Documenting Detention: Part 1 – Photographing the US Detention System. A Conversation with Greg Constantine

The United States operates the world’s largest immigration detention system. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains migrants and asylum seekers in some 200 facilities, including privately operated detention facilities, local jails, juvenile detention centres, field offices, and “family residential centres.” On any given day, it can have upwards of 30,000 non-citizens in detention, which includes the tens of thousands of people apprehended every month on the U.S.-Mexico border by a separate enforcement agency, Customs and Border Protection. The costs of ICE’s detention operations are astronomical: The FY2023 detention budget was 2.9 billion USD.

As part of the Global Detention Project’s (GDP) “Documenting Detention” series, the GDP’s Katie Welsford speaks to the acclaimed independent documentary photographer, Greg Constantine, about his work photographing the United States’ vast detention estate.

Greg’s “Seven Doors” project explores how governments are increasingly using detention as a significant component of immigration and asylum policy and seeks to expose the impact, trauma, and human cost detention has on migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers around the world. By combining photography with the testimonies of those affected by detention—former detainees, their friends and families, volunteer visitors, attorneys—Greg hopes to, as he puts it, “expose the injustices and opaque and Kafkaesque policy structures governments put in place that fuel the detention of vulnerable non-citizens.”

Northwest Detention Center, Tacoma, Washington © Greg Constantine/Seven Doors

“Northwest demonstrates exactly what I mean about detention facilities being “buried in nothingness.” It is right in the middle of an industrial zone, and I suspect that most people in Tacoma have no idea that it is even there. In fact, when I was trying to find the right vantage point from which to photograph the facility, I went into the adjacent railroad yard, which is just next to the centre, to ask if I could photograph it from their land. The man I spoke to said: “Yeah, no problem. But what are you taking a photograph of?” I explained that I was photographing the huge immigration detention facility, and he responded: “I have been working in this railroad yard for 20 years and I had no idea that that building is an immigration detention centre.”” – Greg Constantine