Photographer's eyes opened on epic road trip along Canada-U.S. border

The line between Canada and the United States is known as the world's longest undefended border and photographer Andreas Rutkauskas wanted to see it for himself. He undertook a cross-country tour to visit obscure border crossings and he learned some unexpected lessons along the way.

Canadian photographer Andreas Rutkauskas learned unexpected lessons on cross-country border tour

The line between Canada and the United States is renowned for being the longest undefended border in the world but, as Canadian photographer Andreas Rutkauskas discovered on an epic road trip, there's more to it than meets the eye.

Sure, there is no huge wall, the likes of which Donald Trump wants to build along the Mexican border if he's elected president of the U.S., but that doesn't mean it's not secure.

"It's far from undefended," Rutkauskas said in a phone interview from The Banff Centre, where he works. "You see the technologies all over the place." Drones, closed circuit television, thermal imaging cameras, sensors embedded in roads, there are plenty of methods being used to monitor the border, said Rutkauskas.

And then there are the law enforcement officials from both countries — who promptly questioned a young man wandering around the border in remote areas with a camera.

Andreas Rutkauskas shot this photo of the Okanogan National Forest at the Washington State-British Columbia border on his cross-country journey of the border, which he said brought his childhood geography lessons to life. (Andreas Rutkauskas)

"Most of these were pleasant conversations," Rutkauskas recalls. "Almost immediately I learned that the best policy was to approach them and describe what I'm doing there."

What he was doing was visiting obscure points that dot the 8,891-kilometre boundary and photographing them for a collection he titled Borderline. Rutkauskas kicked off the project in 2012 and, over the course of three years, took a series of adventurous road trips from one end of Canada to the other.

"It was really an amazing undertaking for me and a tremendous opportunity, just camping out along the line. And the people you meet in these communities, there is such a range of people from one state or province to the next," said Rutkauskas.

Photos 'belie the truth'

His preparation for Borderline was intense. He went to conferences about the border, watched TV shows and movies to observe pop culture representations of it, dug up archival photos, used Google Street View to plot out a route and select interesting points. He planned to be in certain spots at certain times of day for ideal lighting (though sometimes Mother Nature had other ideas).

What Rutkauskas found was not what he expected and, he admits, his photographs "belie the truth."
At this border crossing between Emerson, Man., and Pembina, N.D., X-ray imaging scanners are used to inspect railway cars. (Andreas Rutkauskas)

"My goal was to present the border as something which is bucolic and porous and that's not necessarily the way it is," he said. "Most of the photographs in the project, they look benign and innocent as if you could just walk from one nation to another. But that's really not the case."

Before or after almost every shot Rutkauskas had an encounter with someone from U.S. Border Patrol, the RCMP or the Canada Border Services Agency.

Some were helpful, even moving their cars so he could get the shot he wanted, and giving him recommendations on where to go next. They made it clear, however, what he could and could not take pictures of because of security restrictions.

With others, he had "heated conversations" and those came when Rutkauskas stood in "no man's land."

When most Canadians cross the border by land it's at a major port of entry, and they pass through an inspection site where they are questioned by customs officers. But what does the border actually look like everywhere else?

In remote areas, where it traverses forests or farmland, it's a six-metre wide swath of cleared land. It is periodically marked with small, obelisk-shaped monuments.

When Rutkauskas found himself in that cleared zone, he — and the border agents who showed up after detecting his presence, through whatever technology was monitoring that space — would sometimes disagree over "where things begin and end."

"They would accuse me of illegally entering the United States," he said.

Wild landscapes, friendly people

He emphasizes that he had very few negative encounters and that the border officers were just doing their jobs. There is illegal activity on the border and the officers were being diligent, he said.

He wonders, however, if he would have been treated any differently if he weren't a white, professional photographer who could point to a website of his work. That came in handy when he was questioned for more than two hours by border guards in Michigan.

Canadian photographer Andreas Rutkauskas is seen here working on the Borderline project at an abandoned border crossing between Emerson, Man., and Pembina, N.D.

Rutkauskas, who grew up in Winnipeg and lived in Montreal before moving to Banff, Alta., had already seen much of Canada before embarking on his cross-country border tour. But he said Borderline really brought his childhood geography lessons to life and made him appreciate Canada's diverse landscapes even more.

One of his favourite images is from the Alaska-British Columbia border, "It's just such a wild place," and the friendly border guards and local residents he met in tiny outposts like Snowflake, Man. at the North Dakota border made the trip memorable.

Those personal interactions on both sides of the border proved to be eye-opening experiences. Borderline not only changed the way he thought about security of the border, but about who lives on the southern side of it.

"It made me appreciate how much we share," Rutkauskas said about Americans and Canadians.

"We think of ourselves as politically or ideologically so different from our neighbour to the south, but we're not really," he said.

Through Borderline Rutkauskas got an in-depth understanding of what a border looks like, what it represents, how it can change over time, and how it is defended by people and by technology.

What he learned is particularly relevant now. The frontrunner for the Republican party's presidential nomination made building a wall at the Mexican border a key campaign promise. The Syrian refugees escaping their war-torn homeland and streaming into Europe has also put a spotlight on border politics.

"There's a lot of stress globally right now pertaining to migration. Borders and security has become a much greater conversation globally," said Rutkauskas.

He describes himself as someone with wanderlust and, even after driving more than 20,000 kilometres for Borderline, he's not ruling out doing it again.

"I like to keep my options open."

Some images from Borderline are currently on display at Concordia University's faculty of fine arts. Rutkauskas is hoping for more opportunities to showcase his work.