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Desire Lines by Lara Shipley (2023)

Desire Lines (2023) by Lara Shipley is a dense, evocative book, full of photographs and collages centered on the journeys and lives of those that cross the US-Mexico border and those that live in the border region. This book is all about layers; the visual language is made up of layered images, the chronology is layered from archival photos and contemporary photos by the author, the landscaped are layered with man-made objects and naturally occurring topography, the pages are layered with images and text mixing together words of migrants with depictions of the world they inhabit. 

Shipley shows us a world where migrants traveling to the US have to choose their own path. The book begins with a foldout of the Sonoran Desert landscape with an archival portrait of a mounted law enforcement officer, all in sepia tone. As the viewer moves through the first few pages there are black and white images mixed with color images, often layered on top of one another. Full page spreads of a vast color landscape of small jagged mountains and black and white spreads of dirt paths. Every few photos there is emphasis on the sky, then back to the desert earth. Shipley paints a picture of perspective – the grandness and vastness of the desert, the imposition of time as unending, even circular. Images from the archive flow so seamlessly into Shipley’s photographs that sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. The viewer is being told that this is not a new experience, that this desert and this landscape has been around for a while, and so have the people who live and traverse it. I thought this notion was explained rather poetically by the author when she describes the Border Patrol officers as also living a somewhat migratory lifestyle. They are not native to the borderlands, they are here seeking work, living in motels. The photographs used to illustrate all this sublimity are as diverse as possible: black and white, color, night vision, collage, maps, documents, text, and foldouts. The author uses every simple method of visuals possible to show this landscape in all its beautiful, but simultaneously dangerous, grandeur. 

On top of all of the landscape imagery, Shipley also brings the viewer’s eyes into the details; details of the objects and infrastructure that make these journeys possible and also perilous, and details of who these people actually are via beautiful portraits and text from interviews. There is one object that is shown over and over in many different images and that is the water jug. The desert is hot and people need to drink! This emphasis is what drives home the idea of a never-ending journey. There will always be people seeking a better life on the other side of the border and there will always be challenges standing in their way. 

There are some noteworthy photos and spreads that stood out, both of the landscape and of the people. Shipley spends time at the end of the book discussing a group of nuns whose mission it is to plant crosses at the locations of migrants who have died and mourn them for the individual they are. There is a great portrait of a friar standing in the land, overlaid onto the mountains behind. The photographer leaves the portrait slightly translucent so there is a little bit of a mixing of the landscape and the person. She does this throughout the book and it creates a beautiful cohesion of people and place. There are a few images created out of one or two photographs, torn up and reassembled, demonstrating another way the photographer is constantly evaluating and reevaluating what this landscape represents. The paths and ridges and routes nature presents to us are not necessarily the paths and routes a human would take on their way through the desert seeking opportunities. Finally there is one collage of a Border Patrol helicopter that caught my attention. The helicopter flies closer and closer to the foreground over four unique frames. They are not lined up or overlaid in perfect rectilinearity, but they evoke a real sense of aggressive motion. This helicopter is looking at you and it’s coming for you. All four of these frames sit on top of a black and white desert, giving the impression that this tool of oppression is going to land right in front of the viewer.

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