Abstract: The Afterlife of Participatory Photography Along the Central American Migrant Trail (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

The Afterlife of Participatory Photography Along the Central American Migrant Trail

Thursday, January 16, 2020
Congress, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
John Doering-White, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina, SC
Background and Purpose:

Increasingly, Central Americans fleeing pervasive community violence experience being “stuck” in Mexico, displaced from their home communities and blocked from entering the United States, whether by crossing borders without authorization or through the asylum system. People in this situation often experience a sense of “confinement in motion” (Balaguera 2018), settling tentatively in communities across Mexico while hoping and planning for a future in the United States. Part of a broader ethnographic project examining humanitarian aid along the Central American migrant trail, the purpose of this study was to better understand the long-term experiences of Central Americans who receive formal humanitarian recognition after suffering violent abuses while in transit. This paper considers how Central Americans represent and conceptualize injury and recovery, both visually and discursively, in the context of tentative settlement in northern Mexico.


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 key informants who suffered more serious injuries after they recuperated within shelters and continued north, eventually coming to 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, or as a way to facilitate reflection about emotionally difficult topics. Indeed, photographs of daily life taken by Central American immigrants living temporarily in northern Mexico did seem to allow for more explicit reflection, especially in relation to 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 into the United States, 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.

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 is deeply embedded in the disciplinary history of social work. Relating the representation 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.