Petra Barth came late to photography. But she is making up for lost time.
Barth, who was born in Germany and studied fashion design in Milan, worked in the fashion industry before moving to the United States 13 years ago and enrolling in photography courses at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C.
“I was pretty fed up with the fashion business, and photography was sort of a lifelong dream of mine,” she says.
At first she didn’t know what kind of photography she wanted to do, but an interest in social issues in developing countries — sparked during travel to India at age 23 — led her to documentary work. In Germany she had avidly read Latin American literature, and soon after enrolling at the Corcoran she decided to take her cameras on a road trip to Central America and Mexico. The journey cemented her dedication to documentary photography.
“I didn’t have a plan and didn’t want a plan,” she says. “I wanted to experience what I saw, not to go with a preconceived subject in mind. I got involved pretty deeply in photographing small rural communities in El Salvador and Guatemala, and when I came back I had tons of photographs.”
She showed them to one of her teachers at the Corcoran, Andy Grundberg, formerly the photography critic of the New York Times, who advised her to look at the collection of photography from different places within a larger framework.
“She’d been traveling all over, and she said, ‘Here is my work from Nicaragua, here are my pictures from Mexicali,’” Grundberg recalls. “I said, ‘Isn’t this work really about all the Americas, as opposed to just these different places you’ve been?’”
He also told her to study the work of the photographer Robert Frank. “It was an aha moment for her,” Grundberg says. “It shows you where she was coming from — she hadn’t heard of Frank. But he became a big inspiration for her.”
His suggestions have had a powerful effect on Barth’s life and work.
Heeding Grundberg’s advice, she continued her travels, but with a new focus, having conceived of a longterm project she called “The Americas,” a view of daily life in locations stretching from Chile and Central America to the United States.
Then about four years ago, Barth’s journeys came to a standstill at the U.S.-Mexico border. There she embarked on a series that has marked another stage in her evolution as a photographer.
In the divided city of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, Barth contacted two nonprofits — on the U.S. side, a group called the Border Community Alliance, which works to bridge north and south with cross-border tours and social and education programs, and on the Mexican side a community organization called FESAC, or Fundación del Empresario Sonorense (Foundation of Sonoran Entrepreneurship). Through FESAC she was led to the San Juan Bosco shelter, a way station of sorts for deportees. There, in a dim space that doubles as a chapel, she began shooting a portrait series she called “Los Mochileros,” or “The Backpackers.”
Barth notes in her artist’s statement for the project that in recent years increased border enforcement by the U.S. has significantly slowed the number of migrants crossing the border illegally, pointing to a 2016 report from Pew Research Center. “As a result, the Department of Homeland Security estimated in 2015 that the probability of getting caught by the border patrol was 54 percent, up from about 36 percent in 2005,” she writes. “Despite the fact that fewer migrants try to cross into the US, the misery of those who do is shocking, and their suffering is profound.”
Her portraits, shot with her subjects posed against a bare white wall and uniformly framed, form a typology of the misery.
Barth has made five trips to the shelter over the years. Almost everyone she approached there wanted to be photographed, she says. “I asked permission, and then I would be alone with them for a while, waiting for the right moment to photograph them, when they were at ease with me,” Barth says.
Her work has been entirely self-financed with her own savings, along with some print sales. “She has pushed herself and gone about her work with very little in the way of public acknowledgement,” says Andy Grundberg.
Now, however, her work is getting noticed. Last summer, Barth’s “Backpacker” portrait series was shown at the Houston Center of Photography, and this year it will be exhibited at the Venice Biennale, from May 13 through November 26.
In the dimly lit room at San Juan Bosco shelter, Barth focused on the faces behind the numbers of immigration, and in doing so found her voice as a documentary photographer.