After being herded into an immense brick building, the crowds of newcomers were directed this way and that, told to sit, stand, open their luggage and, for a select few, found themselves cornered by Lewis Hine, a man toting a heavy, boxlike camera on a rickety tripod.
Usually, Hine did not speak their language. He motioned to them what he wanted to do. They waited anxiously while he set up the camera, and then the machine emitted a resounding bang. Sparks flew. Thick smoke filled the air. When it cleared, the immigrants were sent on to the next step — likely never knowing they had just become a part of one man’s project to make the country more welcoming toward them.
This was the routine repeated again and again as Hine, who would go on to become one of the best-known documentary photographers in history, worked to capture the humanity of immigrants. He spent time on the island in 1905, as a new wave of people was arriving in the United States, and again in 1926, after the government imposed quotas to decrease their numbers.
This surge of newcomers was made up of Italians, Slovaks, Greeks, Hungarians — Eastern and Southern Europeans who were met with great hostility from those who believed America should not accept them. Hine felt citizens should show “the same regard for contemporary immigrants as they have for Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock.”
As a teacher at a New York school for first-generation immigrants, Hine had the chance to go to Ellis Island and begin a career in taking pictures of the vulnerable.
“He understood the power of pictures and how they could contextualize individuals to make them familiar, not frightening,” said photo historian Daile Kaplan.
Hine’s photos put human faces on a contentious debate — not unlike the images coming from the U.S.-Mexico border today. With every new action by the Trump administration — separating children, sending troops to stop the caravan and most recently, blocking asylum claims — photography has been used to evoke emotion on both sides.
There are photos of massive crowds overtaking streets, families cramming into truck beds and men climbing over fences. On Sunday, photos of wailing children and their parents choking on tear gas went viral after migrants rushed the border near Tijuana and U.S. Border Patrol agents responded by firing tear gas at them.
Hine took the latter approach.
“This Jewish grandmother’s face is fulled with awe and hope, as she looks toward the land from which her people have gained, and to which they have given so much," he wrote beneath a photo of an elderly woman who arrived at Ellis Island in 1926.
With some photos, he wrote of the reasons the immigrants fled their own countries: “Hungarian persecution started an extensive wave of migration by Slovaks to this country.”
Like the government, he categorized and labeled the immigrants according to where they came from. He did not write down their names. But he also emphasized the contributions they would make to America.
“These are some of the Italians who became the barbers, waiters, chauffeurs and mayors of America," he said to describe a 1905 photo of a large group of men. “Some became artists and sculptors of our national Capitol and of other public buildings."
Hine’s images were unique from the photos of Ellis Island arrivals that had come before, which focused on the massive crowds or the eccentricities of the new arrivals.
“Ellis Island itself was a tourist attraction," said Anna Pegler-Gordon, author of “In Sight of America,” a history of photography’s influence on immigration policy. “There was a balcony that wasn’t used by immigration inspectors but by people who would come to watch see the interesting ethnographic ‘others,’”
This was the lens through which the most famous Ellis Island photos were captured. Augustus Sherman, a clerk on the island, took more than 200 portraits of the immigrants who stood out from the hordes of Europeans. He seemed fascinated by the outfits, hairstyles and skin tones of the Algerians, Hindus and Guadeloupeans. Some see his work as celebrating America’s diverse cultural roots; others see it as objectifying people of color.
Unlike Sherman, Hine would never become known for his time at Ellis Island. He would go on to become a photographer of child labor, and would be influential in bringing about its end. But his Ellis Island photos were never widely published in his lifetime.
“They weren’t consistent with the kinds of policies people were trying to introduce at the time,” Pegler-Gordon said.
Hine died in 1940 and for the next two and half decades, his work remained largely ignored and forgotten. Then, in 1965, Congress passed the Hart-Celler Act, better known as the Immigration and Nationality Act. The quotas that had inspired Hine to return to Ellis Island were lifted. The new law introduced visa categories that focused on reuniting families.
Researchers and authors took an interest in looking back at Hine’s era and began rediscovering his work. Come 1977, there were books, a documentary and an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum dedicated to Hine. His photos of immigrants, and the message they conveyed, were for the first time prominently displayed in the city where he created them.