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Maurice Sherif: The TT Interview

The French photographer on why he documented the construction of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and what he learned as he trekked through four states photographing the multi-billion dollar effort.

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When the United States began building a piecemeal border fence to divide itself from Mexico in 2006, fine-art photographer Maurice Sherif embarked on a journey to document what he considers the biggest project since the Panama Canal. Unlike that effort, however, Sherif says the steel barrier between the U.S. and its southern neighbor serves no purpose other than to divide families and cultures.

In his two-volume book, "The American Wall," Sherif documents the differences in the wall’s structure in Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico. In some places the wall resembles a non-threatening collection of steel poles on a beach, in others a foreboding 18-foot-high, triple-layer fence between two countries that purport to be allies. Accompanying the photography is a collection of essays, written by people like South Texas College professor Scott Nicol, UT Law School professor Denise Gilman, and author and journalist Charles Bowden.

Sherif spoke with the Tribune this week in advance of his appearance at the 2011 Texas Book Festival in Austin, where he will explain what motivated him to document the historic event, which he believes will only serve to tarnish the image of the United States.

TT: Why did you take this approach where, instead of writing everything about the wall yourself, you broke it up in to essays written by different experts?

MS: Simply for the fact that I am not a specialist on the subject when it comes to dealing with immigration issues. Denise Gilman from the University of Texas, she is much more apt to talk about it. Also, (author and journalist) Charles Bowden knows the subject much better than anybody else in terms of what is going on on the border. So that’s one of the reasons, and there is not one person that would be able to talk about the complex and large topic as the wall and immigration. So I decided to pick the right people to talk about specific events like immigration, the borders, and the timelines. So I think putting this whole team together, we give anyone a clear idea of what is going on on the border, from the environment all the way to the politics.

TT: How is the United States’ proposal to build a fence dividing two countries perceived in Europe and other parts of the world? How does this make the United States look?

MS: They were shocked. Actually, people could not believe it, in the beginning they thought I was just making this up, that this doesn’t exist. And I think it took a while before they were able to digest it, visually, that it’s true: There is a wall. And I think people still have a very hard time accepting it. The Germans reacted much more in disgust and anger than the United States, which really worked so hard on bringing down the wall in East and West (Germany), that they would build one. So, in general, I would say complete bewilderment and shock.

TT: People could argue that part of a democracy is maintaining law and order and people that come here without proper documentation are breaking the law. So, how do you respond to people who say the United States is just doing what it has to do to make sure people follow the laws and enter legally?

MS: The wall has never been an answer to immigration. The same way the wall in Berlin wasn’t. It’s a political answer to a serious problem and nobody wants to take it seriously, so (they say) “We’ll just build a wall so we don’t have to answer the question.”

TT: Did you ever feel as if you were in danger or jeopardy when you were taking photographs of the wall? Danger from spillover violence from the cartels or smugglers, which is a big reason that people say this wall is needed?

MS: I didn’t have a problem. The only difficulty I had is I spent three days with this woman, Shawna Forde, the woman who assassinated the 9-year-old kid and her father (in Arizona). I spent three days with her and she was actually talking about the idea of forming a new group using American Iraqi veterans to organize a new militia group. And she thought she could get the money, basically, by stealing it. We had a long conversation about this and I tried to discourage her. I never really thought she would do it. And then she spoke about it and I was very surprised when she did it. On the whole I really didn’t feel that my life would be threatened, but I don’t believe there is a narco-problem in Mexico. I think it’s just the Army that is controlling what’s going on, protecting the interest of the oligarch in Mexico. Until the Mexican people wake up and realize the Army is not working for them, it’s working for very few people to protect their interests, they will not do anything about it. Narcos are not a problem. They don’t exist; it’s the Army that does most of the killing. They are equipped to make people disappear; they are equipped to make sure the drugs can cross the border to the United States.

TT: If this is an Army problem, then what’s to be made of the criminals that get paraded in front of the press, that U.S., Mexican, and French press agencies report about as far as these people being the masterminds behind the criminal activity?

MS: It’s theater. The Army would like to make people believe that there is someone behind this. I think people are hypnotized by violence and they really believe there are narcos and until they wake up from this hypnosis, they will still believe what the Army shows them. And it’s true, the Army must really show them there is someone doing this killing and they created this killing. I mean, there are some narcos in Mexico, but not so well organized that they can make people disappear.

TT: Switching to the photography in your book, why did you break it down into the sections that you did, and start from one end and go to the other?

MS: Starting in 2006, the United States was experimenting with what type of fence they wanted to build. If you look at the California side, where I started, they built a lot of triple fencing or double fencing because they were not sure how they wanted to go. It seems that each sector had yet to decide what to do. There was no common policy of how the wall should be applied and how it should be designed from the Pacific to the Gulf. The reason I broke it down that way was because each state had its own design, which never really looked the same. And 60 percent of what you see in the book does not exist anymore. They just rebuilt the fence again. The issue right now is to build a new fence, which is 23 feet high and six inches, replacing the old fence, which I have photographed. So actually the book is obsolete, but it’s a good documentation of what existed.

TT: Was there one particular moment that stands out as more compelling, more heartbreaking, or more light-hearted, above the rest, during your journey to document this steel fence?

MS: No, I felt very sad on many occasions, especially in South Texas because the wall is extremely discriminatory. I met many families where the wall divided them. Very few people know that the fence in South Texas is actually a mile or a mile and a half inside the United States. It divides people on both sides of the wall. So, it’s really very sad because that’s not the case in Arizona, the wall doesn’t cut people on both sides of it, where as in South Texas, it’s dramatic.

TT: Did you have complete access?  Or were you restricted in some places from getting near the fence?

MS: I don’t think the Border Patrol really knew what it was doing. Sometimes they would tell you “Yes, you can” and other times they would say “No, you can’t.” And they would try to discourage you from really documenting the issue. And I could not tell them that I wanted to document it, or that I was making a book, otherwise my life would be very difficult and I would have to file documentation and fill out applications in order to do this project. So I just said “I am just doing a research project on the wall.” But, it was a very complex issue to get very close to it, because they felt if I got close to it I would be passing drugs to the other side, or dropping money or passing arms. But a lot of times it didn’t really matter because there was nobody on the other side.

TT: If this book is a good documentary of what happened but it’s obsolete, do you have plans to follow up and do another project?

MS: Yes, absolutely. And this book is obsolete but at the same time, it is something that has historical value because it (the wall) existed and now it has a different face to it. I was surprised myself two weeks ago when I saw how it looked in Nogales in 2011 versus to the way it looked in 2009. It was 15 feet high, and now it’s 23 feet high. It’s amazing and it’s in the same place. 

TT: Is there anything else you want to say, or any commentary you’d like to give about this project? What you think it symbolizes, not just for Mexico and the United States, but for the world?

MS: I think I would like Americans to see that the government has committed itself to this huge project that, for me, is on the same scale as the Panama Canal. It’s an enormous project in terms of finances and resources, instead of using it for the economy or to help people. There are also many families that have been displaced or destroyed by the wall. And that’s what I would like the Americans to understand, it’s an enormous project financially, and it has human consequences to it.

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