The Ellis Island Experience: Through the Eyes of Lewis Hine

Abstract: In a historical approach, this article examines the way immigration was captured by means of a medium that was just as new and astonishing as the social upheavals brought about by modernity of which immigration itself was a key factor: photography. To this purpose, photographs taken on Ellis Island by Lewis W. Hine, one of the major photographers of his time, are described, analyzed, and interpreted. After a short introduction to the photographer’s method and approach to the subject, an in-depth analysis of four examples from his Ellis Island series shall help to elucidate in how far his visualizations of the migration process convey a remarkably wide array of factual and emotional aspects linked to this chapter of US history. Not only do the photographs give a vivid impression of the daily proceedings immigrants and officials were involved in, they also shed light on the immigrants as not merely masses of foreigners but as human beings. It is Hine’s aim of countering prevalently negative opinions and images as well as the focus on the individual immigrant experience that makes his work social photography and thus situates his photographs on the threshold between social documentation and art.

If ever a space in the perception of American culture has come to stand for migration and mobility, it is undoubtedly Ellis Island. This small island, situated right in the New York Harbor, figured likewise as the ‘island of hope’ and the ‘island of tears.’ It is somewhat surprising though that Ellis Island has in a unique fashion occupied this slot of ‘immigration station’ in our minds. Firstly, it opened relatively late in the overall period of the immigration process, when immigration from Europe had already been going on for over 200 years, and it closed its gates in 1932, after being in use for only forty years.1 This positioning as ‘immigration station’ might be due to the sheer number of immigrants that entered the country through the island: Between 1892 and 1932 more than twelve million immigrants were processed on Ellis Island. Additionally, Ellis Island owes its status as a symbol of immigration to its position as a national monument, which it was proclaimed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. What surely adds to its iconic aura is the amount of emotionality that took place there, stemming from human tragedies, such as the separation of families and couples, rejection from immigration, and shattered hopes. The situation on Ellis Island was one of particular intensity: “Although the time spent at the island depot was usually only a few hours, the experience was, for many immigrants, the most traumatic part of their voyage to America” (Kraut 55). Finally, its standing as a landmark site of US immigration history is fortified by the island’s remarkable location within sight of the New York skyline as the ‘safe haven’ and the Statue of Liberty as the symbol of the freedom to be found in the Promised Land.

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