21 November 2018

Finding Sanctuary amid an Immigration Struggle

21 November 2018 - Written by Veronica Sanchis Bencomo

Mexican photographer Cinthya Santos Briones documents Latin American communities in the United States facing the challenges of migration and family segregation under the current administration of President Donald Trump.

© Cinthya Santos Briones, from the series Living Inside Sanctuary

Living Inside Sanctuary is a project that looks closely at the life of Amanda Morales, an illegal Guatemalan resident in the United States, who instead of checking into the immigration office, as ordered by the local authorities, took refugee at the Holyrood Episcopal Church in New York City last August. Together with her three U.S born children she remains in sanctuary while advocates, church-goers and activists demand a stay of deportation, so Morales can remain with her family in the United States.

Has the current political climate in the United States influenced your work in any capacity?

Yes, personally, as a Mexican migrant and woman of colour living in the United States, involved for years in the human rights movement, this anti-immigrant, nationalist and xenophobic political climate has increased not only my interest in documenting these types of projects, but also to be a messenger and a bridge to give voice to my community.

Since 2011, I have worked as a base organiser in New York with undocumented migrants, and since 2012, I have lived in a Lutheran church in the Sunset Park neighbourhood where almost the entire congregation is undocumented. This experience has transformed not only my way of documenting, but my political and ideological positioning about "migrants" and "the working class ". In addition, I have been influenced by the theology of liberation, and I consider myself a person of faith and, as a person of faith, my commitment is to those who fight against the pressure of the capitalist system, call migrants, peasants, women who suffer domestic violence, etc.

I have been thinking for a long time that my work as a photographer is not enough, that under this political climate I have to become even more involved, so for a few years I decided - together with my husband - to be a guardian, a kind of adoption, of two young people who crossed the border without their parents when they were children, so this latest crisis of family separation on the border touched my heart, as a human being. Living in Sanctuary is particularly special because my husband is the national co-founder of the New Sanctuary Movement, so I have seen very closely how this administration has generated fear and terror in our migrant communities.

© Cinthya Santos Briones, from the series, Living Inside a Sanctuary

Your photography is very much linked to a necessity of human rights, especially around Latin American communities. Could you elaborate upon your motivations behind it?

Since I was a child, through the influence of my parents, I grew up with ideals around the struggle of the social classes, the Zapatista movement, and of course, the Cuban revolution. In my house we listened to the Latin American protest trova, from Violeta Parra to Oscar Chavez. There was talk of peasant struggle, social justice and indigenous rights, which has been a watershed in my life not only as an anthropologist and photographer, but also as a human being. Personally, having lived in indigenous communities in Mexico and seeing the struggle for the defence of the land, gender equality and identity very closely, autonomy has greatly impacted my way of thinking about the struggle for human rights.

How has your background in anthropology and ethnohistory influenced the way you select your photography projects?

I think that the social sciences have been a fundamental part of my processes as a documentary photographer. I feel that every time I take a picture one of my two eyes looks like an anthropologist and the other - now - a photographer.

Anthropologists have methodological tools very similar to those used by photojournalists and / or documentary photographers. Before we begin to photograph or carry out a project, we must investigate, read and inform ourselves about the subject in question and, starting from the sources that we have, begin to write a draft about what the project will be about, what we will focus on, analyse what has been done and what has not and, from there, we can create and build the basis of our research. However, I believe that visual language has its own way of telling things, sometimes what anthropologists put into an ethnography must be thought from another point of view when creating a visual type of work. These two disciplines are complemented, but they are not the same. Anthropology has taught me that a documentary photographer must observe, listen, and analyse.

© Cinthya Santos Briones, from the series, Living Inside a Sanctuary

It seems like research has always been an important process in the development of your personal projects. How do you know you have gathered enough information to embark on a project?

I try to read something new every day related to the issue of migration, specifically about sanctuaries, imprisonments, detention centres and family separation. I have a lot of information, but I know that if I want to do a more holistic and creative project at the same time, I should invest more time in documenting. This project now has a grant from the Magnum Foundation and, working in collaboration with a filmmaker friend, Anna Barsan, together we are conducting interviews, photographing, mapping, and recording history.

Would you describe your work as autobiographical on any level?

Not really, but it does have a lot to do with who I am as a person. I see the pain of these refugee mothers and fathers in sanctuary, like my own pain, there is a lot of empathy. In the end, one ends up generating very close ties with these families, they are not only subjects of study, a very colonialist idea to investigate or document, they are human beings who in a very honest way let you into their lives, so that one, as a documentarist, I can count them.


Cinthya Santos Briones is a Mexican documentary photographer and photojournalist based in New York City. She studied Anthropology and Ethnohistory in Mexico and her interest lies in documenting human rights issues focusing on topics of migration, gender and identity. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.


This article is part of In Focus: Latin American Female Photographers, a monthly series curated by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo focusing on the works of female visual storytellers working and living in Latin America

Written by

Veronica Sanchis Bencomo

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6 minutes