This was a U.S. Border Patrol freight train roundup of undocumented immigrants in 1988, I think. Here’s one thing about working in The Bakersfield Californian photo department: there’s no such thing as “easing in.” The assignments come fast and steady, and if you’re a live body, you’re expected to shoot anything that is needed. Right now, no excuses. Just ask any of the photo interns we had over the years. Their “breaking in” period lasted about one second, which is how long it takes to say “hello.” In the summer of 1988, I was forced to a month of office duty after tearing ligaments in my knee playing basketball. Office duty for a photojournalist is pure torture. Our jobs require us to be out and about for most of our shifts, shooting assignments, looking for photos on or own or responding to news as it happens. It’s one of those rare jobs where they don’t want you hanging around the office. They kick you out if you do. (Any veteran photojournalist knows that you hang out in a coffee house, not the office. The story at The Bakersfield Californian in my later years was that if you needed to find a photographer, you didn’t call the photo department, you called Dagny’s Coffee House!) Office duty? How about shooting mug shots, filing negatives, mixing chemicals, cleaning the lab after your fellow photographers (what fun!) and by far the worst of all, sitting in on the morning and afternoon editors’ meetings.
The day I was cleared to return to regular duty, I was assigned to accompany the Border Patrol on a roundup of undocumented immigrants who make their way up California and into the San Joaquin Valley’s farm fields by hopping freight trains. “How’s your knee? Feeling OK? Good, you’re going freight train hopping with the Border Patrol. Don’t get hurt.” It was one of the most fascinating stories I ever worked. It would also remind me of one of my most significant limitations of working as a photojournalist in California – not being able to speak Spanish. Oh, how I wish I had that to do over!
Accompanying authorities on roundups or raids rarely leads to good photos, because they are more interested in keeping you from seeing anything until they can “clear it,” meaning you’re not going to see anything they don’t want you to see. Not these guys. I had free rein, complete access to the entire operation. Sadly, back then, the only pictures the public would see would be the one or two or three the editors had room to run. Unlike today, where web space is unlimited and photographers have a tremendous opportunity to have all of their work displayed in web galleries, it wasn’t that way back then. I can only imagine how much great work by so many great photographers went unseen, simply due to lack of space in such a limited medium. This is why when my Bakersfield College students complain to me about their pictures not being published in the student paper, the first thing I ask is “Did you do a web gallery?” When they say no and start making excuses, I tell them I don’t want to hear it. I want them to take advantage of the wonder that the web offers and get their work up in a gallery.
In the above photo, a captured immigrant waits in a Border Patrol van, where he will be driven to headquarters, processed and returned to Mexico.