The Backstory: Lizzie Presser and Diàna Markosian

Reporter Lizzie Presser and photographer Diàna Markosian discuss their collaboration in telling the story of the Marin siblings who faced an impossible choice once their mother was deported: stay in their home country or go with her to Mexico.

After their mother was deported to Mexico, the Marin siblings faced an impossible choice: Stay in the state they call home without family or move in with a parent in a country they did not know. Reporter Lizzie Presser and photographer Diàna Markosian collaborated on “Losing Gloria,” a cover story for the California Sunday Magazine. In it, Presser reports on the devastation of our broken immigration system on the children of the deported, like Gloria Marin, a mother of four American-born children who had lived in Phoenix their entire lives. Roughly half a million US-born children lost a parent to detention and deportation between 2009 and 2013. For those with no one left to care for them, the child welfare system takes control; in Arizona, which leads the country in deportations, Child Protective Services struggles to meet their basic needs and reunite them with their parents abroad. — Juan Carlos Corredor

Juan Carlos Corredor: Thank you guys so much for taking the time to speak with me. I was really impressed by how you both made this piece come to life, and I was personally very much affected by its scope and its care, which I think was very important. So I just wanted to thank both of you for writing and photographing for this piece.

Diàna Markosian: Thank you.

Lizzie Presser: Thank you. Thank you for saying that, it’s kind.

Corredor: What drew both of you to tackle a topic like this one, since you both added such honest, human experiences to the conversation of foster care and deportation?

Markosian: This was an assignment for me. I came to it from slightly a different place. This is a commissioned story. It very quickly turned into something much more than that when I started understanding — I had an initial conversation with Lizzie and the editor — and starting to understand the scope of the project; it was very personal and it became very personal quickly. You all of sudden weren’t thinking about visuals, you were just thinking about vulnerability and your own experiences and how that relates and connects to someone else’s.

Presser: For me, I think that this story did not come about from any personal relationship to it at all. Before reporting in New York, I was reporting in England on refugee resettlement there and I wrote a bit about unaccompanied minors who had come to England. They had been taken into the foster care system there and were living with British families. Being allowed into those spaces and spending time with those families was incredibly powerful and brought up a lot of difficult questions — both for the foster parents and for the kids I was speaking with. I think when I came back here, I was thinking about immigration policy in the U.S. and I was interested in the reverse. What happens when parents are deported and kids, then, are rushed here and moved into the foster care system and, in a way, become unaccompanied minors? That’s what started me on this path to looking for the Marins. And then as Diana said, the kids are really just such forces and so generous with their emotional story and their physical story as well. We developed a really beautiful relationship, I think. That’s something that Diana and I would talk about a bit as well, too.

Corredor: I could tell, as a reader, that you were devoted to getting their story out and recording that as accurately as possible. But, of course, there are probably a lot of obstacles that were in the way. Lizzie, if you could talk to us a little bit about the difficulties you encountered when working with the Arizona foster care system and then trying to identify a family to profile? How did you narrow down your search?

Presser: Yeah, this is really complicated because family court cases are confidential in Arizona. Lawyers, advocates, and people involved in the court system — as much as they wanted this story to get out — many were very hesitant to connect me with families, because they didn’t quite know if they were legally allowed to. That was frustrating because I could tell from everyone involved in the system that they knew that these kids’ stories in particular were not being heard. It also felt like there were structural forces that were making it impossible for their voices to be heard. I spent a week basically scouting this story in Arizona, just meeting with anyone and everyone I could who had touched on different parts of these kinds of cases. And getting a sense of the different kinds of cases that they had seen and what was common and what was uncommon. But at the end of the day, actually, very few people were willing to open up their phone book and start calling people with me.

I ended up being advised to go over the border to Nogales where the child service agency there worked from the parents’ side and worked with parents to help them reconnect with kids in Arizona. They were incredibly welcoming and I went over there, spent some time in their offices, and met with their social worker, who had worked on dozens of these cases. We would just sit in the office and call up families and almost immediately, these families would appear in the offices over a series of days. In some ways, their stories would just pour out of them very much as if they hadn’t had the opportunity to tell their saga to anyone and they needed it to be heard. We went on like that for many days until I met Gloria and Briza and then focused on them.

Corredor: Diana, I was curious about what benefits did you find from getting to know your subjects before photographing them, specifically the Marin family? Did this shoot resonate with your personal history and inform the photography in any way?

Markosian: I didn’t really get to know them beforehand, and I think Lizzie and I, we had a few conversations. But you don’t really know what you’re getting yourself into until you start meeting your subjects, and I mean that in a positive way. I didn’t know how closely I would connect with any of these individuals, especially when you come from a different culture. I’m in a completely different place in my life, but the minute you start speaking with them it’s like you are back to being 12, 13, living in a trailer park, experiencing and re-living a lot of what you went through as a kid yourself. Naturally, it just bonds you with your subjects.

To me, it’s beyond anything visual. It’s just the vulnerability you have to have with the people who you’re meeting, because for them this isn’t a photo project, this isn’t a story, this is their lives. How do you go about representing them the best that you can, instead of just fulfilling another assignment and checking that off your own to-do list…if that makes sense?

Corredor: Yeah, it does, especially since you’re just trying to show as much empathy as you can to understand where they’re coming from.

Markosian: Right, because for you it may be an assignment, it may be your path but to them it’s their lives right now. How do you come in with no judgment, just pure curiosity, love, and interest? It’s something that with every project — and I think journalists have more of a knack for it — you really have to hone and have the patience. The backstory to how you even get access to a story like this is a story in itself. We had a chance to kind of enter this family and this part of their history for a brief moment.

Corredor: Diàna, did you find that you were sometimes adapting to certain situations when you would have to eventually shoot, or did you see that it was all very pivot, off-the-cuff type of work that you were doing?

Markosian: I think with this particular project, it was just about spending time with them and just being okay with whatever it is that they were doing. Because I think with a particular story like this, so much of it is about being there and being present and being interested and not rushing anybody. Especially in my early work, I was so focused on making images that I missed what was in front of me. With this story, I was less interested in visualizing things and I was just more interested in being present for them as both a photographer but also as a friend. Because you understand that you’re also older than them. You’re older than these people and they’re vulnerable and they’re opening their hearts to you. You can either take advantage of that or you can, in a sense, embrace them for a minute, and be there for them in whatever way they need. I think there’s something much more interesting in that latter approach. It may be slower but it’s just much more honest.

Corredor: Lizzie, I wanted to talk to you about your time with the Marin family. You mentioned in an earlier email how you spent extensive periods of time with Angel and Yesi off the record. What lesson do you think you could you impart on other journalists about building trust, especially with children?

Presser: I think process is a really personal thing, so I hesitate to give advice, to generalize. I mean there are a couple things: one is that having a grant from The Nation Institute was a huge thing because it meant that I wasn’t just parachuting in and parachuting out so that I could really spend some time. I bought a one-way ticket to Arizona and I planned to stay for as long as it took to get this story and for these kids to feel really comfortable with me.

I think there were a number of things that happened with both Angel and Yesi. With Angel, he’s super cool and he’s great. He was 17 when I met him, 18 now. I wanted to spend a few days with him, actually, without even taking out a recorder. That meant that we could just get meals together and walk around the mall and walk around his old neighborhood. I think in some ways it helped him, for him to jog his own memory, memories that he had buried a bit. That was kind of an exciting experience for him and for me to be present for as well. I guess what I came away with is, in those few days in which I had no pen or no recorder out, we developed a rapport, as you would with anyone who you were hanging out with day after day. That allowed me to see the kinds of questions and the kinds of things he wanted to talk about. I think it allowed him to see that I wasn’t there to push him or to ask more of him than he was ready to talk about. I was just really interested in hearing his story and the parts of it that he wanted to tell, and not the parts of it that he didn’t want to tell. For any reporter, I feel like if you have the resources to do that kind of journalism, I’m absolutely positive that it’s an enormous asset — for me and this piece, and I think for Angel too, and his process of retelling his story.

Markosian: If I can follow up on that, I think it’s really rare for me to work with a writer that is so deeply committed because it’s usually the other way around often where I find a project that I’m passionate about and I’ve spent the last four months researching and really gaining that form of trust whereas for me, here, it was very easy. Lizzie had already set the groundwork for me and I just had to follow that.

Presser: It also kind of goes both ways. I think that in the magazine industry it can be kind of separated. I’ve never had the extensive conversations with a photographer that I’ve had with Diana. Instead of just coordinating through a photography editor, Diana and I were talking about these kids’ stories: the key findings in their backgrounds, what I found interesting about them, what she found interesting about them, the ways in which they expressed themselves, the ways in which they didn’t express themselves, the things that were kind of tougher for them to get to. Having that space to talk about that — it was helpful for me in my own processing of these kids’ story and the family’s story.

Corredor: Finally, are there any updates on the Marin family that you can impart on readers? Have things stayed about the same since you published the piece?

Presser: That’s a good question. The big update is that it looks like Angel will be graduating from high school in a couple of weeks. He’s super excited and kind of in shock.

Presser and Markosian: [Laughs]

Markosian: I should mention the first thing that Angel said when I picked him up, I’m like, “How are you doing?” and he goes, “I’m just nervous,” and he’s shaking nervous! I go, “Oh, my god what’s wrong?” “I don’t know…I don’t know, I don’t think I’m gonna do it.” I’m like, “What do you mean do it?” and he goes, “Finish high school.” That, to me, was a total flash into somebody’s reality. It was such an eye-opener because it was this invitation to almost hug him and say, “It’s all gonna be okay.” To be in that position is so much more interesting than just to be a photographer. That’s the side effect of this whole profession. You really get to enter someone’s life and make a difference for a split second, and if it’s something positive, then that makes this whole thing worth while.

Presser: Totally. I think for Angel in particular, he hasn’t had a lot of older people in his life who are encouraging him and that’s something that he would say to me and something that he say to me also about Diana, to get a feel for our advice and he would internalize it and then he would repeat it back to me. That is a hard place to be because we are both there as journalists, but it was also pretty powerful to realize that we were having an impact on his life in this way.

I think the other thing that I would say that comes back to the question on collaboration is that as a writer, I’ve been taught not to show what I’m writing to the subject. That creates this natural distance. Diana would talk about going to photos of them and that was an amazing thing because the kids could feel really like they were participating in the telling of their story.

Markosian: For me, if somebody is not happy with something that I’m doing or making — to open up your life and to open it up to a whole bunch of people you don’t know is a pretty big deal, especially for these individuals. You want to get it right; you don’t want to mess up. That, to me, was the bare minimum that I could do as a photographer, just to show them what it was that I was making and seeing and then having them respond to it. They were so excited! It made it so real to them. With just an image, especially with images, that’s such an immediate thing. All of a sudden, they’re going to care about doing this because they want to look good. You realize that and it’s amazing. Maybe unlike even words, here they can really see it.

Presser: That makes a lot of sense. In a lot of ways, too, it’s interesting to talk to them in the aftermath of this whole story coming out. They are so used to other people having control of their narratives. I think both in the visuals and in, yeah, the written story, they could tell us the story is written from their perspective.

Corredor: I just wanted to say, again, thank you so much to both of you for taking the time to speak about this piece.

About the reporters

Lizzie Presser

Lizzie Presser

Lizzie Presser is a contributing reporter at ProPublica.

Diana Markosian

Diana Markosian

Diana Markosian is an Armenian-American photographer whose work explores the relationship between memory and place.