I began this project, Promised Land, in December of 2020, when contractors across the border states were racing to build the border wall. I wanted to find out who the United States was trying to keep out, and why. I began volunteering in migrant respite centers in both the United States and Mexico. I began volunteering with groups who search for missing migrants, groups who leave water in the desert. I wanted to know how US policies were affecting human lives on both sides of the border. Volunteering with organizations who give humanitarian aid, for me, is an important facet in creating this work, to be able to further educate myself in the realities migrants face on both sides of the border, to be able to convey this story more responsibly.
My 8x10 format camera, built in the 1930s, is as necessary to my process. The qualities that make the camera slow to work are exactly why: it requires a collaboration between the image’s subject and myself. If I am creating a portrait, the person in front of my lens must be comfortable; I spend time with each person, engaging in conversation, hearing their stories. If I am making a landscape, I must wait in that place for the light.
My father recently found a newspaper photograph on eBay of his father, taken on the day my family was granted asylum to the United States in January of 1969. The importance of this photograph resonated through my family, a document of our own migratory history. In January of 1969, my father, his parents, and siblings were granted asylum in the United States as refugees from Morocco. When I was a child, he gave me the booklet he studied to receive his citizenship, an heirloom. I slept under a large map of the United States nailed to the wall above my bed. I understood he had to fight to become a citizen of this country. I understood I should be proud to be an American.
Being able to see each other with loving attention affects how we treat one another. A slow document, a record of people telling their own stories, on their own terms, is the only way I know to create systemic opportunities for empathy during a migratory crisis that is just beginning, one that will only escalate in the era of climate change.
Lisa Elmaleh is an American visual artist, educator, and documentarian based in Paw Paw, West Virginia. She specializes in large-format work in tintype, glass negative, and celluloid film. Since 2007, she has been traveling across the US documenting American landscapes, life, and culture.
Born in Miami, Florida (1984), Lisa completed a BFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2007, during which time she was awarded the Silas Rhodes Scholarship. Upon graduating, she received the prestigious Tierney Fellowship to work on a project that evolved into an in-depth visual documentation of the impact of climate change on the Everglades. The culmination of this project resulted in a book titled Everglades published in 2016 by Zatara Press.
Elmaleh’s work has been exhibited nationwide and recognized by the Aaron Siskind Foundation, Puffin Foundation, The Tierney Foundation, among others. Her work has been published by Harper’s Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, CNN, The New York Times, National Geographic, Oxford American, Garden & Gun, and NPR, among others. Lisa travels in truck containing her bed, and a portable wet plate darkroom. She has a traditional black and white darkroom where she prints in West Virginia.
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