Abstract: Representing Injury and Recovery in Transit Along the Central American Migrant Trail (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Representing Injury and Recovery in Transit Along the Central American Migrant Trail

Friday, January 18, 2019: 8:00 AM
Golden Gate 7, Lobby Level (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
John Doering-White, PhD Candidate, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI

Background and Purpose:

Fleeing pervasive community violence across Central America, individuals from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala also confront various forms of violence while migrating through Mexico. Abuses against migrants have intensified in recent years as escalated immigration enforcement has pushed Central American migrants into more precarious pathways. Often, those who suffer serious injuries while in transit (after escaping traumas at home) recuperate within humanitarian migrant shelters before continuing their journeys. This paper considers how shelter workers represent and conceptualize injury and recovery, both visually and discursively, when caring for individuals who are likely to face future traumas as they continue their migration journeys. I also consider how these framings relate to how those who suffer injuries represent themselves after recuperating physically within shelters.


Findings are drawn from 18 months of ethnographic research in and around various migrant shelters throughout southern and central Mexico between June 2014 and November 2017. This included participant observation as a shelter volunteer (2,000 hours) and semi-structured interviews with migrants and shelter workers (n = 200). This paper focuses in particular on participatory photography interviews with 5 individuals who suffered more serious injuries after they recuperated within shelters and continued north, eventually coming settle temporarily in northern Mexico.


Participatory photography in social work research is typically described as a means of enriching reflection on the impact of social work interventions. Indeed, photographs of daily life taken by Central Americans immigrants living temporarily in northern Mexico did allow for more explicit reflection of their journeys, especially the impact of humanitarian organizations. However, participants also discussed the role of photographs in communicating their recovery to others who might help them get across the border, including networks of organized crime from which they initially fled. These findings call for a consideration of participatory photography as both a mechanism for enriching reflection and as an ethically complicated method for social work research with individuals in the midst of undocumented journeys. Photographs not only reflect the past, they also enact the future.

Conclusions and Implications:

As immigration enforcement intensifies in the United States and Mexico, many people cycle repeatedly through deportation, displacement, and return. This reality complicates linear narratives of flight from violence and integration into more stable destination communities, a type of moral recovery story that, through photography, is deeply embedded in the disciplinary history of social work. Relating discourses of injury and recovery within shelters with photographs that immigrants take while planning for undocumented border crossings helps to reveal the moral ambiguities that surround social work practice with undocumented communities in an era of unprecedented deportation.