Alphabet Soup

Alphabet Soup

Alphabet Soup is the working title of my new project chronicling law enforcement’s mobilisation to impede criminal activity in the borderland of Southwest Arizona. This journal entry offers a short synopsis of the project and some ‘sketchbook’ photographs captured during a recce I made in 2018. I have now returned to Arizona and will spend 4 weeks immersed in the searing heat of the border hinterland.

Build That Wall

In recent years, especially with the advent of Donald Trump’s Presidency, resulting from one of his core election campaign promises to BUILD THAT WALL!”, the border of the United States of America and Mexico has never been higher in the public’s consciousness. Much attention is centred on the border’s migratory pressures, with ample opinion and concern from all political viewpoints and, of course, the drug and human trafficking flowing like enriched veins through the Sonoran Desert’s unforgiving topography.

Brief History

Running 1,954 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, the border’s history is contentious, bloody and spans many hundreds of years of conflict, commercial plunder and political upheaval. Today’s border was mostly settled in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexican-American War, with the final pieces of the land distribution puzzle pieced together with the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, which resulted in the boundaries enforced to this day.

Brief Politics

Since the 45th President took office I, along with many other creatives with an eye on social discourse, have wanted to embark on building an observational narrative around the President’s election promise to ”Build that wall”. Although successfully popularising the debate around border security, President Trump is certainly not the first Commander-in-chief to promise to provide an effective system to lock down the international boundary. With numerous administrations persuading Congress to approve budgets for fences, vehicle barriers and surveillance - in recent years this includes Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper and George W. Bush’s ambitious Secure Fence Act of 2006 - none have generated the partisan deadlock created by Trump’s grandiose pledge.

“Build that wall” is of course a soundbite, not a cogent public policy position, as the stark realities of constructing a physical wall is practically impossible -  so setting aside political rhetoric, this leaves the more pressing conversation about effective border security and how best to implement it.

Where to focus?

Humanitarian assistance, cartels, detention centres and modern day Minutemen are just some of the themes that have received a lot of media attention along the southern US border - with the more noteworthy work (outside of dangerous opinion silos and echo chambers) offering good insight. With the addition of some of America’s most beautiful landscape, it is easy to see the attraction for an image maker.

Ever since I first entered the US back in 1991 via San Antonio, TX - to head out west - I was beguiled by the vibe and mood along the frontier, with its arid, sparse character stuck in my memory. As an inquisitive photographer, coupled with no let up in the super charged border debate during the intervening years, I decided to return and look into one perspective that remains constant - regardless of multiple US Administrations’ policies and campaign promises - policing the border.

There are many Federal Agencies enforcing a strategic blend of border security - Border Patrol (B.P), Customs & Border Protection (Port of Entry / P.O.E), Drug Enforcement Administration (D.E.A) Homeland Security Investigations & Customs Enforcement (I.C.E), the National Guard, U.S.M.S (United States Marshals Service) US Military and the F.B.I., to name a few. Their collective force adapts from State to State, dependent on the flow and sophistication of illegal cross border traffic, and because they are recognised internationally, their activities often attract high profile media attention. At State level, law enforcement becomes more nuanced - also adapting, but adapting to their local communities’ needs and environments. State law enforcement doesn’t get more local in the US than the County Sheriff, with Constitutionalists considering the Sheriff ‘the law’, above all State & Federal agencies - an unbroken policing presence for hundreds of years, and one that is elected into office every 4 years by their local citizenry.

There are 31 border Sheriffs spanning California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, all with varying degrees of public exposure and media presence. One particular Sheriff caught my attention when I listened to an interview by Eddie Mair on BBC Radio’s ‘PM’ programme with Sheriff Mark. D. Napier of Pima County, Arizona. Throughout the 15 minute discussion Sheriff Napier was refreshingly rhetoric free, a superb orator and genuinely impassioned in communicating the real world strategic issues presented by such a hostile and unforgiving mountainous desert environment. With Pima County sharing the longest border with Mexico of any county in the US and considered one of the oldest continually inhabited areas of the contiguous United States, I felt it a good place to start my project - so I made successful contact with Sheriff Napier.

Pima County

Contained in the last parcel of land settled in the Gadsden Purchase, the county is named after the indigenous Pima Native Americans. It contains San Xavier Indian Province, the Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation and parts of the huge Tohono Oʼodham Nation, (the latter of which straddles 75 miles of border into Mexico’s Sonora State). Carved out of the scorched Sonoran Desert, covering 9,200 sq miles and encompassing the city of Tucson north of Nogales, the area’s relationship with Mexico is labyrinthine - to say the least. Aside from its two secure ports of entry, Lukeville & Sasabe - the rest of the borderline is mostly a porous boundary, exploited by transnational crime organisations engaging in narcotics, human trafficking and sex trafficking. Because of Pima County’s vast tracts of remote terrain and near impenetrable topography so close to the border, the police department have the additional challenge of responding effectively to the fallout and pressures of border crime, alongside ‘regular’ duties associated with law enforcement like traffic violations, house burglary, domestic violence, drug use, public safety and implementing arrest warrants. 

Plan to Capture

During my recce in 2018, I was awe struck by the juxtaposition of abundant natural wonder, enshrined in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, with the ‘cat & mouse’ deployment of electronic surveillance architecture, physical man power and intelligence gathering infrastructure that is in place to disrupt trafficking networks and supply channels.

I seek to formally document this eerie coalesce and Pima County’s Sheriff Department’s policing blend in high heat of an Arizonan summer. I look forward to reporting my findings.


The artist and director Steve McQueen recently appeared on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 to chat about his latest art project Tate Year 3 Project which strives to capture a traditional school class photograph in each London school to represent pupils aged 7-8 (a milestone year of their development). Whilst listening to Steve I was reminded of my work in schools across the UK, formerly driving a fresh visual narrative for the highly successful Musical Futures initiative and more recently with Royal Opera House Bridge, where I was commissioned to make a celebratory portrait series of the key creative partners in the Royal Opera House Bridge’s region covering Bedfordshire, Essex Hertfordshire and Kent.

The photograph above features pupils of East Tilbury Primary School & Nursery in Essex, located right on the edge of the Thames Estuary. The pupils’ involvement with Royal Opera House Bridge was led by the Assitant Headteacher Dr Deola Emmanuel, who fostered an amazing creative writing course, in addition to the school’s regular curriculum. Although one can research and plan a portrait in great detail, sometimes some serendipity is required to allow a brief to really shine.

Deola and I had a few telephone calls prior to my visit to ensure that the school understood the more formal nature of the picture I was intending to create and also to marry a theme the pupils could relate too. Once on the ground and receiving a tour of the school, I discovered that the pupils were interpreting different emotions through written word. After finding a prime location (and adhoc space used by teachers to teach outside in good weather), I had a lightbulb moment whereby I spilt the class into different groups, each of which would act out an emotion to describe their chosen word.

To ensure a truly inclusive process, I nominated two pupils who were particularly keen about photography to be my assistants. They took their roles seriously by helping setting up the lights and climbing surrounding trees to rope back stray branches that were obscuring the camera’s view. Once all set, the pupils embraced their emotions feverishly and the struck ‘right’ pose within 3 frames.

I love the formality of a classroom photograph (a truly universal portrait), not only to serve a timeline of a child’s development but also acting as a time capsule representing uniform, clothing and hairstyle trends. Having the opportunity to create a different take on the classroom photograph, whilst retaining formality, was a real pleasure to be part of.

I wish the Tate Year 3 Project success #Year3Project

Chance Experiment in Automation

I’ve worked with the supremely sonic Beats & Pieces big band for a number of years to develop visual narratives for their album artworks, tour posters, social media feeds and press kits. Big bands are by nature, big on numbers, and with 14 members at any given time in Beats & Pieces, photographing concepts that prove practically flexible enough for a myriad of different media formats is rather tricky. Although democratic as a creative force, the ensemble is led by the group’s director Ben Cottrell and he is very aware of the group’s size and realistic limitations, so his super collaborative mindset allows us both the freedom to try different photographic ideas.

One of the ideas Ben and I have looked at is to try and inject a suggestion / vibe of human automation into the band. During one of our shoot days, we tested one of these variants in a converted warehouse space in Manchester’s old quarter. Upon arriving on the 2nd floor, I noted a very ugly industrial carpet that seemed to move a little underfoot. Pulling a large section up revived the old warehouse floor and the letter ‘C’ marking well used concrete (I later learned that the building was a large tobacco storage facility). This discovery created a vision of a factory floor and the presence of automated humans coming off the assembly line. Without props, wardrobe or make-up, we decided to see if the 14 members could act out, dare I say it, a replicant vibe.

To ensure a constant production line-like quality, I set up a 3 light set up to shape the frame and add a little contrast, pulling their faces out of the glum, yet keeping the scene looking natural and still. Marking the floor for identical body, chair and instrument positions completed the flow of photographs.

For an impromptu test dummy trail, Ben and I were pleased with the results and may well return to the idea with more precise and prepared production values. It is healthy to experiment and our afternoon in Mancester certainly mirrored the improvisational element all 14 members of Beats & Pieces carry out in their daily musical journeys.

Head over to the big band’s online portal where you’ll find a treasure of merch and music spanning more than 10 years. 

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