Publication: Over the Line in TIME, a drone’s-eye view of the Mexico-US border

Eight prototypes of 30-foot-tall wall segments, requested by President Donald Trump, are seen along the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, California and Tijuana, Baja California.

In its most ambitious use of drone imagery to date, TIME published my series of aerial photographs above the Mexico-U.S. border as the lead photo essay of it’s special report on the Drone Age.

The new photos update my Blue Sky Days series, visualising the U.S. government’s use of drones in the time of Trump.

Below is the original, unedited introduction text that I submitted to TIME for publication. The final version, written by Alex Fitzpatrick of TIME and titled Over the Line, is available here.


Implied Lines
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.

Historically, photography was about portraiture, fine art, journalism or just recording memories of family and friends. On the border however, cameras are used for targeting and apprehension. The photographic medium has been weaponized. When I think about the vast network of lens-based technology deployed along the border, I consider it as what is probably the U.S. government’s largest and most expensive photo project in its history. There are countless cameras, filling screens and government computer servers with an endless flow of images of the borderlands.

To get an insight into the government’s unique perspective, I attached my own camera to a small drone and flew it along the border, capturing images along the 375-mile stretch from Nogales to Tijuana. Although we often think of our borders as permanent, this segment is the most recent in a fraught history that has seen the line shift several times. Originally home to indigenous people, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado arrived in what we now call the continental United States in 1540, claiming the land for the Spanish crown. For centuries of Hispanic rule, the border was 700 miles north of its current location, following what is now the state line between Oregon and California. Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 and quickly abolished slavery. That nobel act unwittingly pulled Mexico into the divisive politics of pre-Civil War America. Politicians from the South saw an opportunity to expand slave territory by annexing Texas and invading Mexico. When Mexico was defeated in 1848, the border was redrawn between Phoenix and Tucson. The final shift came in 1854, when America’s slave states sought more land from Mexico to link a railroad from the Pacific Ocean to the South.

Shortly after, the new line was surveyed and obelisk border posts were installed. Fences—of both the real and “virtual” variety—were added later. Most recently, prototypes for Trump’s proposed wall sprang up near San Diego. Meanwhile, many Mexicans haven’t forgotten the original sin—the racist ideology of the pre-Civil War South—that underpins the border’s present position. Today, many hear unnerving echoes in Trump’s provocative outbursts. Speaking with Hispanics in the borderlands, you’ll hear a common refrain, “We didn’t jump the border. The border jumped us.”

Of course, those who manage to get the right documentation are not cut off from the Hispanic-founded cities of Los Angeles, Tucson and San Antonio. Everyday, tens of thousands of cars fill the waiting lanes at legal ports of entry, like those in San Ysidro and Nogales. Elsewhere, individuals seek the services of smugglers or try their own luck to slip through the desert. Overhead, Border Patrol helicopters and a fleet of Predator drones point their lenses to the ground, unknowingly recording the visual record of the next chapter of the border’s long history.

This project was supported by a CatchLight Fellowship in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.