Atop A Train To America: Documenting The Epic Journey

Jan 4, 2013
Originally published on January 2, 2013 1:37 pm

Documentary photographer Michelle Frankfurter grew up reading adventure tales. And after spending more than 10 years traveling and photographing along the U.S.-Mexico border, she decided to create an adventure narrative of her own.

Using frequent flier miles, a credit card and 23 rolls of black-and-white film, she produced Destino (both "destination" and "destiny" in Spanish). The documentary project chronicles the Central American migrant journey through Mexico to the United States, which Frankfurter says she considers one of the most overlooked global issues of our time.

Inspired by Sonya Nazario's book Enrique's Journey — a true tale of a young man's trek from Honduras to the U.S. — Frankfurter found herself admiring the "youthful, cheeky migrants and their purpose and determination," she tells The Picture Show.

Because she speaks fluent Spanish, Frankfurter could work alone — showing up at migrant shelters and introducing herself. She took three separate trips on the cargo train La Bestia (The Beast), riding on top with the migrants through rain and blistering heat.

"For me, it was definitely an exercise in perseverance," she says. "A long-term project is a lot like a relationship. Initially, there is the thrill of discovery. You are infatuated. Everything is new and exciting. Later on, it can feel tedious."

Frankfurter encountered the same challenges as those who make this trip out of necessity — and the term "adventure" thus took on new meaning.

Faced with robberies, kidnappings, even death, many Central Americans see the journey as a last resort — but also the trade-off for a better future. Frankfurter says the trip has become increasingly more dangerous, especially in the northern Mexican states, which are heavily militarized and full of warring drug cartels.

After a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise money to hire a fixer/bodyguard for the last part of the journey, Frankfurter has planned for one more trip, sometime in 2013.

"It's changed me," she says. "They — the migrants — have changed me."

Lauren Rock is an intern in NPR's multimedia department.

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