Credits and motivation
LET ME GET THERE is a project of my own initiative that I started in 2017. I studied Anthropology and Philosophy as an undergraduate and Information Science and Learning Technologies in graduate school. I currently work in the communications field for an NGO based in the Netherlands.
This is a work in progress and I welcome your feedback and thoughts!
The title of this work comes from a series of oral interviews with U.S. immigrants from Fuzhou, China conducted by Kenneth Guest. In one of Guest's interviews, his subject had some poignant things to say about his journey to the U.S. in the 1980s as an illegal immigrant:
"I just wanted to make money. My family was poor. I knew I could make money in America. But I said to the god, “If you let me get there safely, I will build a temple for you back in China.” I worked in a restaurant for a while, but the god said, “No, the smell of meat is too powerful. I can’t come to you when you smell like that. Stop and open a temple in New York first.” So I did. He does his work. I do mine. Now we have a temple for him back home, too." (Master Lu)
The more I studied the passport application collections, the more my intrigue grew. I wondered what some of the portraits themselves might look like on their own—strung together in more or less one breath or as a mosaic. After some experimentation, I wound up spending about two years extracting the photos from the original documents. Essentially, this meant selecting and downloading original application files one by one, making notes on their provenance, editing each one in Photoshop (mindful of original authenticity), organizing and uploading to Flickr and adding metadata. I've also periodically included fragments of supplementary documents that give further context to the photos and occasionally reveal some surprising and sometimes sad insights. Thus far I have added full details on the travelers (name, year of birth, birth location, occupation, destination) to the Hungarian albums, plus to a small portion of images in the other collections.
I've been fascinated with immigration to the U.S for some time and ironically, I think, this has intensified since I myself emigrated from the U.S. to the EU. My family is mostly Hungarian (my father came to the U.S. in 1957) so as an experiment I thought I'd collect photos just from that area...then to all former Austro-Hungarian lands...then eastern & central Europe; then I stopped setting limits. In the last year I slowly tried to cover as much of the rest of world as possible, though there are limitations because of the U.S. immigration policies prevailing circa 1914-1925. For this reason, Latin America, Africa, Asia, etc. are therefore poorly represented in the photo collections. Still, the material I assembled comprise one of the largest and most diverse collections of immigrant photos anywhere.
After completing work on the passport applications, a process that took a couple of years, I took a deep dive into the overall (visual) representation immigrants and the broader subject of migration had received during the early 20th century. Sherman and Hine's Ellis Island portraits were unavoidable, particularly since the work of both had recently been revived via multiple archives and digital repositories that global news outlets and social media picked up on. I knew there was a larger story beneath their work, so I endeavored to try and find a way of reaching those stories—by restoring identity and historical context. Because of the lack of reliable information at play, it was at times a frustrating path to navigate but ultimately an exhilarating and deeply rewarding one.
I also happen to have a somewhat extended connection to the subject of U.S. immigration: my great-grandfather was a return-migrant, my grandfather an immigrant, my father a refugee, and I myself am an immigrant. Coupling this with today's non-stop headlines on the ongoing refugee crisis, the legacy of Trump's "Muslim ban", continuing border crises and deportations, xenophobia, the normalization of anti-immigrant sentiments, and the criminalization of immigration, I felt that now more than ever was a time to have better visual tools to understand how deeply interwoven immigrant/migrant lives are to the U.S. and the rest of the world.
The early 20th century era of mass migration, and mass restriction, is perhaps more relevant than ever.