Walls – literal and figurative – are a prominent part of today’s global landscape. In 1989 there were 15 border walls worldwide, today there are almost 70. In a new project called A Wall In Between, photographer Alessandro Grassani sought to document our modern fixation with border control and the human stories caught on either side. “I want my photographs to reveal a sense of fear,” says Grassani. “They should reveal the fear of the people living in the rich countries who are supposed to accommodate the migrants. But also the fear of the migrants who are risking their life to cross those walls.”
Grassani started his project at the heavily politicized U.S.-Mexican border in 2016. “Many of the people I met during my journey to the U.S. border were leaving countries like El Salvador or Honduras because of violence, mostly gang violence,” he says. The journey can be as dangerous as the countries they are fleeing from; walking on foot through cartel land or boarding a treacherous train known as The Beast. Approximately 20,000 migrants every year are victims of murders, robbery, kidnapping and rape and 6,000 lose their lives, according to the International Organization for Migration.
As a photographer, Grassani witnessed some extraordinary scenes. One couple was living just few meters away from the U.S. border in Tijuana in what was, essentially, a hole in the ground. The rudimentary shelter, which the man, Jose, had dug with his bare hands, gave little protection from an area where drug sellers and traffickers are particularly prolific. Protection and support comes from charities and The Church, who have shelters dotted along the migrants’ trail, but also from fellow migrants. “The kindness and generosity I experienced along the way is the most impressive part of everything,” says Grassani. “They were always very open with me and very kind.”
There are many reasons why Trump’s wall proposal is untenable, not least that it likely won’t ‘work’. From Grassani’s experience, it is “unbelievable to think that you can stop a desperate population of migrants with meters of cement of wall,” he says. Grassani has witnessed the desperation and determination to escape a nightmare world back home and reach the promise of a new land. “These people are willing to risk everything to try and leave a future for their children and their family,” he says. “There is nothing that can stop them. They will find a way to cross the wall; if not by land, then by sea. They will find a way to go to the other side."
Alessandro Grassani is a photographer based in Italy.
Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is an international photo editor at TIME.