South Carolina-based photographer Sean Rayford recently returned from a crowdfunded trip documenting the Central American Caravan for ten days in Tijuana, Mexico.
Although he regularly shoots for Getty, the Associated Press, and the New York Times, for this trip, Sean, who maintains a regular blog, launched a funding initiative. Thanks to his strong ties to the local community, he had often heard from supporters expressing their desires to have someone who they could trust to document what was happening at the border. People were happy to directly pay Sean (and a fellow photojournalist, Thomas Hammond), to travel from South Carolina to Mexico.
While on his trip, Sean regularly posted photo stories on his blog and Instagram feed and found that even though he’d rather be taking photos, live streaming on Facebook really connected his audience to the story. The local CBS news affiliate also caught wind of the story and profiled the trip, interviewing Sean about his work and experience.
Was there a particular exchange or anything you witnessed that most stuck in your mind from these ten days in Mexico?
With each passing day the camp and surrounding streets would get more and more crowded, but each day I kept meeting new people and by the end of the trip it was hard to walk through the area and not stop to exchange pleasantries with the folks traveling in the caravan. The day of the big march to the border, when tear gas was deployed by border patrol, it was pretty intense and very surreal. At one point I was running side by side with Mexican Federal Police as we fled from the tear gas. I will definitely never forget running up and down the banks of the Tijuana river bed that day and can only begin to process the largess of those moments. Near one edge of the riverbed, it was covered in sewage and the smell of tear gas mixed with that of human feces. People were running through it to escape the gas.
In such a highly-charged environment, how do you maintain calm?
I’ve been working in news for twenty years so, even though you may be exposing yourself to something completely new and insane, you let your habits kick in and embrace getting lost in the image making process and the logistics involved of being in the right place. You just react and roll with it.
The most frightening part of our trip came during a dinner trip back to San Diego when Thomas flew back and I returned to Tijuana for a few days. We were chased down the street by a crackhead who wanted his lighter. The second most frightening moment came when Tijuana local police interrogated us in a presumed and abandoned extortion move. Abandoned when they found out I was a journalist. I’ve covered multiple days of rioting in Charlotte and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and this assignment wasn’t as charged or anywhere near as dangerous. My best explanation is there wasn’t the same level of anger. Maybe frustration, but not anger. I saw lots of folks with false hope that they were running to their freedom on that Sunday, that their 3,000 mile journey was about to reach its epic moment. I saw that in the eyes of the twenty-somethings in the caravan. Those older had a much more serious and unsure look in their eyes that day.
On December 13th, Sean and Thomas hosted a presentation and panel discussion that included a historical expert and a painter who grew up in Honduras.
“I thought it would be a perfect way to present what we saw to our audience. They are the type of folks who want a deeper look than what ends up on the national news each evening and we were able to walk them through the camp and surrounding areas for ten days while giving them some context along the way. We presented about 150 images and they could ask questions. It’s a really interpersonal form of photojournalism and for me, it opens up a big new door.”
Read more of the story and Sean’s experience here.
See more of Sean at seanrayford.com!
Check out our other great photographers on our Find Photographers page.