Global Mode: The Anthropology of Immigration

backpacks richard barnes nyt

This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine featured photographs of objects left behind by South American immigrants crossing the border into America. Jason De Léon directs the  “Undocumented Migration Project,” which collects, catalogues, photographs, and exhibits these “things they carried” and oral histories as witness to the experience, which De Léon describes as violent and traumatizing, comparing it to the forced migration of Africans earlier in the history of the United States.

The photographs featured in the Times are a mix of those taken by collaborator Richard Barnes in situ, and of objects exhibited out of context, en masse at the University of Michigan (where De Léon is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology). Combining video, photographs, and found objects, “The State of Exception” was the first exhibition of the UMP’s years of work. Whether in the “wild” or arranged in a blank museum space, the massive accumulation of objects (clothing, backpacks, shoes) highlights the personal, human side of this experience and obviates the scale of northern migration.

This method may not be moving to all, as this anthropological study uses material culture to expose and explore a very controversial topic. But a well-worn axiom of our field is that clothing is common to the human experience, and children’s dirty, abandoned backpacks featuring Dora the Explorer and other cartoon characters tug at the heartstrings. De Léon notes that within a day’s walk of the border, he finds mostly water bottles and other objects we generally think of as disposable, impersonal. Would exhibited photographs of those be as moving? Or might they look like a bunch of trash (perhaps further stigmatizing those left them)? What is different about clothes, shoes, backpacks? Where do Bibles and pictures of one’s family fall on this scale?

Although a comparison of the two experiences is inappropriate, these photographs reminded me of the documentation of victims in the Holocaust Museum. The infamous pile of shoes, ironically, serves not to put a face to the vast, unimaginable suffering, but rather to show how anonymous people can become.

richard barnes clothes riverbed

Photograph by Richard Barnes, part of the exhibition “State of Exception,” published in the New York Times Magazine July 21, 2013.

What is it about a pile? De Léon encounters piles of all kinds of things when he began his anthropological study, and in interviews often mentions the “worn-out shoes” he finds–especially the tiny ones. As an anthropologist, De Léon sees his job as making these anonymous objects personal, in order to understand the migrating people individually, as a group, and also to expose some realities of the experience to those who may see the immigration issue abstractly. The Smithsonian plans to accession these objects collected by the UMP in the summer of 2014.

What do piles or masses of objects communicate to the visitor in a museum setting? Are real, tangible (but untouchable) objects in a museum building more moving than photographs of the objects where they were found? Or vice versa? Is this a manipulative practice, or a realistic one? Have you seen this exhibition, or have you been to other exhibitions using large volumes of material culture that have stuck with you (for better or worse)?

Please leave your comments below!

Photo Credit: Richard Barnes for the NYT, 2013.

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