Photo Series “The Migrant Distance” Captures Moving Memories of Loved Ones Immigrants Leave Behind

Photo by Cristobal Olivares from his 'The Migrant Distance' series

In a 1973 interview, Chilean singer-songwriter Victor Jara described his iconic folk song, “Te Recuerdo Amanda,” as an ode to love between factory workers, who “you may see in the streets and sometimes not realize what exists in their souls.” It was a strong statement that urged his listeners to see marginalized people not through statistics or simply through their external conditions, but in human terms.

Similarly, Chilean photographer Cristobal Olivares has devoted his latest series, titled “The Migrant Distance,” to the transnational romances between immigrants in Chile and the loved ones they leave behind in their home countries. To counter the misinformation spread about immigrants — mostly racially-charged tales of foreigners bringing crime and taking jobs – Olivares trains his camera on one of their most intimate objects, one containing their most cherished memories of home: their cell phone. In Olivares’ unconventional series, immigrants hailing from places as close as neighboring Peru to as far as the Caribbean share photographs of their loved ones saved onto their mobile phones.

As Olivares explained in an interview with Remezcla, Chile has a long history of immigration to the country, but the Andean nation’s recent economic stability has attracted a new wave of immigrants from places like Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Venezuela,who are fleeing natural and economic disasters in their native countries.

Women and men leave behind boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, and wives to find work, usually as domestic or construction workers, and send money back home. Olivares said all of the subjects interviewed wished to save up enough money to bring their partners and their families to Chile. Such was the case of one Dominican woman who explained that she, instead of her husband, migrated to Chile knowing she would be able to find work as a restaurant cook or a domestic hand. Because her husband, a military man, is considered too old to find work in Chile, he waits in Dominican Republic until she can send for him.

In the past, a love-struck soul might carry a photograph in his or her wallet with perhaps a hand-written dedication on the back. But today, most people carry around an entire collection of digital photographs in their mobile devices. A cell phone becomes not only a portable hard drive for archives of photographs, but also a direct link between immigrant and loved one that allows for the relationships to remain alive. For the project, Olivares asked immigrants to choose their favorite photographs of their long-distance relationship.

“They would show me 10 photographs and I would ask them,’Okay, which photograph do you want to appear in the work?” Olivares said. “So it was kind of a collaborative work in that sense.”

The selected photos range from full-length shots of loved ones to couple photographs featuring the family dog to fuzzy selfies. In one case, an immigrant decided on a photograph composed of portraits of him and his girlfriend stitched together.

“The Migrant Distance” is currently on display on PhMuseum’s online photography exhibit, Exodus.