Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
July 17, 2019

The Pence Migrant Detention Center Pictures: A Closer Look

Vice President Mike Pence hovering, others from behind. Note GOP entourage all white males, except for Sen. Marsha Blackburn(top l) and omnipresent Second Lady Karen Pence in olive, who seems hard to differentiate in many pix from BP officer. (Photo: via VP Mike Pence)

Photography is a powerful tool in politics, and never more so than now, in the midst of this immigration battle and culture war.

Vice President Mike Pence visited two detention centers in Texas last Friday. Despite the limited time that the press was given to document the tour, they produced imagery that was telling of the migrant crisis and the government’s actions (or inaction). Also, a press video was made on the second and most controversial stop. We looked at the photos and screenshots of videos that came out of the visit. Our interpretations of body language and visual language in the photos revealed more details from Pence’s tour and its political agenda.

Through our analysis, which was broken down in a series of tweets, we invite you to take a closer look at Pence’s detention center photo-op, and consider the factors that shape those images.

The tour came after what seems like a continuous wave of bad news and damaging imagery surrounding the migrant crisis: the drowning of father and daughter Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Valeria in the Rio Grande; two damning reports by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General about squalid conditions at detention centers; the further exposure of those conditions after a visit by members of the Hispanic Caucus; and the discovery of secret Border Patrol Facebook groups where racist and sexist posts flourished. And the wave continued days after Pence’s visit, as ICE raids began in several U.S. cities on Sunday. 

Although it never came up all day, even (or especially) during a roundtable Pence held with agents in McAllen, part of the trip had to do with lessening the impact of the Facebook scandal. 

Pence couldn’t offer enough praise. He was quoted by Vox saying, “It’s my honor to be with you all and to have the opportunity to see firsthand the extraordinary and compassionate professionalism of Customs and Border Protection.” 

What was revealing about the images at the Donna facility was how the visiting officials carried themselves and interacted with migrants. Reinforcing the obvious power dynamics that exist, many photos show Pence hovering or standing over migrant children as they look up at him.

The following tweet shows how Pence also used the visit to counter documentation by the government’s own Department of Homeland Security Inspector General, as well migrants’ claims about inhumane conditions at the center.

Visuals from the next stop on the Vice-President’s trip, however, give pause.

Since only one photojournalist, Verónica Cárdenas of Reuters, was given access to photograph the tour, it is also important to question whose lens we are seeing the narrative through. 

The question we want to ask in a scenario like this are: Who has access—where, when, and for how long?  What is being presented, in what context, and what aren’t we seeing? How different is photography from video? And how can we slow things down enough to answer some of these questions?

Here, we compare Cárdenas’s perspective with that of the White House photographer. 

The next set of images were taken at the detention center in McAllen, Texas, where over 400 men from Central America were shoulder-to-shoulder in cages. Many people commented on the lack of empathy on Pence’s face as he glanced at the men in pens. Most controversial was that this part of the visit even took place at all. 

As the tweets relate, we captured screenshots to better analyze the scene. Pictures can capture a nanosecond of a reaction, which is why they are so important. They allow us to take a closer look, examine patterns and details that we would not have noticed in the passing moment, and highlight our common humanity. That is what the government does not want us to see. 

Our attempt with this thread was to see through, and glean more from this high profile junket. The goal was to slow things down, and to tease out the details from the propaganda before the event got buried by the next barrage.

Photo: Veronica G. Cardenas/Reuters Caption: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence meets with officers at a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, U.S. July 12, 2019. 

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