After a photo of a young girl temporarily reuniting with her family at the US-Mexican border emerged this week, Kelly Grovier looks at images that question the permanence of borders.

A little girl stands beside an enormous steel fence that stretches as far as the eye can see to the barren horizon behind her. Her body is partially eclipsed by the rusting posts of the massive partition that rises high into the crisp late autumn sky. Though this stark steel barricade keeps the girl separated from members of her family who live on the other side, she appears, for an instant at least, unfazed by the austere structure that shadows her.

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Her eyes are fixed instead on the gentle levitation of a single white balloon whose string she holds in a hand hidden by the hulking pickets. Contrasting with the rough complexion of the barrier’s sun-toughened patina, the simple beauty of the weightless white balloon enchants her like a euphoric vision – a joyous daydream.

The affecting photograph was captured this week during the Keep Our Dream Alive event, organised by the Border Network for Human Rights in Ciudad Juárez – a city that lies on the Mexican border with the United States, just south of El Paso, Texas. To mark International Human Rights Day, the organisation reunited families that have been kept apart by the barrier between the two countries. These poignant reunions of parents and children, of siblings and grandparents (who were allowed to glimpse each other through the hefty bars) lasted three minutes each. Actual human contact was restricted to whatever a stretched arm could manage through the slender gaps between the coarse bars. The caress of a cheek. A near embrace.

The balloon’s delicate upward drift clashes with the brawny weight of the fence’s corroding posts, which keep our focus anchored to the parched earth. That striking tension in the quiet drama of the photo reflects the friction between the buoyancy of the lifted spirit and the reality of restricted bodies. Intensifying that collision of energies is the havering figure of the girl herself, who appears to float effortlessly from one side of the barricade to the other – an innocent intermediary between divided worlds.

The curious components of the powerful photo – a dreary border wall, a little girl, and the soulful soar of a cheerful balloon – however singular they may seem, have come together before in a moment of visual poetry. In August 2005, the mischievous street artist Banksy caused a stir when he shifted his focus from the walls of Britain to the contested West Bank barrier in Ramallah, which Israel began constructing in 2000.

Armed with nothing more than a crude stencil and a can of black spray paint, the camera-shy graffiti artist imprinted on the controversial concrete partition a gravity-defying silhouette of a little girl being lifted magically into the air by a bouquet of balloons. The stark stasis of the inscribed image – a shadow scarred in stone – cuts against the lightheartedness of its vision to create an ambiguous emblem of tethered hope. Banksy’s deceptively simple icon and this week’s profound photo from Juarez are pinpoints on the map of an imagined elsewhere – an ethereal hinterland of hope where all the walls dissolve.

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