His photos showed cars destroyed by bullet holes and blood spattered on playgrounds with schoolchildren running around. Bartletti spoke about how ordinary this life is for some Mexicans.

Some images portrayed the ways that families have been affected by cartel ambushes forever. Bartletti showed photos of families weeping over the losses of their loved ones. One photo was an autopsy photo of a seven-year-old boy shot by a gang member. Another showed a refrigerator filled with body bags. Bartletti recalled the corruption of the Mexican government while presenting images of military funerals.

“The government would stage these press events where they would torch contrabands, marijuana, cocaine,” Bartletti said.

An audience member noted the lack of women and girls in the photos. Bartletti said that during his time there, few women made the journey because it was too dangerous. Instead, young men and boys would cross the border,
often alone.

Several images depicted young boys finding their way across the border. Many of the boys told Bartletti that they were in search of their mothers, who had managed to come across before them. Others could not stand their lives in Mexico any longer.

Immigration is a loaded topic and photographing the danger and hardship associated with immigration can seem biased. However, Bartletti did not take these photos in the hopes of swaying opinions. He understands both sides of the issue and thinks there needs to be a resolution. Rather than seeking to prove a point, Bartletti’s photos do something of utmost importance:  they tell a story that would otherwise go unheard.

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