Guest Host: Todd Kliman

They’re desperate to get out of Central America and enter the U.S. — undocumented immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families. They show up on the nightly news in political battles about where to house them and whether to send them home. But a Takoma Park photographer wanted to show the human stories behind the headlines. So she hopped trains with the migrants and rode north, photographing their perilous journeys. She joins us to describe the faces and landscapes her pictures portray.


  • Michelle Frankfurter Photographer; Author and photographer, "Destino"


  • 13:06:37

    MR. TODD KLIMANWelcome back. I'm Todd Kliman of Washingtonian magazine sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We are talking this hour with Michelle Frankfurter. She's a documentary photographer. Her book "Destino" comes out in the fall. Every year thousands of migrants make their way toward the U.S. border, anxious to escape violence and poverty in Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. They hop on freight trains and ride slowly north hoping for a better life in America.

  • 13:07:04

    MR. TODD KLIMANThe flood of undocumented migrants crossing the U.S. border has sparked a fierce political debate in this country, especially now that so many unaccompanied children are arriving. But a Tacoma Park photographer wanted to go behind the politics, excuse me, to document the lives of the people who make this dangerous trek. She joins us to share the stories behind the haunting photos in her forthcoming book. Thank you for joining us, Michelle Frankfurter.

  • 13:07:30

    MS. MICHELLE FRANKFURTERThanks for having me.

  • 13:07:32

    KLIMANIt's clear from looking at these photos that you actually climbed onto the freight trains and rode with the migrants. Were you scared?

  • 13:07:41

    FRANKFURTERI was the first time I made the trip, so that would've been in 2009. And initially I had no plan at all of getting on the train. I'd planned on taking large format portraits, the different migrant shelters along the train route. But then as soon as I got there and once I started speaking to the migrants and hearing their personal stories, and at that point I felt like there's no way I wasn't going to ride the trains with them. Like, I actually had to experience that in order to be able to tell their stories.

  • 13:08:30

    FRANKFURTERSo the first trip I would say I was petrified. And -- but then I just kind of made my peace with it and felt very comfortable and relaxed with them. And after that it just kept getting easier.

  • 13:08:49

    KLIMANYou set yourself some ground rules in embarking on this journey and then you ended up breaking them all. What were those ground rules?

  • 13:08:56

    FRANKFURTEROkay. So the first ground rule was I was never going to get in a train at night. So, you know, if it left kind of midday, late afternoon where I knew I'd be guaranteed of just hours of good light. And just for the practical standpoint, I'm a photographer, I need light. And then also the risk factor where it just -- more things tend to occur at night. So that was the first rule that I had. And by the second trip that I made that went out the window.

  • 13:09:39

    FRANKFURTERAnd I was never going to get on when it rained -- if it was raining because the tracks are old and in disrepair. And during the rainy season there are a lot more derailments that happen because of the rain. So I wasn't going to do that. And then again that went out the window. And then the last ground rule was if the -- I'm only going to climb on the train if it's standing still. And the last trip that I made it was actually on its way leaving. And I kind of had to trot along and hop on. So those were the ground rules.

  • 13:10:23

    KLIMANThese photos are so breathtaking, so haunting and so beautiful too. I encourage everybody -- I urge everybody to go onto our Facebook page and our website to take a look. If you are in a stable location and can look, please do. They are extraordinary. You document what happens along the way, so it's not just the beginning of the journey and hopping aboard the roof of these trains that you would board. You actually stop in the migrant shelters. What happens at those shelters?

  • 13:10:57

    FRANKFURTERWell, the shelters are -- in a sense they're safe havens. They're run by Catholic priests and lay people. And there're also a lot of volunteers in the various communities that help. And so their kind of sanctuaries but they grant very limited stays. So, you know, between 24 to 72 hours and then people have to continue on their way.

  • 13:11:29

    FRANKFURTERBut actually that was my last rule was that the people who I decided to do the journey with were people whom I met at the shelter where I was able to spend time getting to know them and they getting to know me. And what I called like there was some kind of bond and mutual trust. So they weren't just random people I'd meet at the rail yards or people who I felt like I'd come to know over a period of days.

  • 13:12:04

    KLIMANRight. Not just subjects but people that you immersed yourself in the lives of and became a part of and shot from within that.

  • 13:12:11

    FRANKFURTERAbsolutely. And I think that's kind of how I viewed it as well, as if I kind of stepped into a narrative of my own creation.

  • 13:12:21

    KLIMANWhen I first looked at these images they called to mind some of the documentary work of Walker Evans in the Walker Evans and James Agee book "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." They have that immediacy and that kind of loneliness to them. What kinds of stories are you trying to tell with your pictures? What do you see your art trying to do?

  • 13:12:42

    FRANKFURTERWell, I think from the beginning I saw this as an epic exodus tale. So literally there is a breaking news story that we're always in now. And people have been paying attention to issues of migration, have been documenting for a while. So there's the current humanitarian crisis at the border. Immigration in particular from Central America has been going on now for several decades.

  • 13:13:25

    FRANKFURTERAnd someone who's spent their -- almost their entire adult life traveling to that region and, you know, I lived in Nicaragua in the late '80s and I've always lived in Latino neighborhoods in D.C, so I feel very much connected to them both personally and as the subject that I'm interested in -- a region that I'm interested in. But then there's the other part that is I've always been attracted to fiction and a fictional narrative and in the form of a kind of grand epic romantic exodus journey where you have this cast of misfits and underdogs and your scrappy antihero protagonists.

  • 13:14:24

    FRANKFURTERSo at that point I think these two narratives kind of collided in my mind in the way I envisioned it and how I experienced it. And so that's really what I'm trying to do is create work that it's not so much literally documenting or capturing or illustrating a particular issue as it is conveying or evoking a feeling or a mood and a narrative that is more allegory-based.

  • 13:15:01

    KLIMANYou spent a lot of time in a lot of different communities. How did the people feel about having you come in and take their pictures?

  • 13:15:10

    FRANKFURTERThat was really the easy part for me. I mean, as I said, I lived in Nicaragua for three years in the late '80s. And then, I've always lived in -- in D.C., I've lived in Mt. Pleasant and (word?) Morgan and now I live in Tacoma Park. And I am fluent in Spanish and -- not just Spanish, but there is a level of cultural fluency that makes it just easy for me to imbed I guess.

  • 13:15:46

    FRANKFURTERAnd I think the fact that I traveled, for the most part, except for -- the only exception was working along the northern border, you know, once you got close to the U.S./Mexico border where it was a completely different landscape. But all through Mexico I worked by myself. And, you know, even the people would say, you know, why -- what are you -- you're here by yourself, and aren't you afraid? And then I would say, well no, I'm with you. And, you know, that kind of threw people off a little bit or maybe disarmed them.

  • 13:16:24

    FRANKFURTERAnd I think it was like -- it was a demonstration of mutual trust. And...

  • 13:16:36

    KLIMANYou're there with them.

  • 13:16:37

    FRANKFURTERYeah, I'm there with them.

  • 13:16:39

    KLIMANThe journey, it was such a perilous journey and it continues to be for many a perilous journey. How did the journey turn out for some of the people you wrote about? I understand that there's a story about one of those migrants.

  • 13:16:56

    FRANKFURTERWell, I mean, the stories turned out -- I mean, there are so many different scenarios from people who got really lucky. Also you have to understand that the people who are riding the trains are typically the poorest of the poor, the ones who don't have the resources to, let's say, pay a (word?) in Honduras to take them from, you know, San Pedro Sula to somewhere in the United States.

  • 13:17:26

    FRANKFURTERSo the people who are riding the train, la bestia, the beast, are really the most marginalized. And often -- I mean, there are these lucky few who just manage to make it in one shot. But often people are robbed along the way or they're caught by Mexican immigration officials and they're deported. And then they turn around and come back again.

  • 13:17:56

    KLIMANYou photographed some people who lost their limbs along the way.

  • 13:18:00

    FRANKFURTERYeah, and that happens frequently. Yeah, I visited clinics there in Mexico where, you know, people either scrambling to get on or off or maybe there was a derailment, and consequently people are severely injured. So there are a lot of different scenarios. And people attempt it multiple times.

  • 13:18:32

    FRANKFURTERAnd there was one young guy -- kid, 20 something, and I met him in a shelter in Central Mexico on a trip in 2011. And, you know, he had already experienced so many different hardships just to get where he was. And at that time he was kind of stuck. He had run out of money. He was -- no one -- he didn't really have any family that could help him. And, you know eventually I guess he decided to resume the journey. And he -- eventually he made it to the United States.

  • 13:19:13

    FRANKFURTERAnd, you know, one morning I'm looking out the window. I probably turned on Morning Edition and coffee and I'm looking out and there he is on the front lawn. So, you know, the one thing after having been robbed multiple times and had everything stolen from him, he lost even his clothes, but he hung onto the card and actually made it to, not only here but my house in Tacoma Park.

  • 13:19:47

    KLIMANThat's an amazing story. Amazing story. And your brand of journalism is very inspiring. And it's the kind of journalism we need to see more of. I want to thank you for joining us, Michelle Frankfurter.

  • 13:20:01

    FRANKFURTERThank you.

  • 13:20:01

    KLIMANThe book is coming out this fall, "Destino." And I urge everyone to go online and look at the pictures on our website and on Facebook. And also a link is provided to a wonderful and evocative piece that Michelle has written about her experience. It's a brave undertaking and it's -- the photographs are also striking and haunting and beautiful. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:20:29

    FRANKFURTERThank you for having me.

  • 13:20:31

    KLIMANWe're going to continue our conversation after a short break and make the lurch from talking about humans to humanoids. Thank you for joining us and stay tuned, please.

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