‘Geography of Disappearance’

American artist Marcus DeSieno’s series of wet plate emulsion images, Geography of Disappearance, critically examines the border landscape of deliberate oppression of immigrants trying to cross the US-Mexican border. His project exposes the power structures deeply embedded in the American landscape and history through a deliberate and concise use of 19th century wet plate technology and lith printing. DeSieno wants to foster a conversation about the risk of dehumanizing immigrants as a global issue that only escalates as conflicts, wars and climate catastrophes close in on our communities.

“The history of the United States, especially of the Western United States, is built upon this legacy of colonialism and white supremacy. This legacy is baked into our border policies. When I think back on the history of American landscape photography, it is a conversation about power, and for me, using the landscape is a way to continue this tradition of talking about these embedded power relationships, of talking about this legacy that's embedded in the border and always has been.”

— Marcus DeSieno


Landscapes of power

Project: Geography of Disappearance by Marcus DeSieno

American artist Marcus DeSieno’s work is deeply engaged in documenting American military surveillance. One day he was photographing the electronic surveillance fence on the Mexico-US border when he stopped at a gas station to fill up. What should have been a mundane action, fell totally apart when he heard a man was calling for aid in the scorching desert sun. Marcus called 911 and stayed with the man, but help arrived too late. The traumatic experience became the catalyst for DeSieno’s series of wet plate landscape images Geography of Disappearance that explores the power dynamics in the United States and the weaponizing of surveillance technology in relation to landscape imagery.

Photo by Marcus DeSieno, Geography of Disappearance

“Illegals die out here all the time”

“When the officers got there they told me ‘illegals die out here all the time. Don’t worry about it’. The police didn’t take any notes, they just left this man’s belongings in the middle of the parking lot. This kind of dehumanization, this apathy towards suffering is something I continue to see throughout my time on the border. This sent me off this journey, on this path. Why are people dying? Why is it so normalised that people don’t care?”

The border and the very unforgiving conditions in its surroundings in the desert are used by the government as a weapon to deter and discourage the immigrants. 

”It is  a specific US policy called “Prevention through Deterrence” that was started in the mid 1990’s. As a result, Thousands of migrants have died in the borderlands over the past thirty years. This work is a way for me to actively critique these laws and policies created by my government.” 

The weaponizing is visible not only via physical fences and surveillance cameras but also the graves of the people who died trying to cross. In DeSieno’s work it is these spaces, installations and landscapes that take centre stage. 

Fostering conversation about landscapes of power

DeSieno makes the purposeful choice of leaving out the main characters of this story, the imigrants, and focuses on the landscape to build his narrative. But it is not random landscape images from the border. The images depict the exact spots where migrants have died. DeSieno uses GPS coordinates to locate the spots. The faces and bodies of those who attempt this perilous crossing are not seen, but the places where they died are documented – and the mountains, fences, and graves. When asked about this decision, the artist gives a poignant explanation: 

“These people have already been stripped of their dignity by a political system that has been designed to kill and injure them and not to treat them as human beings. Photographing a body, to me, further strips them of their dignity. I want to have a conversation about violence without objectifying the victim. I want to create work that’s going to foster a conversation about this deeply important issue without turning death into a spectacle.”

Photo by Marcus DeSieno, Geography of Disappearance

Wet plate and the subverting of surveillance

The choice of photographic technique is carefully selected and plays a profound role in the narrative and intellectual decisions behind Geography of Disappearance. It is through the use of wet plate collodion and the following process of lith printing and all its difficulties and imperfections that DeSieno manifests his story. 

“I merge wet-plate collodion with the lith print process for Geography of Disappearance to create unsettling landscapes where the grit of the lith print and the marks of the collodion negative work in concert  with each other. I’m interested in pushing the possibilities of analog photography by experimenting and merging processes to create a new aesthetic vocabulary. I am fascinated with this act of transformation. How can materials and process radically transform how we read and perceive a photographic image?”

By subverting the technique he adds complexity to his visual approach and inserts a new element into the history of this process and its relevance in landscape photography. DeSieno’s mistrust of technology due to its use for surveillance and punishment is transparent in his choice of techniques for this and other projects. It is a powerful stance connecting not only his choice of topic but the way in which to present it to the viewers.

“I am deeply concerned about how visual technology and its evolution is utilised as a system for oppression. A lot of my work often involves using or misusing imaging technologies,  such as surveillance cameras, facial recognition, algorithms, and artificial intelligence.”

Exposing embedded structures, not spectacle

It is by discussing a system and its tools that DeSieno builds the vision of Geography of Disappearance. By steering away from the spectacle and looking at the structures that built this human disaster, he brings forward a more thoughtful approach, skillfully combined with a photographic technique that can welcome mistakes and accidents, creating very complex imagery. It is in the scratches on the printing, the fences, and the crosses that we can feel the hurt so embedded in this topic.

Photo by Marcus DeSieno, Geography of Disappearance


“The United Nations declared the US-Mexico border the deadliest land crossing for migration in the world, but it is far from being an exclusive issue. This danger is present in the Mediterranean as well – it is actually the deadliest area for migration in the world. As the global situation continues to deteriorate due to climate change, global trade policies, war etc., more people will flee from their homes and this issue will be more and more present. How can humanity come together to deal with these issues? How can we end the political violence against innocent people?”

— Marcus DeSieno

Text and edit · Felipe Abreu and Christine Almlund

Marcus DeSieno is a visual artist interrogating institutions of power through the language of photography. DeSieno is particularly interested in how visual technology is used as a tool of oppression by the state and what our future holds as this technology continues to evolve.  He received his MFA in Studio Art from the University of South Florida and is currently Associate Professor of Photography at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington

Selected achievements

  • – 2022 Group exhibition Impression Remains, Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki, FI.
  • – 2022 Around the World, Musée de Albert-Khan, Paris, FR
  • – 2020 No Man’s Land: Views From a Surveillance State, Auburn City Gallery, Auburn, Washington, US
  • – 2019 Now You See Me: Visualizing the Surveillance State, Photo Access, Canberra, AU
  • – 2018 publication, No Man’s Land: Views from a Surveillance State