Central American migrants react as they surrender to Border Patrol agents after crossing into the United States. / Photo by Guillermo Arias, AFP

A Tijuana-based photojournalist received the prestigious Visa Pour L’Image Paris Match Award last week, given each year to exceptional work in journalistic photography at an annual festival in Perpignan, France.

This year’s award was presented at the close of the festival to Guillermo Arias for his work documenting the Central American migrant caravan for Agence France-Presse, an international news agency.

Tijuana photojournalist Guillermo Arias / Photo by Artur Kowallick, @cameraminuteraberlin

Arias has covered the border for the last three years in Tijuana. In October, he traveled to Mexico’s southern border to meet up with the asylum-seekers as they crossed into Mexico, heading north.

“I followed them for 12 days, all the way to Mexico City,” Arias said. “Most of the time, I followed them in the car but I got a few chances when I had a couple of colleagues there working with me that I could actually walk with them for a few miles.”

To Arias, the migrant caravan story looked much the same as his expectations before covering it: a large crowd walking on foot or packed into vehicles, alternating with times when the crowd would rest or regroup. “It looks pretty straightforward.”

What surprised Arias, however, were the larger implications of this story.

“What caught my attention was what it meant. What it meant to the Central American governments, that thousands of people at once decided to get out of there, and also, in order to be safe and protected, to go to Mexico — on one of the most dangerous migration routes in the country,” Arias said. “And for me, since the beginning, it was a protest more than an exodus,” he added.

Arias said covering the migrant caravan meant asking questions of himself regularly to avoid sensationalism: Why is he taking the picture, and what difference will it make?

The controversial image of the drowned migrant father and child that sparked debate and outrage this June spotlights this dilemma for Arias. “I think it was a necessary image because it happened,” he said. “The fact is this: People died on the river trying to cross into the U.S., and that happened, and it’s been happening for a long time.”

A man (who only said he was from Guerrero, Mexico) gets stuck in the concertina wire as he crosses the U.S.-Mexico border fence from Tijuana to San Diego County / Photo by Guillermo Arias, AFP

Journalists are facing more extreme threats in Mexico than ever, and Arias is aware of the danger of his work. As of last week, 12 journalists have been killed in Mexico this year so far, making it now the most dangerous country for journalists worldwide. Arias said that a strikingly high percentage of murder cases in Mexico haven’t been solved. “Some haven’t been investigated at all,” he said.

This volatility drives his focus and need to tell a complete and accurate story. “You’re facing some other level threats, so you have to be very precise when you’re photographing something,” Arias said.

A group of Central American migrants traveling in a caravan beg a Border Patrol agent to let them cross the Mexico-U.S. border fence. / Photo by Guillermo Arias, AFP

Evident in Arias’ work is the way he was welcomed and trusted by the group. It’s a fine line between bias and access, though he acknowledged that bias is inevitable. “You can empathize with a migrant, but also you can empathize with an authority and the circumstances surrounding them,” Arias said. Several of the images in his project show agents, sometimes interacting with or detaining the migrants, but sometimes they’re static, watching.

“It’s more about empathizing without getting involved, and to be open to what people are showing you and telling you. It doesn’t matter who they are,” he added.

Arias said that he aims to understand the full situation to see — and capture — the complete scene. Ultimately, he feels his responsibility as a photojournalist is to communicate a scene to the public so they can understand it, but that immigration in particular is complicated.

Migrants heading in a caravan to the U.S. are seen onboard a truck as they catch a ride in Isla, Mexico, on their way to Puebla. / Photo by Guillermo Arias, AFP

“You learn to talk to the people,” he said. “You get to go a little bit deeper because you know there are some layers in the immigration process.”

Arias also acknowledged that it’s the people in his work who deserve the recognition. “You are just the tool that gives them some kind of visibility,” he said. “Unfortunately every time one of us won an award it had to do with somebody’s bad time, a bad moment in their lives.”

Can Storytelling Save Empathy?

Pop-Up Magazine, a stage-only performance magazine is a convergence of ephemera and permanence — much in the same way as historic oral storytelling traditions — but with our current societal drive to report, archive and share everything, it feels notable to keep things offline or let them go unrecorded.

As a genre, oral storytelling champions the idea that stories are passed down generationally without being documented in any permanent form. As Margaret Atwood told Time magazine in 2012, “You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.”

A Pop-Up Magazine performance in Oakland. / Photo by Alex Welsh

Pop-Up Magazine is an attempt to take us back to those roots (and maybe to capture a little of that “you had to be there” urgency at the same time).

This fall’s tour is themed “the Escape Issue.” The touring, live showcase is packed with multimedia accompaniment, but nothing is posted online afterwards. No videos, no records.

The impressive cast of contributors includes Sarah Kay, a poet and the founder of Project VOICE, an education program empowering poets to take the stage and change lives. Kay will tell a story about her Japanese-American grandmother’s history of escaping internment during WWII. Other performers include comedians (like Jordan Carlos, of “Black Mirror” and HBO’s “Divorce”), journalists, musicians and photographers, spotlighting the inherent storytelling in each of these professions.

In sharing experiences through storytelling, whether intensely personal or distantly ancestral, communities foster empathy. “Even when someone is vastly different from us, we often look for even the smallest thing that can help us relate our human experience to theirs,” said Anita Badejo, Pop-Up’s executive editor and co-host. Badejo adds that storytelling is a way that people try to sort out and understand the world. “Especially at a time when the world feels so chaotic and any piece of information you can ever want is at your fingertips, it can be really hard to figure out where to focus your attention.”

Pop-Up hits The Observatory North Park on Monday.

Incarcerated Playwrights, Communal Drawing and More Arts and Culture News

Visual Arts


  • The Adams Avenue Street Fair takes place this Saturday and Sunday, with seven stages peppered though Normal Heights and a hundred bands, including Buck-O-Nine. There’s also a lot of art, food and drink vendors.
  • Big news out of a weekend already jam-packed with KAABOO updates: As of next year, it will relocate to Petco Park. Also of note: In combing through its website looking for copyediting cracks in the already-flawless rebrand, I learned that individual early bird (presumably cheaper?) ticket packages range in price from $199 to $17,500 (!!!). (U-T)

Film and Literature

San Diego-based author Karen Stefano / Photo courtesy of Karen Stefano

Theater and Dance

  • The Russian Ballet Theater performs “Swan Lake” at the California Center for the Arts Escondido on Thursday, and on Friday at the Jacob’s Center.
  • On Saturday, Moxie Theatre is host to “Finding Our Way,” a play written collaboratively by inmates at Donovan Correctional Facility, via the Playwrights Projects “Out of the Yard” program. The play focuses on recovery. There’ll also be performances at Donovan this week that are not open to the public.
  • This weekend, Diversionary Theater opens “Girlfriend,” the ‘90s-drenched love story based on Matthew Sweet’s music. (Pacific)

Miscellaneous and More

Food, Beer, Booze, Etc.

Closing Soon

What’s Inspiring Me Right Now

  • Famed horror editor Ellen Daltow announced her best horror short stories of the year, and the list included a story that I didn’t know existed by one of my favorite living writers, Laura Van Den Berg. “Friends,” which was published in Catapult’s Tiny Crimes anthology last year, is actually available to read online. “A place is a place, she’d told herself upon arriving, but she had never before lived in a city of medium size.” (Catapult)

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