Photographer Joined 2 Cuban Migrants To Document Their 8,000-Mile Journey : The Picture Show In 2015, Cubans began leaving in droves when the fate of a decades-old U.S. immigration policy hung in the balance. Photographer Lisette Poole went with two of them to document their journey north.
NPR logo Photographer Chronicles 2 Women On 8,000-Mile Journey Migrating From Cuba To U.S.

Photographer Chronicles 2 Women On 8,000-Mile Journey Migrating From Cuba To U.S.

Marta Amaro and Liset Barrios take a minute to rest after crossing a river in the Darien Gap, the untamed jungle that engulfs the Colombia-Panama border. Photographer Lisette Poole went with them to document their journey north. Lisette Poole hide caption

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Lisette Poole

Marta Amaro and Liset Barrios take a minute to rest after crossing a river in the Darien Gap, the untamed jungle that engulfs the Colombia-Panama border. Photographer Lisette Poole went with them to document their journey north.

Lisette Poole

Photojournalist Lisette Poole's new book of photographs was born out of a simple observation: Cuba was in the middle of a mass exodus, and it seemed to her that no one in Havana could keep their minds off it.

La paloma y la ley — which translates to "The dove and the law" — is a book of photographs and essays that documents the arduous migration journey of two Cuban women, Marta Amaro and Liset Barrios, from Havana to the U.S.

Poole shot photographs and took field notes as they traversed 13 countries and 10 borders over about 8,000 miles — with no set route or details beyond a piece of paper with the name of a human smuggler they hoped would guide them north. The book — Poole's first — is a collection of images that captures Marta and Liset on the move: on endless bus rides; in thick, wild jungles; and floating down rivers in rafts. In many of the photographs, the two women are pictured traveling alongside other migrants who hailed from countries that dot the globe: Somalia, Haiti, Nepal and Bangladesh, among others.

Migrants sleep on the ground in the Nicaraguan backcountry, waiting to continue their journey. Lisette Poole hide caption

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Lisette Poole

At dawn, Liset and Marta prepare to board a boat in Colombia as they near the border with Panama. Lisette Poole hide caption

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Lisette Poole

Marta sits in a van with migrants from Haiti after being detained by Peruvian migration officials. When the head officer took a liking to Liset, he decided to let them go and released the group. Lisette Poole hide caption

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Lisette Poole

Poole's desire to document a migratory journey sparked in 2015, when tens of thousands of Cubans began leaving the island. In the wake of the Obama administration's efforts to thaw diplomatic tensions between the two countries, Cubans anticipated that a refugee policy would also unravel and thwart a decades-old path to lawful U.S. residency. That policy gave special preference to migrants fleeing Cuba without a visa to automatically stay in the U.S.

Poole, who is Cuban-American, said her ultimate goal in making the book was to "chip away at the illusion that American-born citizens are any different from those fighting to get here now." In her eyes, documenting the grueling journey had the potential to yield a humanizing migration story.

"In every little pocket of my life there was someone — who had someone — who was leaving, or had left," Poole said. "Or they themselves were thinking about it."

And Marta and Liset, two friends from a borough in Havana called Marianao, were no exception. Liset was 24 at the time, and a professional dancer and sex worker. She'd moved to Havana as a teenager with her mom, and they'd long struggled to make ends meet. Marta, then 52, had an adult son living in the U.S. She missed him. When Poole first met Marta in 2015, Marta said she was considering migrating. Poole asked if she could document her journey, and Marta agreed.

In May 2016, the trio boarded a flight to Guyana. The very next day, Poole snapped a photo of the pair standing amid brazen, green foliage, just before they illegally entered Brazil.

"I not only wanted to document the journey as close to what it would be like if I weren't there, but I also didn't want to hinder their ability to move quickly and easily," she said.

Poole's shoes, caked in mud, after crossing the Honduras border at night. Lisette Poole hide caption

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Lisette Poole

On the very first day of the journey, Marta and Liset stand nervously, waiting for a signal to run to awaiting cars and cross illegally from Guyana to Brazil. Lisette Poole hide caption

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Lisette Poole

The entire way, Poole flew under the radar, posing as a migrant to, she says, avoid attracting unwanted attention or disrupting Marta and Liset's trajectory. Despite having a U.S. passport, Poole said she paid coyotes and crossed borders illegally alongside Liset and Marta.

She brought three cameras — one film and two digital — but she mostly stuck to her phone and GoPro. They were more discreet than the others, and less likely to blow her cover.

The photographs range widely in composition and style. Some were taken in the middle of the jungle or a river, and are adorned with water droplets. Others, shot on film, are dotted with green speckles; Poole noted their "beautiful, damaged quality," which she attributed to the mud and moisture of the Darien Gap, an endless stretch of jungle that separates Colombia from Panama.

Poole said that compiling the images for the book was like making sense of the "chaos of the journey itself."

Liset points out the window of a bus while on the way to Guatemala City. Lisette Poole hide caption

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Lisette Poole

A bus in Guatemala, pictured near the Honduran border Lisette Poole hide caption

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Lisette Poole

Marta and Liset lie down on a hotel bed side by side and talk to friends from home on their phones. Lisette Poole hide caption

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Lisette Poole

Today, Poole continues to document Marta and Liset's stories. In 2017, Poole captured Marta in New Jersey, where she lives with her son. And in 2018, she photographed Liset preparing for her shift at a strip club in Texas. Bit by bit, Poole said, the two — who are permanent residents — have settled into their new lives.

But Liset and Marta's migration story, she noted, was "very much a picture of what it looked like for Cubans in that very moment in time." They were just two of the more than 41,000 Cubans who came to U.S. entry points at the Mexico border in fiscal year 2016. As it turned out, the pair left Cuba just in time. Six months after they entered the U.S., the Obama administration ended the special refugee policy that favored Cubans.

Liset arrives at Chicago O'Hare International Airport on July 3, 2016, the day after she entered the U.S. at a Texas port of entry. Her boyfriend, who met her at the airport, paid for her trip to the U.S. Lisette Poole hide caption

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Lisette Poole

In July 2018, Liset gets ready in the dressing room of a strip club where she works. There she goes by the name Kimberly. Lisette Poole hide caption

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Lisette Poole

Now, Cubans are among the thousands of asylum seekers stuck in Mexico as they await court hearings in the U.S.

Regardless of who migrates, or where they go, Poole said, she believes nobody does so "just because they feel like it."

"They love where they're from, they love home. That's the place that made them who they are. So at the end of the day I think there will always be that longing [to return]."