Pictures in focus: Migrants, then and now

Today, Manuele Buono, of AEDEKA srl in Italy, talks about a photograph taken on board a ship arriving at Ellis Island in the early 20th century.

many people crowded together on a ship deck

The deck of a ship full of emigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1913, Agence Rol, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Public Domain

I love this photo. It’s a striking reminder of the fact that once millions of Europeans just like me (yet not only Italians, but also Hungarians, Poles, Germans, Slavs, Scottish, Irish, Turks and many others) were on board of these ships – not an undefined mass of people from the other side of the world.

Furthermore, the ship happens to be arriving at Ellis Island: a genuine monument to migration, a symbol of generations of exiles and refugees looking for a future.

This picture makes me realise that we have forgotten – or not yet sufficiently studied – the history of migration. Because since prehistoric times, men and women from all corners of the globe have tried to preserve and improve their existence by taking up the gauntlet and abandoning their house and homeland.

Inconvenience and uncertainty didn’t make them relinquish their plans, while surely they must have been aware of the risks of such a journey – the possibly deadly turn it might even take. As a result, the contemporary European population is the product of epochal and massive migrations of people from the southeast of the Mediterranean and from the Far East.

Yet this part of history – a part that we all share – seems to be disregarded nowadays. We live in an atmosphere of increasing and widespread fear. Fear toward people arriving in most parts of Europe, escaping from hunger, misery and war. So by choosing this photograph, I was hoping to set off  a “warning light”: let us not forget the past if we want to avoid repeating the errors and disasters we’ve experienced in the last century.

Explore more Ellis Island photographs by Agence Rol


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