SUSAN HARBAGE PAGE: BORDERLANDS
Artist talk: Thursday, Feb. 21, 6 p.m., free
The Gregg Museum of Art & Design, Raleigh
Susan Harbage Page’s fascination with borders and what they represent—contested spaces, identity, a sense of belonging—began at an early age. In 1969, when Harbage Page was ten years old, she went on a camping trip across Europe with her mother and three sisters. As the family tried to enter Romania, they were detained.
“We were taken out of our car,” says Harbage Page, an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. “We were locked in a room. We didn’t know what was happening. They took everything out of our car.”
That moment of fear and uncertainty has stuck with her for decades, and it had a significant impact on her U.S.-Mexico Border Project, an ongoing documentary endeavor that began more than ten years ago.
“I had a U.S. passport, but I wasn’t part of either country,” Harbage Page says. “Ultimately, that is one of the influences on why I have done this project, because being on that border and not belonging to each side was a pivotal moment for me.”
Harbage Page has traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border near Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico, more than a dozen times in search of objects abandoned by migrants. She photographs them as she finds them and then brings them back to North Carolina to stage photos of them in her studio.
“I started photographing them in place, sort of like an archeological look at the border,” Harbage Page says. “I started collecting them to make this anti-archive. Because what we usually collect is things from people who are rich and famous, from people who are privileged. And so I wanted to make this archive that shows the trauma that is happening on the border.”
Over the years, Harbage Page has collected one thousand objects, cataloged thirty thousand photographs, and held fifteen site-specific interventions in the Rio Grande Valley. A selection of works from her U.S. Mexico Border Project (2007–2015), which has been exhibited from Baltimore to Rome, is currently on display at the Gregg Museum of Art & Design. The exhibit, Borderlands, runs through July 28 following Thursday night’s artist talk, where Harbage Page will discuss the project with an immigration attorney, a local government official, and a representative from an area agency that assists migrant workers.
Harbage Page’s roots as an artist lie in documentary photography, but when she began the project, she made a commitment to never photograph people.
“I have no interest in photographing people at the most vulnerable moment of their lives,” Harbage Page says. “I wanted to find a different way to tell this story, and I knew that the border between the United States and Mexico was pretty much imaginary for most people. … I’ve seen many people crossing, but I always put my camera down out of respect. There’s this white, patriarchal history of photographers coming in, photographing people, and leaving, and I just didn’t want to do that.”
Instead, Harbage Page focuses on what has been forgotten. She’s come across objects ranging from shoes and Bibles to wallets and eyeglasses.
“The objects, for me, are like a portrait of someone,” Harbage Page says. “They’re separated from their owner. They’ve been left behind on this journey north as a refugee.”
Through conversations with locals, Harbage Page has learned that small items such as toothbrushes can harbor outsize meaning.
“It’s on the ground because it means, most times, that someone’s been picked up and taken to a detention center,” Harbage Page says. “It’s this short, hard thing, so the border patrol sees it as a weapon. When you start walking, and you see ten toothbrushes in two miles, you think, ‘What is happening here?’ You start reading the signs.”
When Harbage Page initially began photographing objects in her studio, she set them on black or white backdrops and placed a ruler alongside them to illustrate scale. But upon realizing the potential implications of that stark framing, she ditched the ruler and changed course, instead opting to showcase the objects against vibrant, colorful backgrounds.
“I thought, ‘No, I do not want these objects to be seen as evidence of a crime in any way,’” Harbage Page says. “I really wanted to push away from that historical past of archiving other cultures.”
Although immigration has been drifting in and out of the news cycle since long before Harbage Page started her project, her exhibit arrives at a time of particular crisis. Gridlock over funding for a wall along the Southern border—a cornerstone policy goal of the Trump administration—triggered the recent government shutdown, and debates over border security, citizenship, and asylum continue to dominate headlines. Despite the anonymity of the photographs, Harbage Page believes her work can encourage viewers to “think about the individuals that carry those objects.” She mentions the recent stories of family separations at the border and the “ongoing trauma that is taking place there.”
“You’re traumatizing generations of people at this moment with all of the detention centers,” Harbage Page says. “So I wish people would stop and think long-term about what’s happening to humans, to individuals.”
“My hope is that people will ask more questions about why people are risking their lives to come north and seek asylum,” she says. “I hope it will create empathy. I hope that you or the viewer will ask, ‘Wow, what would it take for me to put my belongings in a backpack and leave my home and leave my community and leave my family and leave my school and want to come north?’”