We are becoming a world of refugees—between political unrest, war and oppression, hunger and poverty, and natural disasters brought about by climate change, it seems there is almost nowhere people are not intent on escaping from. Queer Mexican American photographer Ada Trillo knows the United States-Mexico border well—as a child she crossed it each day from Mexico to attend school in Texas. But the border she knew is not the same border that separates the two countries today. One might say that Trillo, a widely shown, much-awarded and collected photographer understands the world. Her images in this exhibition clearly reveal both her knowledge of the world’s problems and her fine art training. Trillo has the capacity to tell it like it is and still retain a humanistic perspective, demonstrating respect for her subjects.
In the image “Joel Crosses the Suchiate River,” the border between Guatemala and Mexico, a man holds his crutches high as he wades through the water, presumably to safety on the opposite shore. But we all know that the opposite shore doesn’t automatically ensure safe haven. Trillo has spent seven long years documenting the border and there’s little she hasn’t seen and captured. In one poignant image a migrant attempts to flatten himself to slip beneath a border wall. And in “Barbed Wire Fences,” a six-year-old boy stares despondently through loops of barbed wire. These are photographs that lay bare the desperation of men, women and children who risk death to seek a safer life. They are not from some far-flung corner of the globe, but from our own hemisphere, indeed, from our own country.
There are also eight images Trillo captured in Europe during the ongoing war in Ukraine. They are part of another series titled “Those Who Stay.” In one of the most powerful images, a woman walks alone with her two large dogs, passing a large military missile firing vehicle as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. In another photograph, made in Przemysl Poland, an exhausted but ultimately safe group of Ukrainian women, children and their dog sit and wait, the weariness clear on their faces. Trillo says that she was encouraged by the kindness shown to Ukrainian refugees by Polish citizens and the Polish government.
This is heartbreaking work, visually beautiful, yet filled with despair. The lengths to which people go to escape are unimaginable. Ada Trillo implicates herself within these populations to shine a light on both the hope and the hopelessness of their lives. If you are not moved by these images, surely your heart is made of stone.
“A World on the Move: Navigating Borders Amidst Conflict and War” is on view at Chicago Center for Photojournalism, 1226 West Wilson through December 7.