Dennis Welsh Takes a STAND Beyond Boundaries
July 7, 2014
Dennis Welsh is a thoughtful photographer. You see the care, warmth and humanity in every picture he shoots no matter what the project. Recently he had the opportunity to show those traits and more when he traveled to the Arizona-Mexico border to cover a project for the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) magazine STAND. Casey Gradischnig, Sr. Designer at Meredith Xcelerated Marketing (MXM) and Creative Director of STAND, was looking for a photographer who could capture portraits in an environment that featured people and the environment with equal strength. STAND is the ACLU’s first-ever magazine and was developed and designed by MXM. It is published twice a year and sent to ACLU members. Gradischnig developed the initial prototype for the magazine and plans and designs the layouts, the concepts, hires photographers and illustrators and art directs the shoots. He found Welsh online when searching for dramatic, environmental portrait and lifestyle photographers. He was sold on Welsh’s work when he saw the variety and quality of images in his portfolio.
Welsh was both excited and wound up about the nature of the project, but this would turn out to be no ordinary portrait and travel assignment. In fact, it would end up being a bit harrowing for all involved, especially ACLU client and subject, Alejandro Valenzuela, a Mexican resident who is qualified for Deferred Action. Deferred Action policy allows undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 16 to get employment authorizations and social security numbers.
Welsh and Gradischnig flew into Tucson and drove with Valenzuela sitting in the back of their SUV, down to the Mexican border to shoot their images. Valenzuela is not a U.S. citizen yet but going through the process. He has been the victim of racial profiling and harassment by the Border Patrol several times.
“Truthfully, I didn’t give it a lot of thought. My mind was on creating a compelling portrait and making sure my client got more than what he needed” says Welsh. As they approached the fence, Welsh was amazed by its staggering height and length. The Border Fence or Border Wall is 1,951 miles and covers a variety of terrains that include both urban areas and deserts. Most of the illegal crossings take place in the uninhabited areas. As they got closer to their shoot location, the mood in the SUV started to change. They shut off the radio, looked out over the hills and on nearly every peak there was a U.S. Border Patrol truck. This was not going to be easy.
After driving along the fence, Welsh and Gradischnig found the right location for the shots. Always looking over their shoulders, they began to unload gear and setup. “We noticed that the Border Patrol didn’t seem to be that interested in us. We shot a few portraits to warm up, moved a bit, shot a few more, and so on, until the light was perfect, and we were ready to shoot the final image,” says Welsh. So far so good. They were just about done and thought they would be able to go.
Equipment got packed up and they all started back to Tucson. By this time, the sun had already gone down so that they were now driving in the dark. About 15 miles north of the border, there was a semi-permanent structure where the U.S. Border Patrol was inspecting vehicles. No problem or so they thought. They both were citizens, traveling with a documented Mexican resident of the U.S. As Welsh approached the patrol, he rolled down his window and presented his license to the agent, who was wearing a bullet-proof vest and a sidearm on his belt. “Roll down your rear window please,” he asked. Welsh did as he was asked, revealing their subject Valenzuela in the back seat. They knew that they had done nothing wrong or illegal but still they all began to feel very apprehensive about the situation. The Border Patrol agent asked Valenzuela what his story was and asked to see his papers. Handing over a binder, Valenzuela explained that he was qualified for “deferred action” and legally resides in the U.S. “You know what my favorite thing to do is?” asked the Border Patrol agent. “My favorite thing to do is to send Mexicans back to Mexico.” Welsh and Gradischnig knew they were facing trouble and were now seeing firsthand how difficult it is to be Mexican and to be near the border.
After about half an hour later and after a lot more back-and-forth scrutinizing of their ACLU client’s paperwork, they were finally released and allowed to continue on their way. It was a quiet ride home, but they did discuss how difficult the culture of the U.S. Border Patrol must be, how challenging it is day in and day out to do that job, even in the light of their own experience. “Dennis’ skills as a photographer and communicator were key to capturing this important feature opener. Not only were we faced with challenging terrain and a limited shooting window because of the setting sun, we also had the added stress of being responsible for taking an undocumented young man to the border fence and hoping we could keep him relaxed for the photo and out of jail,” says Gradischnig.
The in-depth look at “Beyond Boundaries” will be published with Welsh’s portraiture of Valenzuela in the ACLU summer issue of STAND. It will contribute to their demand for accountability from the U.S. Border Patrol and the ongoing abuse and unconstitutional practices that many legal U.S residents face every day simply because of their appearance.
Welsh had to do a skillful job and more than ever stay cool, calm and collected. He had to be shooting all the time, building a rapport with his subject, keeping an eye on the setting sun and watching their backs for the Border Patrol. He had to be shooting all the time, building a rapport with his subject, while also keeping an eye on the setting sun and being on guard for the Border Patrol. As Gradischnig sums it up, “Efficient, quality work and great images that the client loves! What more can an art director ask for.”