Published: May 2007
Diane Cook and Len Jenshel

Along the walls that separate Mexico from the U.S., sunset launches a constellation of activity—much of it illicit. While Diane Cook and Len Jenshel photographed the barrier in one Arizona town, smugglers on the other side threw rocks at them. A border guard recommended the photographers leave, but the husband-and-wife team refused. "We'd waited all day for the light," says Cook. "One of us looked out for rocks while the other took photographs."

What was your best experience during this assignment?

Our best experience started out pretty bad. We were meeting a Border Patrol agent in Arizona on Thanksgiving Day. He had been kind enough to agree to take us to a particular spot at the border wall for sunrise. Our plan was to cross the border from California into Arizona, but, forgetting that Arizona doesn't honor daylight-savings time, we hadn't remembered to change our clocks. So we slept an hour too late.

We jumped out of bed, got dressed as fast as we could, hopped into the car, and met the agent. He then drove very fast through sand and over sand dunes to get us to San Luis, Arizona, in time for sunrise, and it was the best sunrise of the whole trip. The light was absolutely gorgeous, what photographers wait for and dream of.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

We were photographing in Arizona, and we had read that morning that Boeing had been awarded a rather pricey contract to build a test fence between the towns of Sasabe, Arizona, and El Sasabe, Mexico. We went to look at the Arizona town, but there was absolutely nothing there. So we crossed over to the Mexican town, in case we decided to go back during the second part of our trip. We knew that at one point, El Sasabe had been a farming, ranching, and brickmaking community. But when we crossed the border, we saw immediately that it was all about smuggling, either drugs or people. All of the businesses were of that nature.

We were driving down Main Street, which was a very dusty road. When we got to the far end of town, our car stalled. Our Mexican guide was driving for us at that point, and he was trying frantically to start the car. It was a four-wheel-drive vehicle fully loaded with all our camera gear and expensive computers. It bore California license plates, and the two of us didn't look like we belonged in El Sasabe. We could see the human vultures starting to circle, and we were quite nervous. Finally, the car started. But we left town with an unwelcome escort. We think people were waiting to see if it would stall again so they could rob us. After that, we decided we did not need to go back to El Sasabe for the rest of the assignment.

What was the quirkiest experience during this assignment?

We always watched the news in the morning to see what was happening at the border and with immigration. At the end of the assignment, we caught one news item about a California construction company that had been contracted to help build part of the 14-mile (23 kilometers) stretch of wall south of San Diego at the Tijuana border. They had been fined five million dollars for using illegal immigrants to do the work. A court case is pending to determine whether some of the heads of the company will go to jail. We found it ironic to be working on a story about border walls that are meant to keep the same people out who actually helped build them.