A Prize-winning Photojournalist on Empowering Fairfield County Immigrants

Dec 06, 2020

Photo caption: ‘Crying Girl on the Border,’ courtesy of John Moore / Getty Images

December 18th is recognized by the U.N. as International Migrants’ Day, raising awareness for human rights and saluting the efforts of migrants and communities to build better futures together. Our President & CEO, Juanita James, talked with Pulitzer Prize award winner, Getty Images Senior Staff Photographer & Special Correspondent, and Stamford resident, John Moore. Moore shared the story behind his 2019 World Press Photo of the Year, ‘Crying Girl on the Border,’ and discussed critical issues impacting immigrants and their families in Fairfield County.

James: Tell me about your 2019 World Press Photo of the Year, ‘Crying Girl on the Border.’ What is the story behind that image, and why do you think it resonated with so many people?

Moore: I had been photographing immigration issues in Central America and the U.S. for about 10 years. When the Trump administration announced its zero tolerance policy on the border, I knew it was going to be a big story. I’d been seeing xenophobia grow in this country since 2010, when Arizona passed SB 1070, an extremely restrictive immigration law that highlighted racial profiling.

I had permission from the U.S. Border Patrol to go out with them on one shift. Though part of the new policy was the separation of children from their parents there on the border, I knew I would never actually see that myself, because the patrol would have never allowed a photojournalist to see or document that happening. But I knew with some luck I would be in the right position when families were going into the system.

So, I was with a border patrol agent by the Rio Grande River that separates Texas from Mexico, and about a dozen women and children from Central America came across in a raft. When they came to shore, I spoke with them in Spanish and learned one of the mothers had been traveling from Honduras for a month with her little girl, who was two.

I photographed just as the government agents were body searching people before transporting them to a central immigration center. The woman had to set her daughter down on the ground, and young Yanela, who was two at the time, immediately started crying. I had just a few seconds to take a series of pictures of her while her mother was being searched. As a photojournalist, you never know when that moment will happen that will touch people’s hearts – and that’s when it was.

That image was seen all around the world and had an intense response on social media. It caused quite a bit of controversy as well, and I welcome controversy when it has to do with photojournalism that tells a story. Creating a conversation is what I want, and that image certainly did.

James: That is one of those images that made me feel like this is not the country we live in. It’s burned in my mind. I will remember it for a very, very long time.

Moore: When I think of that picture, it’s still emotional, even for me. So much happened during these last four years of the Trump administration in terms of immigration, but that particular phase was especially painful for so many families.

None of us ever wants to see things like that, but it’s part of my duty. It sounds like a strange word, but it’s part of what I do: to be there when it happens. If photojournalists aren’t there to see and photograph it, other people never will. And when these things happen in darkness, they keep happening. When we can bring them to light it creates public awareness in ways we hope will have positive effects.

James: Much of your work captures images from in Fairfield County. Why here, and what makes Fairfield County different from other places where you have worked?

Pulitzer Prize award winner, Getty Images Senior Staff Photographer & Special Correspondent, and Stamford resident, John Moore.

Moore: I’ve lived in Stamford for the last five years, so this is the community in which I cover immigration issues. It helps to do long-term stories in your own community because I can keep coming back over time to capture images.

Here in Fairfield County, and specifically, in Stamford, we have a very vibrant and large Guatemalan community, as well as people from many other parts of the world, especially Latin America. There’s also Building One Community, a nonprofit which is an important resource for immigrants. Sometimes I work with them on stories. Working in the place where I live allows my work to have more depth, and helps me to gain people’s trust.

James: We are in the middle of a pandemic, and approaching 10 months of isolation and frustration. Do you think that this has affected immigrants differently than the rest of the population?

Moore: Because of the federal government’s policies on immigrants over the last four years, it’s been a scary time for both people who are undocumented and those on the route to legal immigration. So while the pandemic is of course traumatic for the entire U.S. population, for immigrants it’s laid over trauma; possibly because of their immigration status, possibly because of the increased levels of xenophobia and prejudice which have become normalized through every community. So you have a crisis on top of a crisis for these people, and it’s been very difficult.

James: Can you share a story of immigrants that stands out in your mind?

Moore: I did a long-term picture story starting this spring on a family of Guatemalan immigrants. The mom, Zully, checked into a hospital seriously sick with COVID-19 and at the point of giving birth. She found herself in a situation where she was about to pass out, and she called a teacher, Luciana Lira, who herself was originally from Brazil and now teaches at Hart Magnet Elementary School in Stamford.

After Zully was put into a coma and given a C-section, that teacher accepted the newborn baby, Neysel, who was born healthy. This teacher took care of the child for months while the father, Marvin, and baby Neysel’s brother Junior, who is seven years old, recovered from COVID-19.

For this story, I was able to get full access to the family. They were so generous and kind. I was able to photograph them in Stamford Hospital, and also in their homes.

Now one might think, “Wow, how do you photograph people who are sick with COVID-19 in their homes?” Well, I was wearing protective clothing. I have a full-face respirator mask I wear when I’m photographing in infectious environments, and I also sometimes wear Tyvek suits or aprons. I wear lots of PPE.

I’ve been covering COVID all this year, both in the immigrant community and at large. But in the case of immigrants, it is so much more terrifying for them because at the same time they’re dealing with huge health crises, they’re also in fear of being deported. So it’s a very hard situation. I’m not using their last names to protect their identities, but the family I covered has been so generous, and they’re doing fine today.

That story was double-edged. It showed both the horror of this health crisis, and the beauty of how people will go to extraordinary measures to help others. There were many families here in Stamford providing meals to the teacher while she cared for the baby. Keep in mind, she was still distance teaching the whole time she was taking care of a newborn, and that was a story in itself.

And his family came along very well. Fortunately for them, they were able to benefit from a GoFundMe account, which helped the family get back on their feet. Building One Community was essential in this support, and also coordinating with the hospital.

Once in a while I get to do a story where the community really comes together and helps people out, and it made me feel good too.

James: Your book Undocumented: Immigration and the Militarization of the United States-Mexico Border represents ten years of your work in photojournalism. How can we continue to follow your work?

Moore: The easiest way to follow my work is on social media. I’m on both Instagram and Twitter at @jbmoorephoto. I use those channels professionally for the work I’m doing, not just on immigration, but on COVID-19 and the elections. I was recently in Arizona covering the eviction crisis, which unfortunately is going to get very big here in the next month or two if things aren’t done.

And I continue with my coverage for Getty Images. Getty is very kind to let me choose a lot of the topics that I work on, and it just so happens that a lot of those are here in Fairfield County. You’ll see lots of it in the Stamford Advocate, which subscribes to Getty.

Subscribe to our Fairfield County Thrives podcast to hear the full conversation on empowering immigrants in our community and hear other stories of impact in our region.