michelle frankfurter – destino

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Michelle Frankfurter


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Drawn to the frontier edginess and melancholy of the region, I began photographing along the U.S. – Mexico border in 2000, shortly after reading Cormac McCarthy’s, The Crossing. The novel begins with a boy finding a wolf caught in a trap on his family’s Arizona ranch. He treks across the Sierra Madres into Mexico to return the wolf to her native land. The story has every narrative element that’s captivated my imagination since I was about ten years old: a cast of characters that includes sinners, saints, and pariahs, an epic journey across a hostile wilderness, a bond between boy and dog, a multitude of dangers, themes of salvation and redemption.

My project, Destino focuses on undocumented Central American migrants traveling through Mexico in an attempt to reach the United Sates. In many ways they resemble the protagonists of adventure novels and epic tales. In an odyssey of wandering, they travel on foot, often relying on a network of freight trains lurching across Mexico. With their small backpacks filled with essential belongings, they leave behind homes and families to exist in a land of nomadic purgatory. Many are in their teens. Spirited as yearlings, they often appear oblivious to the harsh realities that accompany this journey.

In 2009, the worst economic recession in decades made work scarce for undocumented immigrants living within the United States. As in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are currently plagued by drug and gang related violence and a high incidence of domestic abuse. Crippling trade policies have further exacerbated the situation for the poor of these nations. Central American migration, while slowing down has not stopped entirely.

In Mexico, where racism towards Central Americans is prevalent, these undocumented migrants are vulnerable to a host of dangers: the police who routinely rob and beat them, immigration officials who detain and deport them, and bandits and gang members who prey on them along the train route. Many have been injured or killed falling off moving trains. More recently, Los Zetas, a renegade battalion of a military unit initially deployed to combat drug trafficking, now operating as the armed wing of the Gulf drug cartel, has established a kidnapping ring targeting Central American migrants. From these adversities, migrants find respite in a loose system of shelters run by Catholic priests and through the benevolence of sympathetic Mexicans in the towns and villages along the way.



Born in Jerusalem, Israel, Michelle Frankfurter is a documentary photographer who lives in Takoma Park, MD just outside of the District of Columbia. She graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in English. After graduating, she worked for three years as a staff photographer for daily newspapers: The Herald – Journal and Post Standard in Syracuse, New York. Before settling in the Washington, DC area, Frankfurter spent three years living in Nicaragua where she worked as a stringer for the British news agency, Reuters and with the human rights organization Witness For Peace documenting the effects of the contra war on civilians. In 1995, a long-term project on Haiti earned her two World Press Photo awards. She has worked for a number of editorial publications, including The Guardian of London, The Washington Post Magazine, Ms., Time, and Life Magazine. Her personal documentary work has been featured in juried exhibitions at The Washington Project For the Arts, the Arlington Arts Center, Shots Magazine, and the Photo Place Gallery in Middlebury, Vermont. For the past ten years, her personal work has focused on themes of migration and life along the border region between the United States and Mexico.


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Michelle Frankfurter


135 Responses to “michelle frankfurter – destino”

  • MW..

    you are doing it absolutely right…there are as many ways to critique as there are ways to photograph…just because i may challenge does not mean i would suggest you not challenging right back..that is discourse….all good…and , as far as i am concerned, all in good spirit and collegiality..anything less would get pedantic, boring, well i just couldn’t take it…carry on as per your instincts…now, start doing the same thing with your camera…get clear…make visual statements..be wrong….go for it…wrong can be really right….and right for sure can be all wrong…get a hold of something and make it your own….

    cheers, david

  • Preston,
    I read with interest your analysis about Salgado, Davidson and DAH.
    While I share your view that East 100th Street “encapsulates a dramatic moment in American history”, I would like to expand however on your statement “I don’t think anyone had produced such compelling work from “the ghetto” before Davidson.”
    Roy DeCarava, black photographer, documented Harlem (as an insider) before Bruce Davidson. His work is in my view more compelling because he lived and breathed THE GHETTO. In addition, his b&w prints are the finest I’ve ever encountered on an exhibition wall.

    There is a point DAH made a while back and I’m still “chewing” on.
    He wrote: HCB and Robert Frank never cared for their subjects (quote from memory).
    When I read the biography of DeCarava (Wikipedia) I come to the conclusion that he must represent the counterpart to the aforementioned.


  • He wrote: HCB and Robert Frank never cared for their subjects (quote from memory).
    What’s so hard to understand?

    In any craft there are artists who care about people and some (of the greatest)
    simply exist in their own mind (think “neverland”) type of isolation/exaggeration/eliticism/any way u call it..

  • Think Bob Marley… and then go opposite and think neil diamond …

  • Also think of michael
    Jackson… Or Elvis Presley.. or Phil

    But let’s twist it a bit and call the truth..
    “some photogs out there are coming from rich families, can easily afford their adventures/travels..
    and some have to bartend a lot before they get their first FM-2…
    Let’s face it.. Not everyone has the same share in that “Luck” pie..
    But who said that life is fair?

  • Gerhard….

    wanted to take Preston to task too for that ;))), but i love when he writes here, and i love when he talks over wine in company too :))…but had no real desire, as i’d written enough already ;))…

    but, adding to the addition of DeCarava (great)….can i add:

    James Van Der Zee or Gordon Parks….both of whom made the profound and important contributions before East 100th St…..(not at all to diminish the power and importance of Davidson’s magisterial work)….

  • Did I like the essay above? Since I’m posting here..?
    I’ll be honest : not yet.. Coz thanks to steve jobs and apple… since I’m lost somewhere in the deep American south… I don’t have Internet except the iPhone ..
    But iPhone won’t support “flash” therefore I can’t see the essay..
    Quit anything u r doing and make an “iPhone Burn Version” asap..
    iPad version too.. Please..
    AT&T already charging so much, so since we are paying for it, let’s use it..
    So, anton, haik, whomever .. Please create a slideshow / essay view version but.. But…
    For iPhone / iPad too…
    Don’t exclude the “lost in the south” burn orphans..

  • mw ……”I also find it healthy to consider what I’d think of a photograph or essay if it were one of mine.” you are better off taking ownership of your own work not spend your time pretending with that of others.

  • I figured why I never reacted favourably to this essay……..each individual image’s narrative denies the essay visual freedom

  • I tell my grandkids, life is not fair but it is always good.


    from all accounts, DeCarava was just as you wrote…caring


    correct points about Van Der Zee and Parks…unfortunately neither really got a classic book going …they had the pictures, they were well known, but they just did not get the book…i do not know why…Parks became more famous for being Parks than any acknowledgment of his work..probably because of the books he wrote…The Learning Tree , A Choice of Weapons, are still classics..i need to study more the Van Der Zee story, but i am assuming he considered himself to be a pretty straightforward commercial portrait photographer and with photography his second calling, not his first

  • DAVID :))

    true that…especially Parks…

    and E.100th is one of the most important books of nyc, of any time…it’s a funny story, when i was in high school and first saw it (a mentoring high school teacher showed it to me), i was convinced Davidson was Black….the intimacy of the pics, the depth, the concern, the access…the name….that isphotography that transcends ..:))

  • BOB…

    this is something i have been wanting to write about for a long time..and Michelle this does not hijack your story….as a matter of fact is part of it…and that is the necessity/desirability or lack thereof to actually be part of the culture in order to photograph it…evidence suggests otherwise, but it will be a hot topic…i mean Michelle is an Israeli, Davidson a white kid from Chicago, Carl Bower w Columbian women, and on and on…

  • wow, very nice reportage! love it. simple clear stunning BW, congrats

  • DAVID :)

    yes, this IS also an important discussion…comes up all the time, and would love to talk about that…it came up too with the story on young, black model aspirants too :))…comes up with literature too…and it’s relevant too with Michelle’s story…same too with your Tell It Like It Is…(still one of my favorite Harvey books)…I actually wrote about this at Lightstalkers when a thread came up announcing the launch of Living Proof and some criticized, but as i told u long ago, u aint no tall white kid with a surfboard only, but a delta bluez stompin’ cat at heart……

    that for me the most important ingredient to speaking about/photographing/writing about another place/culture/ethnicity/background that is not one’s own is about something that can NOT be taught…the ability to connect…to be open, to listen, to become a Zelig of the spirit….would make for a great discussion…


  • ¨would make for a great discussion…¨

    when a camera is in hand it may not matter whether it is our own family or the family of someone else we are photographing.. the narrowing of the gap between subject and photographer comes down to what you mention bob.. ability to connect.. be open.. listen..

    plenty render themselves ¨tourists¨ in their own backyard through a lack of understanding or ability, just as plenty become insiders to a culture utterly alien to their experience.

    the camera is an obsticle to some and a enebler to others.. as with much.. truth is relevant to each photographer and rather grey-card in colour..

    how about, though, a subject photographed over a long time becomeing cenral to a photographers charecter.. instinct draws us to a subject and passion keeps us there..
    if it was not our backyard to begin with, it surely will be in time.

  • Bob, what I meant by “not constructive” was just that your comment did not offer Michelle any advice on how to better achieve her vision on this particular project. It seemed your objections to Pete and my constructive comments (why we’re lumped together in this is a bit of a mystery since our perspectives were radically different), were a bit personal. But of course I realize that the opportunities for misreading intent on the internet are infinite. So no offense all around. All in good spirit and collegiality.

    David, thanks, yes, I do make a great effort to do the same thing with the camera. I’ve done some interesting stuff I’m about to start peddling if I can get a few paperwork problems worked out. If the offer of a critique is still open, I could probably use a good hard slap against the head.

    Imants, why you would think I don’t take ownership in my work is a mystery I’m not particularly interested in solving. I don’t like being negatively critical of other people’s work and the act of considering if I’d feel differently if it were mine is just a little exercise in empathy, an effort to appreciate the photograph rather than judge the photographer. Nothing to do with ownership.

    The idea that one has to look and act like the people one photographs is just nonsense intellectually and from a hiring perspective would be outright racist in practice. I would agree that sometimes a person from a particular culture will have valuable insights that an outsider would miss, but the reverse is true as well. Sometimes an outsider see’s what’s unique or enlightening or beautiful in things a native takes entirely for granted. I’d really like to see more people from non-western cultures or disadvantaged subcultures take a few whacks at the dominant western norm. To see us as bizarre and exotic as we too often see them. Martin Parr does fantastic work, but there’s room for many more.

    And circling all the way back, I think Michelle has some strengths in that area as well. The final picture in the series, for example, strikes me as more from the migrant’s perspective than the photographers. A couple of shots in the book seemed to look at it that way as well. Maybe something else to think about…

  • Since I accidentally discovered Burn magazine I made lots of wonderful discoveries. I am all but a photo reporter and I am not the kind of guy who cares so much about others. But, once again, watching your essay was a moment of deep reflexion. I admire the speech tone of the pictures you show here, no “salgadism” here trying to make horror look beautiful. This is just life that you are showing, from a very human distance. In particular, the last picture of the essay, showing this young couple or brotherhood facing a most probably tough future, moved me a lot. I feel like your work helps me be a bit better.

    PS: I linked your essay from my blog http://www.vitessemoderne.net, just tell me if this is not okay.

    Warm regards,

  • mw

    “And circling all the way back, I think Michelle has some strengths in that area as well. The final picture in the series, for example, strikes me as more from the migrant’s perspective than the photographers. A couple of shots in the book seemed to look at it that way as well. Maybe something else to think about…”

    I had the same thoughts about this work. The point of view is from within. The people are real. More than that, I saw myself here, I saw my children. I am haunted by the overwhelming sadness and look of defeat and wearyness in all the faces, even the children.

  • the camera is an obstacle to some and a enebler to others..
    Very very true.. Camera is an obstacle to most photogs.. You nailed it..
    Plenty photogs that have a major weakness in that communication department to begin with..
    Now imagine if u add a camera to their nightmare..

  • BOB…

    i have photographed outside my own hypothetical ethnic barriers my whole career…i do always put a disclaimer in any book saying “hey i am not of Spanish heritage, hey i am a white kid”..both for the Iberian diaspora Div Soul and for Living Proof in the hood…folks can then decide whatever they want….however, when it comes to going “outside your own culture”, where does one draw the line?…”hey i am a white kid” does not get me into many white communities just because i am white nor exclude me from other ethnic groups just because i am white…

    both acceptance and the resulting work will undoubtedly have more to do with who you are as a person and how you come off in your sincerity, than your skin color or religion at birth or country of origin…even with American Family now, i am crossing all kinds of religious, ethnic, political, lines…so far, nobody has mentioned it..why? because the topic is the common ground of family…not race, religion, sex, politics…

    yet the stigma of working “outside” will always be there for some…

    for example: go back and re-read all the comments about white boy Brian Shumway and his portrayal of black women…whew!! so many said “well a black woman should have done it”…i sure would like to see what a black woman would do photographing black women for example, but alas in my whole career i do not believe i have seen such an example…i do not know why..maybe you have and please tell me…but if i do find or hear of a black woman with a legitimate project , i will fund her come hell or high water…

    in any case, i think you will find most photographers photographing a bit out of their own zone…with a few notable exceptions…given the chance, most want to see whatever is on the other side of their own backyard fence…we are all born explorers….i suppose that exploring out or exploring in both have their validity…

    it is just important to know that where you have your feet planted is nowhere near as important as where you have your head…

    cheers, david

  • mw you just don’t get it

  • So true, so true, but if I did, then I’d be you.

  • And although I’ll never get it, nor would I want to, I do get you. So cheer up! Pués.

  • I’ll leave you to fight it out with your ego……… enjoy.

  • David; Re; “well a black woman should have done it”…

    Didn’t Eugene Richards come up against something similar with the story about his wife’s battle with breast cancer (him not being a woman)? Also; wasn’t he roundly criticised for shooting Dorchester Days? (or was it Cocaine Blue, Cocaine True?), because he wasn’t black? I remember reading him saying that it was only other black photographers that stood up for him. Nobody else wanted to know him. Interesting…

  • ROSS…

    everybody who does something significant gets roundly criticized by either those who don’t or can’t…


    isn’t that Road Trips piece a paraphrase of what i just wrote? or are you making some other point that i am not getting?

  • I’ll jump in with my own solipsist musings. I’ve spent most of my life as a U.S. citizen but I still feel like an outsider. When I’m down in Mexico or Nicaragua, there’s an innate familiarity to being there. It reminds me of home. I’m not a world traveler. I’ve circled back to only a few places over the past 23 years, learned the language, absorbed the cultural nuances, gestures, body language. I personally wouldn’t have done this project unless I felt that culturally, I was in a comfort zone. There are many who empathize with their subjects and use their empathy or insider status as a disclaimer for work that isn’t very interesting. My projects are personal to me because in some ways they are about me. I identify with the people I photograph. My family moved to a predominantly Jewish suburban neighborhood of Syracuse. Instead of being accepted, I was bullied and ostracized. I spent most of my childhood in the company of books and neighborhood dogs, which is why I gravitate thematically to the underdog and why dogs always appear in my work – that symbiosis between people and dogs. I’m drawn to the anti-heroes, the tragic figures. My father survived the Holocaust. I was exposed to the grainy newsreels of emaciated bodies stacked like cordwood. This was not a lesson meant to expose the Evil Mastermind theory, but rather that human beings behave predictably and are easily manipulated – the complicity of the average citizen. This was a lesson learned early of human betrayal and culpability on a colossal level. I’m looking for something good, something redeemable about our species, something inherently human – something I needed to see and experience as an antidote to remedy the feelings I have lately that the only thing we merit as a species is extinction. Loose coalitions formed in the migrant shelters based on cooperation. People who had nothing shared food and water, looked out for one another, cared about each other. In the days spent waiting for the train we slept in adjacent bunkbeds, told each other jokes and stories of past loves and losses. Yes, I got to know them, but they got to know me, as well as any close friend. I spent a night on top of a boxcar in the pouring rain wrapped in a plastic bag another migrant had given me with my arms around a 19-year-old Honduran kid named Elmer, other migrants shouting, “Apapachala! Apapachala! (basically, Hug her!) and we all laughed. And we smoked and the night seemed to go on forever. I felt like one of them, even though I knew they were better than me, that I was little more than a tourist.

  • “everybody who does something significant gets roundly criticized by either those who don’t or can’t…”

    Human nature I suppose.

  • Michelle,

    “I’ll jump in with my own solipsist musings. I’ve spent most of my life as a U.S. citizen …”


    And it’s all right there in your images. You don’t need any words. None at all.

  • DAVID :))

    no doubt, no doubt :)))…and damn, i don’t want to re-read all that mess under Brian’s essay, i gave it all i could on that one to open eyes… ;))…..but it took a lot out too…;)

    i’ve never, ever, understood the ‘this book/story should be/could be only told by _____’ mentality….then again, i’ve lived a totally screwed up life too…white kid spends early childhood in asia…thinks he asian only to awaken to being a white kid in a city, later taken to the country….always been out of the element but for where the feet are….

    the act of imagination is an act of solidarity with humanity, and that has no bearing on the outer shell….

    to be open to what is around, to respect and tender what is around, to be aware and to connect…

    who knows….4 noble truths, that’s pretty much the dime for me, and how to maintain that awareness and to be open, knowing full well we fail most of it….

    what matters is not only where your head is…..but where your heart is as well…

    MW: no offense taking….they’re only comments…it’s the work that matters

    Windup: HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN YOU, promise…been a mad 7 weeks…but, ur pics are on my on-deck circle, :)..


  • the camera is an obstacle to some and a enebler to others..

    Definitely belongs to the second category ….(Hi, fellas, this one sent from Bangkok)

  • Thank you Michelle for your additional writing and insight to your excellent story.
    From own experience – photographed the grape strike, Cesar Chavez and the Mexican-American farm labor movement in the late sixties – I share your view of involvement with your subject besides the
    Tourist / Gringo status.

    Thank you David and Bob for the comments on place and being,
    making BURN worth reading . . .
    My comment may be one day late – the blog is moving fast . . .


  • What freakin’ amazing work. Michelle you’ve really raised the bar here. This is the kind of work that really resonates with the soul of the viewer (mine at least) by portraying the soul of the subject. Thank you. Charles

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