Between Barbed Wire: A Visual Analysis of TIME’s Welcome to America
A series of rafts float closer to shore, near the Rio Grande on United States territory. The riders’ faces are beaten and their hair mangled and sweaty. Most, if not all of them, are women and children. Driving out, photojournalist John Moore sees more than a dozen asylum seekers. Among them, a pair of figures stands out: A mother clutches her daughter closely to her chest, waiting to be searched. The border patrol agent asks the mother to set her child down, and immediately, the child begins to scream.
Many of us only caught glimpses of the debates over immigration policy under the Trump administration, never being able to step into the horror of family separation. In the midst of an undeniably turbulent point in our country’s history, TIME magazine released a July 2018 issue with a provoking and heart-wrenching cover, Welcome to America, that speaks for the many asylum seekers separated at the border. Welcome to America not only brings to light the moral absurdity of family separation, but also leaves the viewer to question how two simple figures can say so much about our country.
Looking at the TIMEs cover contextualizes the issue of immigration policies more so than words can. The composition is reminiscent of an editorial cartoon or political satire, as the images are both digitally reconstructed in a way that intentionally makes the viewer feel called out. While we may feel this discomfort while viewing the image, this discomfort is part of what makes the piece so powerful: it is letting us know that we are in a position of power and that we should do something.
In the image, bright lights shine against the young girl’s dark, Honduran skin. She is only about two years old, and her small frame stands timidly at the center of the image. Her mother revealed to Moore in an interview that the two of them had been traveling for over a month. In the illustration, the young girl peers into the eyes of President Trump, and though she cannot understand English, Trump’s gaze speaks volumes.
“Welcome to America.”
Three simple words. Three simple words that have the power to speak so many emotions: to the girl’s family, to all asylum seekers, and to us, the idle viewers. There is no doubt that irony drips from those three words. The brief pause in the phrase between “to” and “America” coupled with the period convey the sense of bluntness and heartlessness that America greets these immigrants with. Knowing that the cover was designed in America, by an American, we immediately feel the sense of shame the emanates from the three words. The typeface is simple and mechanical, and is read with a deep lack of meaning. We can feel the bitterness of the words in the mouth of an immigrant separated from their child.
The photographer, Moore, recounts the difficulty of taking the picture of the young girl and her mother because he knew their fate long before they did. “This one was tough for me. As soon as it was over, they were put into a van. I had to stop and take deep breaths,” he said in an interview with TIME. Many of us share Moore’s sentiments: As citizens of the United States, these three words shamefully remind us that we know what is going to happen to the families as soon as they cross the border. Although we are aware that the illustration does not capture a real moment in time, the discomfort we feel when looking at the cover is tied into our certainty that family separation is very true and very real.
The white font of the words is reminiscent of the color of the stars upon the American flag. In fact, the whole color palette is patriotic: our President dressed in dark blue, set upon a bright red backdrop and enhanced by the occasional white highlights in the typeface and in the border. The only figure that sets itself apart from the patriotic scene, is the small girl.
The original image (pictured below) conveys a sense of raw, unhinged separation anxiety. To capture that same feeling in the TIME cover, the artist plays especially with color, placement, and perspective.
The girl in the cover wears a bright pink sweater, which blends in slightly with the red backdrop, but not quite. She looks out of place, and the tension in her shoulders and hands conveys the discomfort that she must feel, under our gaze, our President’s gaze, and our country’s gaze.
Trump stands at the far right of the image, his back resting against the white frame. His posture indicates that he is guarding some sort of gateway — a gateway to America. The way he stands with his hands at his sides and with his knees locked straight is militaristic, whereas the young girl’s arms are bent, and she is nervously playing with her fingers. This physical and metaphorical doorway represents more than just the oppression in our country, but it also represent a choice. We, the viewers, have the choice to see President Trump step out of the way or stay in the doorway, guarding its space. The white border of the page highlights this constricted feeling and further plays with this tension.
The girl barely covers a third of the page’s height, only reaching up to Trump’s waist. This perspective does much to emphasize how drastically Trump overpowers her. However, the space and perspective do much to show what a helpless, innocent thing she is, barely even experiencing the world before she has to face its biggest challenges and most complex political issues.
The artist effectively conveys a sense of realness in the cover. Although the figures are both digitally reconstructed, they are eerily realistic. We notice that certain aspects of the girl’s clothing are maintained — Her shirt is wrinkled and dyed an innocent hot pink, a color typical for a very young girl. She wears laceless shoes, also hot pink, and a pair of too-short jeans that hug her thin legs tightly. Her hair is dirty and sweaty, and these physicalities convey a sort of chaos that is utterly removed when we look at the President. The manicured background, artificial lighting, and perfection that the artist captures in the illustration all stand in stark contrast to the young girl — she is foreign in every meaning of the word.
On the other hand, President Trump stands proudly, so tall that his head slightly covers the title. This slight play on perspective illuminates his towering figure. His clothes look freshly ironed, his tie perfectly placed, shoes perfectly shined, and platinum-blonde hair combed intentionally. There is a clear sense of pride in his figure, and also a sense of coldness. Looking closely, we see that he is wearing a small metal pin of the American flag. As with the patriotic colors of the illustration and the text “Welcome to America,” the small pin reeks of irony. These elements do much to make the viewer question American values: a land of the free and a home of the brave sound meaningless in the context of the image.
There is already much that the artist has done to make their point clear, but there are further visual cues he or she could have perhaps used to emphasize the sheer horror of the issue at hand. For example, the artist certainly could have also played with the President’s shadow and perhaps preserve the darkness of the original image of the young girl. This intentional choice in lighting might have highlighted the racial tensions already present in the photo. I also think that posture plays a huge role in the image and the artist could have enhanced the sense of Trump’s towering figure and allow him to loom over the girl even.
With or without these alterations, the illustration is still striking to say the least. Perhaps most striking is the sense of emotion it conveys — both through the facial expressions in the piece and the emotions we may feel as viewers. We, the viewers, the uneducated willing to be educated, want to understand what is really happening in Washington, and the TIMEs cover does much to shed light on American immigration policies. In an interview, Moore expresses his urge to pick up the girl and to hold her in that moment, and looking at the magazine cover, it is no doubt that many people would have shared his sympathies in the same position. The illustration is so real that we can almost hear the young girl’s cry. Her face is contorted, eyebrows scrunched and mouth thrown open, whereas Trump stands coldly, peering down at her with an eerily calm expression. Simply looking at the picture for what it is, without understanding the political context, the President’s body language is demeaning and his expression, down to the smile lines at the corner of his eye, appears strained.
Looking at the image, we are immediately drawn to Trump because of the sheer enormity of his figure in comparison to the child. We follow his line of vision and meet the child’s gaze, seeing the fear that is reflected in her eyes. The slight backwards tilt of her head and Trump’s lowered chin emphasize his downward gaze and further symbolize the notion of an overwhelmingly powerful male and Western force. The spacing in the image illustrates the drastic difference between this young girl and Trump, who emanates of wealth. The way his back is pressed firmly against the frame, perfectly straight, suggests that he is backing away from her: as if she is a small, dirty thing that he has to stay away from. The layout of the page allows us to hone in on the facial expressions in the piece, before finally landing on the three powerful words “Welcome to America.” The simplicity of the piece accentuates the minute detail in their facial features and expressions. Although the young girl’s cries are disturbing to say the least, President Trump’s expression — his calm, unsympathetic gaze — is even more frightening.
In essence, the image captures the helplessness of asylum-seekers. Through use of color, perspective, and expressions, the artist conveys the horror of family separation and allows us viewers to feel the guilt of standing idly by while this happens at our country’s borders. Although the separation policy has been reversed, the illustration paints a simple picture that calls into question the morality of our actions or inaction. In the piece, we are implicated, for the pictorial Trump is a greater representation of America as a whole. As readers, and as people of the United States, we are given a choice: do we choose to allow this young girl to pass through the gates of our country, a country that preaches of liberty and justice for all, or do we stand proudly with cold hearts and watch as the helpless writhe in the bars at our nation’s borders?
Welcome to America. 2018. http://time.com/5317522/donald-trump-border-cover/. Accessed October 1, 2018.
Moore, John. 2018. http://time.com/5317522/donald-trump-border-cover/. Accessed October 1, 2018.
“The Story Behind TIME’s Trump ‘Welcome to America’ Cover.” TIME Magazine, June 21, 2018, http://time.com/5317522/donald-trump-border-cover/. Accessed October 1, 2018.