Photographer details the emotional moment that created viral border photo of crying toddler

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — Dozens of harrowing images have rippled across the country from the southern border in recent weeks, but one that has caught the attention of many shows a crying 2-year-old girl who looked on as her mother was searched by U.S. Border Patrol agents.

“These folks, they didn’t know what was about to happen” with the policy leading to the separation of families, photographer John Moore told ABC News. “They had no idea, and I did and that’s what made this different for me.”

Moore, a special correspondent and senior staff photographer for Getty Images, was doing a ride-along with a Customs and Border Patrol agent when they saw a group of roughly 20 mothers and children late on June 12, “gathered on a dirt road” in a part of the Rio Grande Valley called El Rincon.

They approached the group and the mother, whose name he did not learn, who was holding her young daughter in her arms.

Moore said that he saw the mother was breastfeeding her daughter “to keep her calm” and, later, one of the agents asked the mother to put her daughter down.

“Once the mother put her on the ground she started screaming immediately,” Moore said.

He told ABC News that he crouched to “[get] down on a child’s level” to take the photo.

“It was an emotional moment for me,” said Moore, who is a father of three himself.

Moore has been covering border issues for a decade now as a photojournalist and produced a book of a collection of photos called, “Undocumented: Immigration and the Militarization of the United States-Mexico Border.”

He said that he’s seen similar interactions between immigrants and border agents before, but the difference with this instance was that it happened with the backdrop of the recent zero-tolerance policy being enforced by the Trump administration. The policy stipulates the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) refer all cases of illegal entry to be criminally prosecuted and, as a result, the parents are detained and because the children are not charged with a crime, they are not detained with the parents.

“What was different this time is I knew what would happen afterward,” he said.

He had a very brief chance to speak to the mother and she said that they had traveled from Honduras over the past month and that her daughter was 2 years old, Moore said.

Moore noted that the mother and child were together when they left with authorities and he didn’t see the pair formally separated, nor has he been able to confirm whether or not they were separated afterward, though the policy indicates that they would be held separately.

“All that happens behind closed doors… We’ll never see that,” he told ABC News.

The heartbreaking moment with the little girl wasn’t the only interaction that Moore said has left an emotional impression on him.

In the same group of women and children that night, Moore said there was a frightened boy who looked to be about 10 years old.

“I tried to calm him down as much as I could,” Moore said.

He told ABC News that he told the boy, in Spanish, “don’t worry, everything’s going to be OK,” but now he wishes he didn’t do that.

“Now, I regret saying that because I don’t know that everything is going to be OK,” Moore said. “I don’t know that at all.”

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