Where To Start?
Not knowing where to start with my research into migrant narratives I decided to go with what I know. For the past ten years I have been teaching the history of photography at Algonquin College, so I decided to start with history.
Lewis W. Hine was the first photographers I decided to research because he produced a photographic series of immigrants at Ellis Island. For Hine this was his first photographic series documenting a social issue. What I wanted to find out is why did he create this series, what were his methods, how did he start, and who was Hine at this moment in his career.
In 1905, the year Hine created his Ellis Island series, he was a photographer and a teacher, something I can relate to:
A self-taught photographer, he moved to New York in 1901, becoming an instructor in nature studies and official photographer to the Ethical Cultural School. (Lenman, 2005)
So how did Hine go from teaching nature studies to documenting social issues with a camera. How did he come to recognize the power of the photography as a tool for social change. As Lenman mentions it definitely has something to do with his training in sociology.
In 1905, informed by his training in sociology, and with his reformist interests sharpened by his experience at the school, he began using the camera to study social problems by recording the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island. (Lenman, 2005)
This seemed too shallow an explanation. I agree that given Hine’s education this could account for his predilection toward social causes, however, I am curious to find Hine’s eureka moment. When photography became one of Hine’s tools for telling compelling narratives. As Lenman mentioned Hine’s interests were “sharpened by his experience at the school” so I decide to review Hine’s writings while at the Ethical Cultural School.
A brief examination of a well-selected and representative collection of photographs will give a bird's-eye view, and then the visitor may select the lines with which he wishes to become familiar. At the annual school exhibit the photographs taken during the year have become quite indispensable as reinforcing and varying the written explanation, just as they have become so necessary in magazines and books. Here also the visitor's time is limited, and we strive to give him in condensed and attractive form what has been going on through all the year. (Hine, 1905)
Hine’s interest in using the camera to tell a story developed through his work as the official photographer. HIne came to realize the power of combining photograph and text to effectively tell a story through marketing the school. He realized that a curated selection of images combined with well written descriptions can convey a stronger message than either one on their own. This is what he used to sell the benefits of the school and it is this skill that he applied to his own personal work.
Hine’s photographic series at Ellis Island was one of his fledgling attempts at documenting a social issue. Why did he decide to do document this issue specifically?
Frank Manny, Hine's superintendent at the Ethical Culture School, first suggested to Hine that he take students to the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan to photograph immigrants arriving from Ellis Island. Soon thereafter, and often accompanied by Manny, Hine began photographing immigrants on Ellis Island itself. When later asked why, Hine replied, "Hard to say. Perhaps a wave of humanitarianism? News sense?' (Seixas, 1987)
It is interesting that Hine did not really realize why he was photographing this subject. It has been my experience that when starting a creative project you often do not formulate why you are do things. Sometime you just do things on instinct or you really don’t see the whole picture until the end or till someone else critiques your work. Hine’s work did put a face to these migrants.
This human connection allows the viewer to transcend the ethnic and class differences between him/herself and the subject. These are people, not faceless hordes. (Seixas, 1987)
It appears that Hine produced a photographic series for the same reason I decided to do mine, to counter populism and racism against the what many consider to be the other, migrants. It is amazing that over 100 years later we are still facing this same issue.
Although Hine left the objects of his portraits mostly unnamed, through his documentary style, he conferred upon them individual identity in contrast to the nativism, exploitation, and social Darwinism that surrounded immigration issues in the early 1900s. (Willmann, 2008)
Hine, L.W. 1905, "Camera, The School", Elementary School Teacher, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 343-347.
Lenman, Robin, 2005. The Oxford Companion to Photography, Oxford University Press, New York.
Seixas, P. 1987, "Lewis Hine: From "Social" to "Interpretive" Photographer", American Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 3, pp. 381-409.
Willmann, K.S. 2008, "Lewis Hine, Ellis Island, and Pragmatism: Photographs as Lived Experience", The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 221-252.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections (1905) Lewis W. Hine, Italian Immigrants At Ellis Island [Online image]. Availabe at: http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-4e77-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 [Accessed: April 1, 2018].
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections (1926) Lewis W. Hine, Armenian Jew, Ellis Island [Online image]. Availabe at: http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-4e87-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 [Accessed: April 1, 2018].