The viral photo of a mother and her two children in diapers running from tear gas launched by the U.S. Border Patrol has been seen by millions by now.
The compelling image, taken on Sunday near a partial border wall between California and Mexico, has become a chilling symbol of the Trump administration’s response to thousands of migrants in a caravan from Central America seeking asylum.
Steps away from the family was Kim Kyung-Hoon, who wore a gas mask as he snapped the shot. A photographer for Reuters, the Tokyo-based Kyung-Hoon has documented disasters, people living on the street, and sports and celebrities on the red carpet, mostly in Asia. This is the first time he’s covered an immigrant crisis, capturing images the world won’t soon forget.
Kyung-Hoon joined the migrant caravan on Nov. 14, walking and riding with its members as they slowly wound their way north.
In Tijuana on Sunday, he was with hundreds of migrants as they marched together to a legal port of entry, the El Chaparral crossing into San Diego. There were men, children and women of all ages.
After they were stopped by Mexican police, Kyung-Hoon walked with the group across a dried-out river bank towards a razor-wire protected border wall.
He saw two men try to dig beneath the razor wire. “One with his bare hands, the other guy started used a basket,” Kyung-Hoon recalls. The family stood a few feet from the wire.
While the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency said it released the tear gas in response to several migrants throwing projectiles at agents, Kyung-Hoon says the group was tear gassed without any warning. “I didn’t hear anything, I looked around and didn’t see anything,” he says.
“The tear gas canister was thrown behind the family,” he recalls. “The two girls were in diapers, one was barefoot, the other in sandals. They started running away, it was a chaotic situation.”
The mother, Maria Meza, 35, later told Reuters: “The first thing I did was grab my children.”
The photo shows her gripping onto the hands of her 5-year-old twin daughters, Saira and Cheili. “I was scared, and I thought I was going to die with them because of the gas,” Meza recalled to Reuters. “They were children.”
Kyung-Hoon has an 8-year-old daughter who loves the Disney movie Frozen. The mother, Meza, was wearing a T-shirt with characters from the film and he discovered the little girls also love Frozen. The Disney characters reminded Kyung-Hoon of his daughter back home in Tokyo.
After the family ran from the tear gas and climbed up the river bank back into Tijuana, Kyung-Hoon caught up with them. One of the girls crying.
“The tear gas smelled and the pain on her feet (from running barefoot) made her cry,” he says. In his photo, the girl is now barefoot, having lost her sandals while fleeing.
A native of Korea, Kyung-Hoon speaks little Spanish. But he found out that the mother is from Honduras and has been traveling with her five children. His Reuters colleagues later found the family back in the tent city for migrants in a nearby sports complex.
“I came here for one reason, and that’s because there is a lot of violence in Honduras,” Meza told Reuters of her native country, which is among the most violent in the world. Kyung-Hoon says she told his colleagues she wished to join her husband — the father of the five children — in Louisiana.
When asked how he felt looking at the heartbreaking images he captured, Kyung-Hoon said: “I think what I have to do is document what is happening and the readers when they see my pictures they will make their own decision.”
Kyung-Hoon spent hours with his colleagues at the border that Sunday, and says tear gas was launched from several locations. “My colleagues witnessed that,” he says. “People affected by tear gas was hundreds of people.”
His two photos have since become viral, heartbreaking symbols of the crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border. As California’s governor-elect Gavin Newsom said in a tweet:
“These children are barefoot. In diapers. Choking on tear gas.”