4. (Im)mobility
Published: 10.04.2017
in the series Photography and Migration
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Mobility implies the ability – some say the essential human right – to move freely. But the global migration crisis reminds the world that not every subject can exercise that freedom due to their race, gender, sexuality, class, political persuasions, or national identity. Hence certain citizens of a country enter it with minimal restriction, while others and non-citizens are impeded or halted altogether. In the United States, press coverage of restrictions on mobility has increased in the wake of the executive orders in 2017 targeting people from certain predominantly Muslim countries. Refugees, asylum seekers, and even some people with proof of permanent residency in the US (green card holders) have been stopped at the American border and refused entry. Others already on American soil have become immobile, fearing that travel could lead to their exclusion from the US. Both groups lack what anthropologist Bartholomew Dean has called the “freedom of mobility” – that is, the “right to stay put, to leave, and to return.”

Let’s explore the photographic dimensions of that freedom and its denial, beginning with its most recent forms. When the first executive order travel ban was issued in January 2017, protests erupted across the country, especially at international airports. Pictures of people crying and hugging loved ones convey the mixture of fear, relief, and frustration experienced by those temporarily detained and denied their freedom. Other photos of protestors show them filling airport arrival halls, equipped with signs decrying the treatment of Muslim travelers. Their choice to remain fixed in place, as border police immobilize others just yards away, reminds everyone that the freedom of mobility must be defended.

Protestors at San Francisco airport’s arrival lounge, The Telegraph, January 29, 2017. Credit: Peter Dasilva/EPA

In the American documentary tradition, several celebrated explorations of mobility spring to mind: portraits taken by Lewis Wickes Hine at the Ellis Island Immigration Station in New York (1904–09, 1926), the photographs of Midwestern America commissioned by the US Farm Security Administration (1935–44), and Robert Frank’s journey across the country that resulted in The Americans (1958). In these examples, photographers undertook migrations of their own to create photographic records of migration from, to, and within the United States. The freedom of mobility, in other words, was represented from the perspective of a camera operator on the move. The operator could choose to picture that freedom as unfettered or restricted – by poverty, government regulations, or the sheer numbers of people seeking to exercise it all at once.

Lewis Wickes Hine, Climbing into America, Immigrants at Ellis Island, 1904, gelatin silver print. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections

Today when Americans think of Ellis Island they imagine a place that welcomed over 12 million people to the United States. As the nation’s busiest immigration inspection station between 1892 and 1954, it has become an emblem of migration and mobility. This view of Ellis Island has shaped readings of Hine’s famous photographs of the eastern, central, and southern European immigrants who moved through the station. Climbing into America, for instance, has been read as full of movement; men and women mount stairs, waving sheets of paper. Yet we can just as easily read the Ellis Island pictures by Hine as meditations on the immobility associated with migration. After all, the subjects in Climbing into America are standing still, weighed down by their belongings. Several figures lock viewers in their gaze, fixed (and fixing us) in place. Throughout Hine’s series, immigrants are stuck in waiting rooms and unmoving lines; many appear in closely cropped portraits or penned in by solid walls or chain links. Arrival in the United States for these new immigrants was not the moment of pure happiness and opportunity it is often assumed to be; it was an experience marked by uncertainty, bureaucracy, and frequent setbacks.

Lewis Wickes Hine, A Group of Italians in the Railroad Waiting Room, Ellis Island, 1905, 1905, gelatin silver print. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections

Last week the interconnectedness of mobility and immobility was brought home to me at a preview screening of a documentary by Maine filmmaker Tonya Shevenell. The Home Road tells the story of Shevenell’s great-great-great-grandfather Israel, who migrated by foot in 1845 from rural Compton, Québec, Canada to the city of Biddeford, Maine, USA. The nineteen-year-old, French-speaking Canadian found work as a brickmaker in Biddeford, and became the area’s first permanent Franco-American settler. In 2015, the filmmaker’s father Ray retraced the incredible 188-mile journey of their ancestor, walking for nearly two weeks. Tonya Shevenell’s camera was there every step of the way. In the documentary, still and moving images are interspersed with historical artifacts from Québec and Maine, including postcards and photographs that traveled between the two homes of the Shevenell family.

Ray Shevenell walking in Saint-Herménégilde, Québec, Canada, en route to Biddeford, film still from The Home Road, directed by Tonya Shevenell, Home Ice Productions, © 2017. Photograph by Tonya Shevenell

The Home Road is an inspiring and beautifully constructed local migration story. What it does particularly well is convey to audiences how necessary and challenging geographic mobility was between Canada and the United States. Israel Shevenell set off from Compton in 1845 because he needed a better job and economic prospects for his family. The family archive suggests that he took no photographs en route to Biddeford. The film makes up for that absence by incorporating numerous photographs taken by Tonya, Ray, and friends who followed his trek. Through those pictures we can envision what Israel’s journey might have been like: picturesque and productive in one moment, sublime and harrowing in the next.

Tonya Shevenell and her camera on railroad tracks in Bartlett, New Hampshire, film still from The Home Road, directed by Tonya Shevenell, Home Ice Productions, © 2017. Photograph by John Scully

Some choose to see the representation of human mobility through an immobile frame as an insurmountable challenge. Tonya Shevenell, however, takes it as an opportunity to demonstrate that every migration comes with moments of immobility, just as Lewis Hine once did. A mere ten miles into his trek from Compton, then 74-year-old Ray developed painful foot blisters that required tending, a brief hospitalization, and innovative solutions throughout the trip. We see his bloody, bandaged feet in several still camera shots. Further conspiring to slow Ray down were treacherous, narrow roads and the unpredictable New England weather, all captured in still photographs. There are even several points in The Home Road when we experience Ray and Tonya moving backwards, their forward mobility thwarted by miscommunication. One morning Ray sets off on foot, heading south from Compton toward the US-Canadian border. In his pocket are the keys to the car that Tonya had been using to follow her father’s progress. She runs toward the border, he hitches a ride on a tractor-trailer, and they finally meet, only to begin again in opposite directions.

But are the moments of immobility in the film merely setbacks and evidence of inertia? Are they not also moments of active reflection and becoming? French philosopher Henri Bergson offers the following argument:

[I]f we really take seriously the proposition that everything is in movement, that everything changes, then there is no immobility. What we call immobility is a composite – a relation between movements.

For Bergson, it is in the points between movements that we exercise our intellect, gain perspective on the relations between them, and bring the moving world into focus. The Home Road embraces this view of immobility, using photos of the trek as points of reflection on where we come from, where we are, and where we’re going. Shevenell thus demonstrates the rich potential of juxtaposing immobile and mobile images in retelling a migration story.

Ultimately, The Home Road is a story about the freedom of mobility for middle-class Franco-Americans, nearly two centuries after their arrival in the United States. The Shevenells, after all, chose to retrace the voluntary migration of their now celebrated ancestor, whose name graces a public park in Biddeford. And they did so without challenges to their political rights to make the journey. Ray, in fact, notes the relative ease with which he walked across the US-Canadian border in his orange slicker and with his US passport, approaching the border station “like a car.” Photographs taken of Ray on either side of his crossing – his face smiling and strides relaxed – reinforce that view.

The next and final post will consider very different negotiations of the border, undertaken by migrating subjects whose mobility and political status are precarious at best. My discussion of photographic projects recently created along the northern and southern boundaries of the United States will bring us back to where this series began – to the figure of the refugee.

4 comment(s)
McKayla Blanch
Posted 25.04.2017 at 23:12

This post does an excellent job of explaining how at different points throughout history there have been times when mobility has been threatened, or on the contrary, when mobility has been heavily advertised and freely accessible for different groups of people. This in turn has lead me to think about my generation more specifically, and how millennials from the United States approach mobility from both a social and physical standpoint. For example, on social media platforms, such as Instagram, many millennials market themselves as having a persona that is largely mobile and adventurous. However, data shows that we are the lowest generation to move from our home base.

Mobility is a luxury, and we are perpetually inundated with items that enable mobility, such as luxury vehicles or even the mobile phone. Society today relies on mobile devices. In fact, for many millennials, the mobile phone is an extension of our very hands. Access to mobility and how much we are physically mobile are often in conflict. Mobile phones and their social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook encourage us to showcase our travels and experiences publicly. People have actually become known as “cultural-influencers” by travelling the world and taking pictures of themselves in different places. This has become so extreme that there are start-ups (e.g., Influenster) devoted exclusively to partnering with major brands and sending their products to be endorsed to these social-media celebrities. While we are surrounded by these types of people, we, as a generation, are statistically shown to be the least likely to move. People travel to capture the perfect picture so other people can live vicariously through them. In this case, who is really experiencing mobility?

In light of recent travel bans and cross-border tensions, it is difficult to ignore the ever-so fleeting ease of travel. Some places are deemed “too dangerous” and others require extensive pre-travel paperwork. Countries are leaving the EU, which promotes a sort-of geographical unity that increases the difficulties of mobility. Surprisingly, in a time of technological accessibility for international communication and social sharing we continue to be faced with the difficulties of physical mobility.

Links to explore:



Madeleine Cohen
Posted 28.04.2017 at 14:33

This conversation about mobility is interesting to me in terms of voluntary versus involuntary mobility. When looking at the images above of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, I think back to my ancestors who came over to America from Germany many years in similar circumstances as the people in those photographs. I have heard the stories from my grandmother of her father and his brother arriving in New York to look for opportunity and those being very exciting times for him and for the family altogether. When I spoke with my grandmother about these events I kept asking, well what were the hardships with his travels? What were the worst parts about now living in America so far from home? Did he have regrets? My grandmother made it very clear that he was proud of his new life as an American, and that he didn't necessarily want to bring his old life with him in many ways. This was a voluntary movement that he was proud of. I think it's interesting to think about a story like this in comparison to those photographs from Ellis Island, and even the photographs from Tonya's film. What makes an experience of migration altogether successful? Are there ever truly successful migration stories? Can a migration story be described as good or bad? Or are there too many in between shades of black and white that make it both good and bad at the same time?

I think it's also interesting what McKayla brought up about how millenials are the least likely generation to migrate but that we also are obsessed in many ways with "travel" and showing off the places we are fortunate enough to visit. At the same time, there is tension between those in America who have the opportunity to travel and share their experiences with friends and across social media, while there is a large portion of people in America who fear travel for fun because of their re-entry into America. Things have changed drastically since the time of Ellis Island from voluntary migration experiences which may have been marked by bad and good moments and contemporary times where "travel" (or mini migrations) is still marked by "bad" and "good" in many ways.

Camille Bowe
Posted 02.05.2017 at 16:30

(Im)mobility can also be affected by a person's very body and their ability to move can be contingent on their physical health.

What struck me most in The Home Road was the physical hardship of the ancestral trek. Tonya Shevenell did an excellent job documenting her father's health-related complications on the journey, including images of his tired feet and other images of a health scare that landed him in the hospital.

Including these jarring images made me wonder how Israel and many others dealt with medical complications in the time before modern-day medical interventions. It made me think of the anxiety felt by families and individuals in search of a better life on these long treks.

While the images in the film do serve a purpose and produce an effect on the audience, it is also important to note that these images, as any medical images, are highly personal. Many thanks to Tonya for a job well done. Her choice of these images really helped to drive home the point that these migrations were dangerous and that seeking out a better life does come at a cost.

Sarah J. Grady
Posted 09.05.2017 at 05:56

I am particularly drawn to this post and how it addresses the issues those lacking "freedom of mobility" face, as well as the privilege of those with it. I was initially very intrigued by the conversation it engages around early American documentary photographers as I have studied the work of Lewis Hine, Robert Adams, and many photographers who were commissioned by the FSA such as Dorothea Lange, Marion Post-Walcott, and Walker Evans in depth this semester in the American Studies course History of Photography. Despite the hardship the subjects were facing in these types of documentary images, the photographs did little to better the situations of the subjects although these photographers were taking these images to alarm the middle class of the severity of poverty existing in the United States. Many of the subjects of FSA commissioned photographs thought that cooperation with the photographers would potentially better their situation. For example, Lange’s Migrant Mother, which is perhaps one of the most famous photographs of all FSA commissioned images is a prime example of this. Lange said, “She thought my pictures might help her so she helped me,” however the mother pictured was interviewed decades after the photographs of her were taken and her impoverished circumstances had changed very little (Marien 280).

In this particular discussion, documentary photography could have played an instrumental role in bettering the lives of migrants in America, however specifically with regard to images that were commissioned by the FSA and ultimately controlled by Roy Stryker who ran it, images were released without context or history. Despite the fact that Migrant Mother became an iconic image, it lost its context and the story of the mother and faceless children pictured.

In the same way I feel pained for the subjects of the photos commissioned by the FSA, I also feel for the photographers, many of whom, like Lange, had strong senses of social justice. Working for the FSA allowed them to be compensated for their work but as artists, they lost their freedom because their work was decontextualized, retitled, and censored. It certainly was not the same but similarly, the FSA photographers lacked “freedom of mobility” with their work like the migrant subjects in their images lacked access to upward mobility from their situations. The photographers working for the FSA were interested in bettering the situations of their subjects but the decontextualization and censoring of their images, where in many cases Roy Styker punched holes through their negatives, did little to nothing to alter migrant situations.

In particular, Lange is an important figure in FSA photography because in her own way she lacked “freedom of mobility” due a limp she had from polio. I am drawn to the connection she had with her subjects as a result of her limp because it certainly allowed for a different demeanor to come across in her images.

Two days ago I broke my arm in an accident and though my situation is minor and trivial compared to many of those existing for migrants today, its made me think about the different ways all of us lack “freedom of mobility.”

Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. Boston: Pearson, 2015. Print.

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