After studying philosophy, Tomas developed a passion for photography while enrolled in an overseas university program in Nepal. After graduation in 1999, he moved to Latin America. In 2002, he was the first photographer to document the US military prison in Guantánamo Bay. Tomas returned to Nepal in 2004 to photograph the Maoist rebellion. The resulting photos earned the Visa pour l’Image-Perpignan Young Photographer Award and the Bayeux Prize for War Correspondents. In 2010, Tomas was named the POY Photographer of the Year. Images from Blue Sky Days were first published in Harper's in the largest photo portfolio in the magazine's 164-year history. The series was awarded the 2015 ICP Infinity Award, World Press Photo and other honors. Tomas has been a member of the VII Photo collective since 2010.

Over the past four years, I’ve visited dozens of classrooms in five states with the Pulitzer Center, and I’ve grown accustomed to sharing my work with young people and listening to their concerns. In the aftermath of the election, many of the students I met were gripped with fear and anxiety. Latino, Hispanic and immigrant students were especially worried about discrimination and deportation. Their voices echoed in my mind as I’ve thought deeply about this project and the audiences that I want to reach.
— Tomas Van Houtryve

For the fellowship, Tomas van Houtryve explores the pre-1848 border between the United States and Mexico, using a wooden camera and photographic processing techniques from the mid-19th century to re-imagine a time when all of California and most of the far west was Mexican territory. The second phase of his project documents developments along the current U.S.-Mexico border using surveillance imaging technologies and further exploring the “weaponization" of photography.

PART ONE: Lines and Lineage

We often forget that the boundary between Mexico and the United States was not always where it is today. It used to be 1100 kilometers farther north, following what is now the state line between Oregon and California and running east to Wyoming before zagging southeast to Louisiana. Originally home to the indigenous peoples of the region, much of this land was Spanish and then Mexican territory for centuries before becoming what we now think of as the American West.

Spanish colonists and missionaries settled here beginning in 1598. In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain, and by the middle of the century, it was in some ways far more advanced than its neighbor to the northeast. It abolished slavery shortly after independence; black Mexicans soon gained prominent positions, including the governorship of California. Indigenous people were given the right to vote. All this came to an end in 1848, when the United States attacked Mexico, seized half its land, and created the border that we know today.

At the time, the war on Mexico was emphatically opposed by prominent Americans, including Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams. Henry David Thoreau penned his groundbreaking essay on Civil Disobedience after his arrest for nonpayment of taxes, an act of defiance of what he called an “unjust” war that aimed to “expand the slave territory.”

Mexican administration was cut short before photographic technology, revealed in Paris in 1839, arrived in the region. The well-known visual record of the American West—dominated by photos of cowboys and white settlers, the Gold Rush and the arrival of the railroads—was created after 1848. Images from the Mexican era, on the other hand, were never fixed in our memory. Using glass plates and a nineteenth-century camera to photograph landscapes along the original border and create portraits of descendants of early inhabitants, this project imagines what that history might look like. It questions the role that photographs—both present and missing—have played in shaping the identity of the West.


A drone’s-eye view of the border

From a certain height the border almost disappears. The top of the metal barrier is only a few inches wide. When seen from the vertical perspective of a drone-mounted camera, it resembles a thin seam on patchwork land that’s been heavily altered by roads, farms and sprawling parking lots. Early or late on a sunny day, the thin barrier casts a long unnatural shadow that makes it much more visible from above—a shadow that Donald Trump has pegged his presidency on a vow to grow much longer.

Over the past year, I’ve explored the relationship between photography and the border from multiple perspectives. The segment featured here, Implied Lines, is comprised of aerial photos that were inspired by a somewhat forgotten government initiative known as the “virtual fence.” Before there was talk of “the wall,” America’s previous two presidential administrations poured billions of dollars into cutting edge technology to boost border security. The idea was to fortify the line, not with concrete and steel, but with the watchful gaze of aerial drones, thermal cameras, and complex sensors.