On the evening of 12 June 2018, a dozen or so refugees from Central America crossed the Rio Grande river from Mexico, with the hope of making it across the US Border. “It was a moonless night, very dark. I could hear them coming,” says John Moore, who was photographing along the border in South Texas.
“The border agent shined the spotlight on them. Most of them looked tired, some of them scared,” says Moore. Among them were Sandra Sanchez and her two-year-old daughter Yanela, who had been travelling from Honduras for a month. Sanchez was the last of the group to be searched, and as soon as she lowered Yanela to the ground, she began to cry.
“In that moment, in her distress, there was obviously an important picture to be made,” says Moore. At the time, the Trump Administration were enforcing a “zero tolerance” immigration policy, calling for the prosecution of all individuals who illegally entered the US. This meant people were separated from their children, who were either placed in the custody of a relative, a foster home, or held in a shelter.
Crying Girl on the Border has been nominated for World Press Photo of the Year, pulled from the Spot News single image category. When the photograph first surfaced, it went viral, and quickly became a symbol of the families pulled apart by the Trump’s immigration policy. An edited version of it appeared on the cover of Time magazine, where the girl caried under the patronising glare of Donald Trump, next to the cover-line “Welcome to America”.
But a week later, it was revealed that Sandra and Yanela had in fact not been separated. This sparked criticism from the White House and other Trump supporters, who seized on the image as an example of fake news, claiming it misinformed the public about immigration policy.
“For me, the fact that they were not separated was only relevant in that it was a relief. I never knew that they were separated, and I was clear about that in the caption,” says Moore. The Department of Homeland Security confirmed on 15 June 2018 that 1,995 immigrant children were separated from their families, but earlier this year the U.S. Customs and Border protection admitted in a letter that officials did not keep a full record of separations. Although Sandra and Yanela were able to stay together, Moore’s photograph captures the stakes of a moment where the prospect of being separated was frightfully real.
“I took it to have her perspective. It was just a matter of seconds. I had spoken to the mother earlier in the day, so I felt I had some tacit consent to take the photograph. Once her mother picked her up, she stopped crying and they got taken away to the processing centre.
“In the politically charged environment in which we live, almost every photograph that unites emotion from those who see it will be controversial,” Moore adds. “It’s just a fact of modern-day photojournalism, and I accept and embrace that. The conversations that come from this are important, and they help educate us about the world.”
Based in New York, Moore has worked in more than 75 countries on five continents. After graduating from the University of Texas in 1990, he joined the Associated Press, and over 15 years has covered stories in Nicaragua, India, South Africa, Mexico, and Egypt. Since 2005, Moore has been a correspondent for Getty Images, working through Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and in particular Pakistan, where he captured the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, for which he was awarded the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal award.
For the last decade, Moore’s focus has been in his home country, on the issue of undocumented immigration to the United States. He has photographed the length of the US-Mexico border, as well as in Mexico and throughout the United States, capturing rare images of ICE raids and mass deportation. In March 2018, he published these photographs in a book, titled Undocumented.
“When I took this photograph [of the crying girl] in June, which received so much attention, it was really just an extension of work that I’d been concentrating on for so long,” says Moore, who continues to photograph along different parts of the border – he was there just this month – as well as in its surrounding states, “to show different aspects of the story”.
“US officials continue to allow me access, not necessarily because they like my pictures all the time, but because they believe I’m fair and that I have no secret agenda,” says Moore. “When working on long-term projects like this, it’s key to have editors that support you, and that help you along the way. All the credits have my name on them, but they would not be possible without the editors and the support of Getty.”