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Two decades after completing his Running Fence series, which captures 22 kilometres of the border between San Diego and Tijuana, photographer Geoffrey James reflects on the experience taking the pictures and how they resonate today

The beginning of the fence at Playas Tijuana.GEOFFREY JAMES

Geoffrey James is Toronto’s first photo laureate and the author and subject of more than a dozen photographic books and monographs. His work has been widely exhibited, from the National Gallery of Canada to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He is a fellow of the John Solomon Guggenheim Foundation and the recipient of a Governor-General’s Prize for Media and Visual Arts. His work is currently on view in the group exhibition Land Use at Toronto’s Stephen Bulger Gallery until Sept 8.

One of Donald Trump’s greatest applause lines has been to promise that he will build “a great, great wall along our southern border.” There has in fact been a fence along sections of the U.S.-Mexican border since 1994, the year the North American free-trade agreement took effect. But it is far from a being a great wall, as I discovered when photographing the first 14 miles of the border between San Diego and Tijuana in 1997. At first glance, the fence looks less like a project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers than of Mexican garagistes.

Built out of recycled Desert Storm landing strip, it has a distinctly jury-rigged look as it snakes from the Pacific to the foothills of the Otay Mountains, where the terrain becomes hostile to both migrants and wall builders.

In the month that I traversed both sides of the border with an 8x10 view camera, it became clear that illegal migration had little to do with physical barriers. NAFTA had seen the devastation of Mexican corn farming by the importation of subsidized American corn. The peso was in free fall and in the previous decade, the spending power of the average Mexican worker had slipped 70 per cent. Crossing the border was a difficult, expensive and dangerous process controlled by unscrupulous polleros. In Tijuana, most of the migrants headed to the end of the fence and often waited days in the outdoors. Then, in groups of 10 or so, dressed in their best jeans and sneakers, they headed into the hills, carrying nothing much more than plastic bags with bottles of water and snacks. I left with the overwhelming sense that the forces underlying this migration of humans were so much stronger than any wall that could be put in their way.

The end of the fence, looking west.GEOFFREY JAMES

The border fence and a fence at Colonia Libertad.GEOFFREY JAMES

Looking toward Otay Mesa from the American side near the end of the fence.GEOFFREY JAMES