Comparing Primary Sources Depicting Border Spaces

This post is by Jaime Conlan, the Library of Congress 2019 Hispanic Division Junior Fellow.

Every day, we interact with each other in different spaces. From grocery stores to airports, we interact and clash with one another, the space becoming an integral part of the interactions themselves. In this post, you will find resources to invite your students to think about how space plays a part in transnational interactions, using photographs to better understand Mexico/U.S. border spaces.

Historical photographs provide a lens into a specific moment in time or event, and they are an important way to discuss difficult issues relevant to the curriculum. The collections from the Prints & Photographs Division in the Library of Congress serve multiple purposes in the classroom.

Let’s take a look at one set of photos in particular. Each of these photos comes from Dorothea Lange, most famous for her depression era portrait “Migrant Mother.” The three negatives from the Library’s collections seen here also come from the depression era.

Inspecting a freight train from Mexico for smuggled immigrants. El Paso, Texas. Dorothea Lange, 1938

Plant quarantine inspectors examining packages brought over the bridge between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. Dorothea Lange, 1937

She awaits the international streetcar at a corner in El Paso, Texas to return across the bridge. Dorothea Lange, 1938

Use the Library’s primary source analysis tool to help students engage with the content and reflect on the motivations behind the photographs. Ask questions about the importance of photographs as a medium for understanding history and the present.

Invite students to think about the following:

  • Look at all three of the pictures on this handout. Is there anything surprising about these images?
  • Have you ever traveled to get something you needed or wanted? Why might someone go out of their way to get certain goods and services?
  • The photographer of the three black and white photos, Dorothea Lange, is perhaps best known for her portrait “Migrant Mother” during the Great Depression era. How do these photos add to the narrative we know about this time period?
  • Investigate: What was the perception of migrants during the 1930s?

Another way to invite students to immerse themselves in history is to pair these black and white photos with more contemporary, color photos. Compare photographs across different time periods to see how history and technology changes over time. Drones. Aerial footage. 360 video. Black and white. How does the technology and composition inform your perception of the photos and the events they represent?

Consider this picture:

Border wall between Nogales, Arizona, and the large Mexican city of the same name. Carol Highsmith, 2018


  • How might we compare the 1937 photograph of plant quarantine inspectors by Dorothea Lange with the 2018 photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, taken in Nogales, Arizona?
  • Is the composition of these photos similar or different?
  • What keywords might describe these photos? What similarities and differences can you note?

Please take a moment to comment below. How do you use photographs in the classroom? What artistic movements and photos of today’s day may become important in the future?

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