News & Politics

Local Photographer Takes Stunning Portraits of Young People Who Crossed into the US Alone

Some of the faces in Contreras's project. Photographs by Oliver Contreras, courtesy Oliver Contreras.

Oliver Contreras was unfamiliar with the experiences of many Central Americans when he moved to DC. So Contreras, a photographer originally from Chile, decided to use his camera to learn about his new neighbors. He began making a series of intimate portraits of young Latinos, many of whom made the trip across the US border without documentation and without most of their family.

With the help of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN)—an advocacy group in Columbia Heights—Contreras interviewed subjects in Spanish, intermittently snapping photos after asking questions about their journey, their family, and their new lives in Washington.

The result is “Unaccompanied: Youth Seeking Refuge,” an online exhibit that Contreras hopes to move into the physical world soon. The Washington Post, where Contreras is an assistant photo editor, published his work on its In Sight blog last Wednesday.

Rachel Gittinger works for CARECEN and helped oversee the project. The portraits are meant to grasp attention, she says: “People see the photo, and they see there’s so much emotion in this person, and that is just enough curiosity to make you ask why–this person’s eyes, why do they look like that?”

Contreras thinks that the personal narratives of people fleeing their native countries—many from gang violence and abject poverty–are often lost in the day-to-day conversation about immigration in the US.

“I noticed in all the newspapers and all the articles I was reading, there was nothing more than just talking about immigration and laws: what to do with these people, statistics, and nothing more substantial than that,” he says.

Contreras had volunteered for CARECEN before “Unaccompanied,” which dovetails with a previous campaign called “Vos y tu Voz” that encourages young Latinos to speak up. “When you’re an immigrant and you move here, the only thing that you have is your story,” Contreras says.

“Erminia.” Photograph by Oliver Contreras, courtesy Oliver Contreras.

Portraits are a new medium for Contreras, but he’s a longtime visual journalist. In his native Santiago, he worked at a local news station doing lighting, sound, and film work. When he and his wife, who is from Maine, relocated to Boston in 2010, he had a lot of time to spare while he waited for his green card to process. He holed up in the library, read up on photojournalism, and bought a camera.

Since he didn’t know English well yet, he asked around for freelance photo jobs at Spanish-language newspapers, and eventually landed one at Boston’s El Planeta. A year later, after his wife got into grad school at Georgetown, he started his Master’s in photojournalism at George Washington, doing spot work for Washington Hispanic and EFE News on the side. His thesis was on Latino migrant workers in DC.

He also took on personal photo projects throughout Central America to try and understand migration patterns. He’s worked in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and in El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Mexico. He joined the Post in July.

Contreras says “Unaccompanied” has been one of his most challenging projects. Since many of his subjects work late shifts, he’d scurry off at lunch breaks to meet them for photos and interviews. New to portrait photography, he’d drag guests away from parties in his friend’s basement and use them to test lighting techniques.

But the hardest thing was getting people to open up to him. Most of the people he interviewed were anxious about being ostracized or maybe even deported.

But many recognized him from his work with CARACEN and felt comfortable about talking freely. Contreras says he made sure to acknowledge their qualms about putting their stories so out in the open. He told them everything he intended to publish and condensed all of his interviews into short summaries approved by each person. Some of their names were changed, and some dropped out after deciding the time wasn’t right to come forward.

Right now, ten people are featured in the Post blog and on Contreras’ website. They’re between 13 and 24 years old and hail from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Most got across the border with financial help from their families and a string of coyote networks. Some are photographed with mementos from their journey–like the torn-up socks a shoeless girl trekked through the desert with for three days, or the spare cash one of them hid in her hair scrunchie in case of emergency.

Their trips were often dramatic, and Contreras points out that they’re not reflective of his own experience immigrating to the US. He got his green card through marriage, and even beforehand, was able to travel to the US without a visa — a privilege that no Latin American country other than Chile is awarded. “I think they’re really brave,” he said.

“Nadia.” Photograph by Oliver Contreras, courtesy Oliver Contreras.

Contreras hopes the project will end with an exhibition in physical space. He’s in talks with the Inter-American Development Bank and says he may host it at the Newseum. He envisions 40-by-60 inch portraits of each subject, with audio clips of their voices playing throughout the space.

“We want for people to know these kids, to see their faces,” Contreras says.

Jackson Knapp
Assistant Editor