Sonya de Laat1
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  • 1 Academic Advisor and Curriculum Coordinator, Global Health Program, McMaster University
In Then Out of the Frame
Lewis Hine’s Photographs of Refugees for the American Red Cross, 1918–20
in Journal of Humanitarian Affairs

From June 1918 to April 1919, the American social photographer Lewis Hine made photographs of refugees in Europe. Refugees emerged as an unexpectedly humanitarian subject during World War I. Care for them was part of the American Red Cross’ (ARC) overall war relief activities, which Hine was hired to visually record. In this paper, I present the way in which refugees went from being framed in the ARC’s mass-circulated popular Red Cross Magazine as unique, innocent, idealized war-affected civilians to eventually being visually displaced in a shifting humanitarian landscape. For refugees who were, by 1920, making their way across the ocean to North America, visual displacement from the humanitarian visual sphere was tantamount to territorial displacement. Anxieties and negative rhetoric of the unassimilated alien prevailed, resulting in the temporary ‘closure’ of America’s borders and the ARC’s growing American-centric relief activities. Entwined with anti-Bolshevism, American immigration, and isolationist politics of the early twentieth century, Hine’s photographs and the ARC’s role in contributing to humanitarian photography are an early example of a rise and fall in sympathies towards refugees that would continue throughout the century.

Introduction

Recent interventions in visual theory claim the camera affords the disenfranchised a form of political participation through the civil space opened up by the medium, a space where creator, subject, and spectator intersect (Azoulay, 2008; de Laat, 2019). Beyond merely being a technology for producing pictures, the camera is understood as mediating social relations, and as such is an inherently political medium. Crucial to this formulation is visibility: being seen enables participation in a political community, even if only through a citizenry of photography. From June 1918 to April 1919, the American photographer Lewis Wickes Hine made photographs of refugees and other European civilians affected by World War I while working overseas for the American Red Cross (ARC). Refugees emerged as a new humanitarian subject in direct result of the changing global order that came with World War I. Hine’s photographs and the ARC’s use of them, both shaped and restricted public imagination with regard to refugees, and international spectators’ responses to them. Here, I explore Hine’s refugee photographs and more particularly the ARC’s use of them to consider the camera’s role in the visibility of refugees and in supporting positive responses to displaced people.

Hine’s European photographs were described at the time as ‘reminiscent of his earlier [American] child labor series’, even said to ‘stand out as some of his most moving images’ (Doherty, 1978: 52).1 They continue to be considered as ‘some of Hine’s most affecting photographs’ (Kaplan, 1988: 63). Despite this, the collection of photographs remains virtually unseen. After the Great War, Hine’s ARC photographs were forgotten to institutional memory, remain under-represented in subsequent Hine scholarship, and were essentially ‘lost’ in photographic archives.2 I regard the lack of circulation as the result of a complex set of historical contingencies, competing ideologies, and agendas, that would ultimately see refugees visually displaced by domestic interests that included a redirection of focus onto local American social welfare and humanitarian issues.

To begin, I present the ARC’s 1918 wartime use of Hine’s photographs in The Red Cross Magazine to explore the way refugees were framed as ideal humanitarian subjects. I then explore a set of photographs Hine made between November 1918 and April 1919, after the armistice was signed. As a photographer concerned with social uplift, Hine’s pictures contributed to a sentimental education meant to include refugees among those worthy of care. This attempt was ultimately muted by the photographs being virtually unused. The final section explores how the refugee subject was eventually displaced in The Red Cross Magazine over the course of 1919–20. This displacement diminished opportunities to imagine the refugee, or to recognize distinguishing characteristics of refugeedom (as opposed to immigration). At a time when refugees were making their way across the Atlantic to North America, this visual displacement had a material impact: contributing to restrictions on their acceptance into distant countries. For scholars working with humanitarian imagery or practitioners working with refugees, this look back provides historical perspective to the visual culture of refugees and a corrective to thinking that when ‘out of sight’ means a positive resolution to humanitarian crises has been made. In response to growing scholarship on the emergence and experience of displacement, the social life of Hine’s refugee photographs regains importance if we are to ‘think of refugees as people in motion rather than as subjects constructed in relation to the states that alternately refuse or receive them’ (Madokoro, 2012: 20, in Gatrell, 2017: 178; Stone, 2018).

Coming into the Frame: 1918

During the early years of World War I, there was strong public opposition to the United States joining the conflict (Irwin, 2013: 55). Non-involvement in the conflict did not mean that America was disavowing participation in the war altogether. Many Americans supported large-scale civilian relief through organizations such as Herbert Hoover’s Commission for Relief in Belgium, the American Friends Service Committee, and the American Committee for Near East Relief (Irwin, 2013: 56). However, by 1917, with the war going on years longer than expected, ideas of internationalism gained momentum as it had become apparent – even to some in the Peace Movement – that in order for domestic social issues to be properly addressed, peace in Europe was necessary (Kaplan, 1988). That same year, the ARC underwent a full-scale expansion and retooling of its public relations endeavors. Among the most visible changes was the transformation of its member newsletter, The Red Cross Bulletin, into the more popularly appealing Red Cross Magazine. The Magazine became the most influential humanitarian magazine of its time, the product of an organization that at the height of the war boasted nearly a third of the American population among its members with civilian relief efforts having become a patriotic duty (Irwin, 2013: 67, 79).

As an organization promoting international humanitarian patriotism, it was the ARC’s role to raise awareness of suffering that needed alleviating and to build sympathy for victims. The Magazine hired Lewis Hine and other social progressive artists and authors for their skills at building affect and raising consciences (Irwin, 2013: 84–5).3 Hine had established the reputation as America’s foremost social photographer4 with much of his own ‘lens’ having taken shape through his studies in education and sociology. This, at a time when scientific methods and evidence were reshaping the epistemology of social welfare and charity work. In the decade before the war, Hine had worked with the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) and for the popular sociological magazine The Survey. His photography was influential in the campaign against child labor and in support of social reform supporting immigration, labor, and housing. Hine had become known for his skill in creating ‘photographs of revelation’ that drew attention to politically contentious issues such as labor reforms and xenophobia (Gutman, 1967: 14). Hine’s skills would prove invaluable for shining light on civilians’ wartime need; they were equally instrumental in making the ARC shine as American’s preeminent relief agency.

It was the Great War that created stateless persons, making stark the emerging reality that rights were not inhered in the person, as has been the central tenet of European philosophy since the time of the French Revolution. Rights were increasingly tied to citizenship (Ngai, 2004; see also Hunt, 2007). For many in today’s world it is difficult to imagine anything other than a nationalist social order, but it is in this era that the decisions and actions to move in this direction took hold and spread. Nationalism is a social and political construct that may have emerged in response to autocratic rule, in the name of ‘the people’, but it also created unintentional masses of displaced, stateless, and, later, illegal people who continue to be created and justified through a now familiar rhetoric and provocative nationalist discourse that present displaced people as a security or existential threat, revealing that ‘sovereignty is not merely a claim to national rights but a theory of power’ (Ngai, 2004: 12).

At the time, no internationally recognized legal definition existed for the group of people ‘that appeared in the public arena virtually overnight’ (Gatrell, 2005: 197). The term ‘refugee’ had been resurrected during the Great War’s early years, having not been applied to mass population movements since the Huguenot’s expulsion from France in 1685 (Germano, 2015). By the time the term was applied in World War I, it had expanded from its original meaning of Protestant persecution to encompassing all people fleeing persecution and seeking safety.

With a lack of centralized monitoring or consistent criteria to define refugees, estimates remain difficult to determine with formal accuracy, but as many as ten million people were displaced during the Great War (Gatrell, 2014). Along the Western Front, Belgians moved by the hundreds of thousands across into the Netherlands, France and over to England. By 1918, as the Germans advanced into France, the numbers of refugees in that country rose to a height of 1.85 million (Gatrell, 2014; Jenkinson, 2016, 2018). Meanwhile on the Eastern Front, at one point, one-third of the Serbian population was on the move along with hundreds of thousands of Italian and Greek refugees in the Mediterranean and Balkans. Farther north, equally great numbers of Jewish, Armenian, and Turkish refugees traveled along the Eastern European border with Russia (Cabanes, 2014). Many of Europe’s refugees had become stateless through having been expelled by conquering armies, and as documentation linking people to countries was not common (Cabanes, 2014; Ngai, 2004). By the time the ARC arrived in France (in 1916) during the period of American neutrality (1914–17), humanitarian aid agencies applied the term to practically all people displaced within and beyond national frontiers.

During World War I, contemporary representations of this new category of people included sympathetic discourse that focused on tragedies experienced by refugees, catastrophes they left behind, and efforts they undertook to leave. Refugees were commonly placed in biblical contexts with their movements being equated with exodus (Gatrell, 2014). But refugees, especially young males, were also viewed in a negative light. Particularly early on in the war, they were presented as cowardly opportunists evading their responsibilities. As the war continued, metaphors such as deluge, streams, waves, and floods became increasingly predominant. This language may have signaled the scale of the tragedy; it also alluded to refugees being a chaotic hoard, as disorderly and untrustworthy (Gatrell, 2014). Representations of refugees and migrants as being desperate, dependent, but also dangerous have also been noted in more recent visual analysis (Bleiker et al., 2013; Bleiker et al., 2014; Hutchison, 1997; Kirkwood, 2019). Although cowardice may not be a characterisation of refugees from the past few decades, certainly adventure-seeking opportunists or – alternatively – a feminization of refugees has contributed to disparaging displaced people (Frank and Reinisch, 2017; Gabaccia, 2016; Gabrielatos, 2008).

When Hine first arrived in Paris in June 1918, his photographic talents were mobilized to focus on the human side of the war (Kaplan, 1988).5 As per the practice of the day, the majority of Hine’s photographs go uncredited in ARC publications. Identification and confirmation of Hine’s ARC photographs has since been determined by comparison of his stylistic characteristics, his known travel routes while in Europe, by cross reference with reproductions in at least one other contemporaneous publication in which Hine is given credit, and with the provenance provided by various archives.6 Through archival research, I have successfully identified some 18–20 photographs of Hine’s in the ARC Magazine from 1918 to 1920 and ten to twelve additional photographs of Hine’s in the ARC Bulletin. The figures are not exact, as there are some images that appear to be Hine’s, but remain (and likely will remain) unconfirmed as they only appear in the Magazine and not in any of Hine’s or the ARC’s archival photograph collections.7

From today’s perspective, some of Hine’s obviously staged ARC activity photographs merit art historian Daile Kaplan’s description of them as ‘superficial’, ‘nondescript’, and having ‘a didactic, illustrative quality’ (1988: 61). The vast majority of them portray an innocent victim rescued by a white savior as visual iteration of the familiar humanitarian narrative. There was also a strong gendering to the ARC’s iconography: women – and more specifically nurses – served as allegorical figures that helped to frame the ARC as an agency of caring nurturers, or embodiments of ‘The Greatest Mother in the World’ (Irwin, 2013: 86). Among the first pictures the ARC reproduced of Hine’s were those of the American Red Cross Child Welfare Exhibition at St. Etienne, American soldiers resting and recuperating at ARC hospitals, and warehouses professionally administered and fully stocked.8 Hine’s photographs included Red Cross workers undertaking health checkups and performing staged public health demonstrations. The neat uniforms and smiles in these pictures offer a simple message: the ARC had everything under control in wartime France.

By 1918, after years of conflict that created ever more refugees, the ARC took to sympathetic presentations of refugees. These presented a counter-narrative to debate and anxiety about refugees that had been circulating and growing in various arenas outside the pages of the Magazine. It was in the ARC’s interest, even their responsibility, to make and circulate photographs of its relief activities. American entry into the War was predicated largely on humanitarian action (Irwin, 2013). For an organization that began its international assistance efforts only ten years earlier, photo-essays such as this were as important to the agency as to the recipients of their aid. To frame the refugees as victims in need of assistance contributed to building the ARC’s profile as America’s foremost relief agency. Through this straightforward syntactical arrangement, the ARC also specified its scope of practice by singling out the refugee as a member of a distinct group within the broader category of non-combatants under their care.

Readers leafing through the July 1918 edition of The Red Cross Magazine would encounter an eight-page photo-essay, ‘Fly – the Germans Are Coming!’ In this article, Europe’s refugees were being positioned to stake a claim on American sentiments. The pictures focused on refugees, a category of war-affected people that had swelled to unprecedented numbers. Although not the first time the ARC included photographs that referred to refugees, this was the first time such a large spread of photographs appeared. Pictured were rows of animal-drawn or human-pushed carts laden with personal belongings that rolled along country roads – a mass movement of people fleeing deeper into France in advance of the on-coming Germans. Titles such as ‘The Road of Sorrows’ and ‘The Long Procession’ frame the photographs as representations of an exceptional and arduous journey (ARC, 1918a: 37–44). How eerie it is today to encounter the picture with the title ‘The Twentieth Century Caravan’, which appear as a sort of prophecy for the past one hundred years with repeated refugee crises forcibly displacing millions of people around the world.

Following these were pictures of a stream of German captives being led through a French town, and a row of British artillery being taken to the front lines. The final photographs are more intimate pictures of refugees with their livestock, receiving food, shelter, and additional support from Red Cross workers at the Gare du Nord in Paris where the ARC had set up a Cantine pour Refugiées. Titles and captions for these final pictures included ‘A Wounded Refugee Boy’ (Figure 1) and ‘Red Cross officials taking full particulars of the refugees’, which helped bind the collection of photographs into a humanitarian narrative where innocent victims fled the ‘German Drive’ to find much appreciated respite and relief at the hands of caring and capable American Red Cross workers.9

Figure 1:
Figure 1:

The Red Cross Magazine, July 1918, 13:7, 44

Source: Public domain.

Citation: Journal of Humanitarian Affairs 3, 2; 10.7227/JHA.061

Focused on refugees arriving in Paris, this series is characteristic of Hine’s pre-war Ellis Island and tenement project images that were meant to build sympathies between spectators and the pictured subjects, and to illuminate conditions associated with being displaced.10 In a way, those earlier projects that focused on immigrant settlement might have primed the American audience to think sympathetically about refugees, making it possible to conceive of them as another set of ‘proto-Americans’. Hine happened to begin his career during a period of heightened and generally unrestricted immigration to the United States. Between 1880 and the start of World War I, over twenty-five million immigrants arrived in America.11 His first project was intended to present a counter-discourse to the rampant xenophobia that existed at the turn of the twentieth century. The Ellis Island project was done while he worked as a teacher in New York City with the primary ‘desire that [students would] have the same regard for contemporary immigrants as they have for the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock’ (Rosenblum et al., 1977: 17). Primed though his audience may have been, this earlier experience also reveals a pattern of rising and falling sympathies for newcomers. Regardless, Hine’s photographs in Europe would – as with his earlier ones in New York – focus on physical features and postures in an effort to foster identification and bonds as opposed to differences.

Consistent with Hine’s more didactic promotional pictures reproduced in the ARC Magazine and his earlier work at Ellis Island, the photographs in the refugee photo-essay include mainly women and children being ministered to and cared for by ARC workers in their paramilitary uniforms. Over the course of eight pages, the photographs systematically move in closer to the refugee subject as the pictures change from wide-angle views of ‘long processions’ of animals, carts, and people, to medium-distance images of elderly men and women riding atop hay wagons, to finally culminating in close-up pictures of individuals receiving ARC care. The photo-essay enabled the magazine’s readers to virtually travel with the refugees on their journey from the ‘brutal and merciless’ Germans toward the benevolent ARC.

According to Judith Butler, ‘there are ways of framing that will bring the human into view in its frailty and precariousness, that will allow us to stand for the value and dignity of human life, to react with outrage when lives are degraded or eviscerated without regard for their value as lives. And there are frames that foreclose responsiveness’ (2009: 77). Hine’s refugee pictures aimed to bring the fragile into view by focusing on the material conditions of being uprooted, and fostered sympathy by homing in on vulnerable lives being cared for. The ARC’s framing of the pictures in the essay further guided spectators to support the agency’s legitimacy and to identify with and value refugees as dignified humanitarian subjects. Hine and the ARC were doing this at a time in the war when the refugee figure was increasingly being disparaged within Europe.

Not long after these photographs were created the armistice was signed, thus putting an end to ARC war relief work. The reconfiguration of the humanitarian landscape that followed armistice provided Hine with ample professional and artistic opportunity to further specify the refugee subject whose conditions would still take years to improve. Hine worked to continue to frame the refugee subject as the ARC had done during the war. As important a contribution for imagining and responding to refugees these pictures could have been, impact was ultimately muted because as a result of social and political changes within the ARC and America, the refugee would eventually become visually displaced through a desire and act of focusing on other humanitarian figures.

Making Appearances: 1918–19

When hostilities came an end, so too did the ARC’s program of wartime relief. The agency, however, was not quick to quit Europe. The sense of duty that had propelled and bolstered aid during the war had not dissipated – at least not immediately – with its end. Before the war’s end, H. D. Gibson, chairman of the American Red Cross Commission to Europe, declared the needs in Europe to be ‘unlimited’ and organized a Special Survey mission ‘to have a scientifically studied picture of the comparative necessities of the various countries in the lines of work which we have been engaged’ (Gibson, in Kaplan, 1988: 67).12 Lewis Hine was invited to be the photographer on this team comprised of epidemiologists, nutrition experts, and social workers charged with recording health and welfare needs.13 Starting their tour on Armistice Day, the Special Survey provided Hine with the opportunity to apply his full set of photographic skills.14

The photographs Hine made for the Special Survey were meant to be part fact-finding and part public appeal to build support for ARC peacetime relief and reconstruction projects. To achieve this, Hine applied a different narrative structure than he employed while promoting the ARC’s war relief activities within The Red Cross Magazine. He diverged from the didactic humanitarian narrative format of photography, building instead onto the ARC’s sentimental and humanistic framing of refugees. In combining the use of photography and social sciences, which was unique in his day, Hine set his photographic approach apart from his peers. What further set him apart – and that keeps him relevant and inspirational to this day – was his capability of combining scientific inquiry with an emotionally affective eye. Photographer and theorist Allan Sekula described this quality of Hine’s practice as ‘a realist mystic’ in which ‘his realism corresponds to the status of the photograph as report, [and] his mysticism corresponds to its status as spiritual expression’ (1975: 45). Hine was certainly aware of, and in many ways appeared comfortable with, the realist and sentimental rhetorical aspects of photography. He himself had said in a Photographic Times article in 1908 that ‘good photography is a question of art’ (Gutman, 1967: 27). In his pre-war child labor and immigration work that generated passionate social and political debates, Hine recognized his photographs had to be affective as much as they had to be informative, and certain aesthetic choices could add truthfulness to his photographic depiction. He explained this in a 1935 letter to Florence Kellogg, then picture editor of The Survey:

It is for the sake of emphasis, not exaggeration, that I select the more pictorial personalities when I do the industrial portraits, for it is only in this way that I can illustrate my thesis that the human spirit is the big thing after all. With regard to this emphasis, I think we should apply the same standard for the veracity of the photograph that we do in the written work. Even in art, poetic license shouldn’t slop over into yellow journalism … I have a conviction that the design, registered in the human faces thro [sic] years of life and work, is more vital for purposes of permanent record, (tho [sic] it is more subtle perhaps), than the geometric pattern of lights and shadows that passes in the taking, and serves (so often) as mere photographic jazz. (McCausland, 1838–1995)

Hine mastered, mobilized, and combined the different aesthetic aspects of photography to great effect without feeling a need to turn his lens on atrocity or disturbing imagery – the yellow journalism he referred to – in order to shape his visual message. It was also his skill at working with different cultural groups that contributed to Hine’s successes in bringing his audience into closer proximity with distant and different others. Hine had become adept at relying on hand gestures and basic English to communicate his intentions while working on his first photography project at Ellis Island in 1906. The cumbersome large-format camera technology at the time required Hine to secure a high degree of consent on the part of those he photographed. This, along with his ‘honesty and simple dignity’ enabled him to put subjects he met along his travels across Europe at ease in front of the lens (Rosenblum et al., 1977: 9).15 In this way, Hine worked to create photographs that would educate his American audience of the hard realities and miserable conditions of (post)war life and engender their sympathies.

Employing posture as a visual language, Hine made use of cross-culturally relevant symbolism in the stances and configurations of his portrait compositions to enhance Americans’ ability to relate with people from afar. Concentrating his camera on women, children, and the elderly, Hine positioned the groups and individuals in his pictures in such a way as to disarm and to generate positive feelings. Often repeated is the figure of the pieta. For a predominantly Christian America, the apparent intimacy and careful attention suggested by a Madonna and child image signaled virtue and preeminent importance of a mother’s care. Hine’s pictures often conveyed tenderness and protection among adults and children. He also pictured people in the midst of various tasks suggestive of capability and willingness to actively better their own conditions.

Hine was ascribing the term ‘refugee’ to numerous captions of the pictures he made in France during the war and on the Special Survey tour after the war. It is unknown what definition or guidance Hine relied on to make his determination as to who was a refugee or not, but his photographs – perhaps even in spite of himself – contributed to defining the term. The content and themes in Hine’s refugee-labeled photographs contain elements that are repeated in pictures of today’s refugees. He frequently pictured family groups, often with children predominantly featured, burdened under the weight of their worldly possessions as they traveled cross-country by foot along dusty or muddy roadways, or along the rail lines, reminiscent of images from refugees traveling through Europe in more recent years.

Hine’s caption ‘Refugee family en route somewhere. Skoplie, Serbia’ (Figure 2) gestures towards the uncertainty of the undertaking of the elderly woman and her two young companions. The combination of the photograph and caption further suggests that the insecurity of the journey presented itself as a better option than the threats faced back home. The ongoing need to attend to basic necessities of rest and replenishment are addressed in ‘Refugees cooking meal on road to Gradletza, Serbia’ (Figure 3).

Figure 2:
Figure 2:

‘Refugee family en route somewhere. Skoplie, Serbia’

Source: General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church (GCAH-79306).

Citation: Journal of Humanitarian Affairs 3, 2; 10.7227/JHA.061

Figure 3:
Figure 3:

‘Refugees cooking meal on road to Gradletza, Serbia’

Source: General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church (GCAH-79299).

Citation: Journal of Humanitarian Affairs 3, 2; 10.7227/JHA.061

Picking up the repeated theme of travel with ‘Refugees on top of box car, exposed to all kinds of weather, returning to their home. Strumitza, Serbia’ (General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church: GCAH-79295), this photograph depicts the risks great numbers of people are willing to take. On one hand, such images speak to the enormity of the impact of conflict, compelling hundreds of thousands of people to flee violence. On the other hand, such photographs could well have supported rhetoric of hordes, deluges, and waves that assumed disruption, chaos, and fear – and aggression, signified by the crowds of males.

Refugees were an unexpected consequence of the war and had emerged as a ‘liminal figure who threatened social stability partly by virtue of the sheer number of displaced persons, but also because the refugee was difficult to accommodate within conventional classification such as assigned people to a specific social class’ (Gatrell, 2014). Having fled violence or persecution, refugees were not the same as immigrants who moved with a plan for permanent settlement. Early on in the war refugees were largely accepted in neighboring European countries as ‘hapless wartime victims’ (Gatrell, 2014). As the war continued, and as countries scrambled to accommodate the growing numbers of people who were putting a strain on economic and social structures, the image of the refugee began to change. Almost as if to respond to such anxiety, Hine made the pieta pictures and also photographed refugees orderly participating in routine activities, including registration. ‘Returned refugees to Pordenone showing girl of nineteen between two women of sixty-four (in front) and seventy-four (behind)’ (Kaplan, 1988) depicts the administration refugees were subjected to, but also their discipline and decorum.

Often expressing hope or at least positive qualities of perseverance and ingenuity, Hine did not deny that the experiences of refugees were without perils and sorrow. In one pieta-style photograph, the caption references the starvation and death of ‘many children’ over the course of the previous three years, with the most recent two deaths having taken place in the six days that came before being photographed (Doherty, 1978: microfiche 7A7, 77:175:124). While Hine would never have made photographs of such horrors – he did not picture atrocity to shock viewers – this example points to the limits of photography.16 Hine depicted the smoke and dust, the tatters and the makeshifts shelters, and the make-do conditions, but his photographs were unable to transmit the smells, the sounds, the anxieties, the distresses, the grief, and the exhaustion of refugeedom.17 The photographs also obscure the distinctions between the stateless and the internally displaced, or the refugee from the local resident, each affected in their own way by the war. Other than his captions, there is little that distinguishes the refugees he photographed from other war-touched civilians he portrayed across Europe. Hine’s captions remain mute on the loss of political representation, or of the difficulties faced by some political, ethnic or religious groups versus others in (re)settling. This lack of detail may be the result of the broad and imprecise concept of refugees Hine was operating with. It is also a sign of the limits of the humanitarian imagination – including Hine’s own.

The philosopher Richard Rorty identified stories and representations of this sort to be a form of ‘sentimental education’ with the potential ‘to expand the reference of terms “our kind of people” and “people like us”’ (1998: 123). According to this thinking, concentrating on the ‘sort of education [that] sufficiently acquaints people of different kinds with one another so that they are less tempted to think of those different from themselves as only quasi-human’ offers more promise for a better, kinder world than appeals to rational moral arguments (Rorty, 1998: 122–3). Building on Rorty, visual theorist Sharon Sliwinski persuasively outlines that spectators’ ‘passionate responses’ to visual images of suffering and calamity, such as outrage, disgust, sorrow, or frustration, are aesthetic experiences necessary to preceded actions aimed at bettering humanity (2011: 5, 23). For Sliwinski, the camera centralizes the importance of appearance, recognition, and perception through ‘world spectator’s’ faculty of judgment and subsequent engagement in the civil space opened in the photographic situation. It is through these sensorial reactions that emotion can turn into political and social actions.

Hine built his career on creating photographic narratives of the kind meant to expand the term ‘one of us’ as he consciously worked to challenge negative perceptions of newcomers to America. While little evidence exists in the historical record as to Hine’s intentions, it is conceivable he aimed for similar with the reconstruction survey images. Indeed, although published a couple years after the Special Survey mission, Homer Folks echoed Rorty when he wrote in his text The Human Costs of the War about Hine’s role on the team to keep ‘a record of human condition and needs with his camera … of various types of persons seen on our travels … to see that these people are of the same kinds as ourselves, and to realize, not only that we are our brothers’ keepers, but that the brothers are well worth keeping’ (Folks, 1920: 5). Folks published this in 1920, after attentions were turning away from the aftermath of war in Europe and as a corrective to misrepresentations of the conditions and experience of refugees in popular media.

Despite the promise Hine’s Special Survey photographs afforded in terms of inspiring the welcome of refugees into the fold of American social conscience and moral obligation, the opportunity was effectively muted. Fewer than two dozen of the approximately one thousand pictures Hine made as part of the Special Survey Mission in Italy, Serbia, Greece, northern France, and Belgium would ever make it into any of the ARC’s publications. When they did, the photographs were only tangentially articulated to the ongoing needs of war-effected Europeans, and more tangentially still to the unique situation of refugees, making it easier for refugees to be considered equivalent to immigrants.

Displacing Refugees: 1919–20

The Red Cross Magazine started in 1919 with a message both of support and of appeal to continue providing aid to Europeans still reeling under the effects of four years of war. Solidarity with Europeans was clearly voiced in this January editorial entitled ‘America must “carry on”’: ‘The duty of the American people is plain … in the track of this war the task of reconstruction is greater than it has ever been … what they require from us is food, clothing, medical and surgical assistance, to give them strength for labor.’ The statement however also betrayed the fact that ongoing relief efforts – now reformulated as reconstruction assistance – were facing debate. After the war’s end, ‘American popular and political enthusiasm for a major postwar humanitarian intervention quickly eroded’ (Irwin, 2013: 142). The passionate support of wartime relief did not continue once peace settled in. Accompanied by public fatigue with international assistance, the ARC also faced debate within its own organization as to its proper peacetime role. Patriotic duty, the sense that carried the ARC’s relief activities throughout the war, was being replaced as the year went on by nationalistic fervor and a call to refocus benevolent activities on more local needs. The ARC found itself struggling against competing interests throughout 1919 and 1920, with refugees eventually being outmaneuvered by a narrowing of humanitarian idealism.

During the war, The Red Cross Magazine had been a beacon of the ARC’s expanding abilities. By the early months of peace, it became a place in which existential disagreements about the agency’s role played out between its pages. In the May 1919 issue, two articles, both featuring Hine’s photographs, exemplify the ARC’s changing direction. In ‘The Awakening of the Children’ by J. W. Studebaker, the National Director of the Junior Red Cross, three photographs Hine made while on the Special Survey were reproduced among a collection of pictures of American children involved in various benevolent craft activities. While the article references refugees, its focus is on the way in which the war encouraged ‘American boys and girls take responsibilities as little citizens of the world’ (Studebaker, 1919: 7).

It is in this peacetime, interwar period that the child surfaced as a universal humanitarian subject. During a time in which there were political and social tensions emerging in response to rising Bolshevism, the child appealed to American aid workers who pressed for continued activity particularly in Eastern Europe where needs were greatest. The child represented an innocent, apolitical subject, an object of pity that transcended political and religious propensities (Gorin, 2014).18 Refugees themselves were seen as too politically tarnished, carrying with them the complicated baggage of (former and future) nationalities, and of political and economic necessities that could translate into claims of rights and entitlements for displaced people.

While the European child emerged as a universal humanitarian subject and the object in the construction of an American humanitarian identity, the figure of the American child further displaced the European refugees from view. In the same May 1919 edition, the article ‘The Right to Youth’ by Constance Wagoner turned attention to an issue that took on new significance in the United States after that nation’s youth had just been asked to risk the ultimate sacrifice in a distant war. The article focused on renewed calls to put an end to child labor. It exclusively featured Hine’s photographs made for the NCLC in the years before he went overseas. The photographs are framed by the appeal: ‘Is the child at home, the soldier of the future, less than the American fighter in France?’ (Wagoner, 1919: 75).19

Ironically, it was Hine’s own photographs of children that displaced the refugee subject. Hine’s photographs are extensively featured, and take on a bold new life in Volume 15 (1920). As the ARC responds to the waning interest in international affairs, Hine’s photographic skills are put to use reshaping the image of the ARC. With ‘Glimpses of the New Red Cross at Home’ and ‘Helping Children to Health’, Hine is instrumental in redirecting general humanitarian sentiment, reinforcing it along domestic lines. It is almost as through there is no room in the American humanitarian interest to have genuine concern and interest in the wellbeing of near and distant suffering. The displacement was not immediate, nor was it simply a matter of a gradual reduction in visibility in the Magazine’s pages. Consistent with its image as a caring agency, the ARC presented refugees and others in Europe as being well on the way to self-sufficiency and renewed productivity. In July 1919, one of Hine’s refugee photographs was reproduced in ‘Taking the West to Monastir’, an article that reported on the successes of an ARC agricultural program in Serbia. The article worked to distance Americans from the people of Eastern Europe by confirming that life for Serbians and their neighbors was quickly improving, enough that Americans could return their attentions in a more inward-looking direction. While there were attempts at maintaining a foothold in Europe, the push for a more limited position in the world would ultimately prevail.

During this first year of peace, it had become increasingly important for the ARC to support changes in populist views as the agency continued to have its legitimacy challenged. Early in 1920, it was charged with financial ‘extravagances and other abuses’ (Irwin, 2013). Although eventually exonerated, the damage had been done, resulting in a dramatic seventy-five percent reduction in membership during the November drive. Even The Red Cross Magazine folded by the year’s end. This was also a time when the ARC made moves to have the United States become the home of the League of Red Cross societies – a peacetime arm of the Red Cross movement. The ICRC leaders in Geneva were outraged that the ARC extended invitations only to Allied countries, a partisanship that went against the ICRC’s fundamental principal of neutrality. Again, the ARC’s reputation was negatively affected. Given the changing political landscape in Europe, the ARC’s damaged reputation, and the dramatic drop in popularity among the American people, it became increasingly reasonable – from the ARC’s perspective – to turn its attentions inward.

By 1920, the visual displacement of the refugee was complete. ARC Commissioner to Europe, Robert Olds, explained at the start of that year the difficulties the ARC was facing at home and abroad as he editorialized, ‘this is a Presidential [election] year and … many people in our country are saying America, and not Europe, should engage their attention from now on’ (Irwin, 2013: 164). Enculturation and indoctrination began to take precedence in the Magazine with articles such as ‘She Makes Aliens into Citizens’ appearing in January 1920. The article ‘I Americanize Myself’ was directed at new immigrants and ‘you men and women of the Red Cross and you who are engaged in Americanization work’ (February 1920).20 During that year, references to refugees remained, but these were relegated to single columns in the back pages. Long gone was the multi-page photo-essay of the noble and valiant refugee. Indeed, the wartime refugees – hundreds of thousands of whom were still seeking permanent settlements across Europe – had become visually displaced while still living with the consequences of having been territorially displaced.

Hine’s photographs of refugees and of American child laborers changed in terms of their news value for the ARC after the war. His pictures published in 1920 were all made during or – in the case of the American photographs – before the war. The decision to include them in the ARC Magazine only after the war was the result of an ideological shift. Following the loss of many young lives overseas, American youth became of greater social and protectionist interest. Hine’s photographs of refugees were reduced in terms of their news value as they competed for attention with more American-centric topics. The visual displacement would have dire consequences for those in Europe still struggling to find a place to call home.

As transoceanic travel became easier after the war’s end, North America became a destination for Europeans who still faced the relentless after-effects of war (Ngai, 2004). Security and economic concerns were central to a growing negative discourse. The ‘waves’ of refugees finding their way to American shores were, according to the rising rhetoric, not to be trusted, just as ‘hyphenated Americans’ were presumed to be disloyal during the war (Ngai, 2004: 19). Lawmakers in the United States further claimed that the economy could not absorb any more newcomers. The workforce built in the pre-war immigration period was at optimal level, refugees from Europe would only pose a strain on the system. There was no longer a need (or room) for mass employment. It was not only the United States that was discouraging Europeans from coming to America. Canada, supporting the same rhetoric as its southern neighbors, took the step in 1920 to ‘prohibit any moderation of immigration restrictions on behalf of refugees from Central and Eastern Europe, now in Canadian ports seeking admission to the country’ (The New York Times, 1920: 14). The visual displacement of refugees from influential and broad-reaching magazines, as that of the American Red Cross, contributed to a conflation of refugees with other foreigners, allowing them to be subject to immigration laws, which themselves were dramatically changing in this moment. In 1921, a two-year moratorium on immigration was put in place (Ngai, 2004: 20). This was a precursor to the 1924 Johnson–Reed Act that would set country quotas and create a system of visas that continue in slightly altered forms to this day.

Conclusion

Despite Hine’s esteemed status, the photographs he made while working overseas for the American Red Cross at the tail end of World War I remain virtually unknown. Regardless, his photographs of World War I refugees are an early example of visual depictions of conditions and experiences that have since been reproduced in many forms in the wake of crumbling empires and fragile (postcolonial) nation states over the course of the past century. Indeed, Hine’s stylistic approach to framing refugees is recognizable to this day, with the journey being the defining characteristic of displacement (rather than the political, social, economic, or environmental sources) and with aid agencies centrally featured providing aid to forcibly displaced individuals. Taking a historical look at representations of refugees and a critical look at Hine’s World War I photography made for the American Red Cross thickens what has otherwise remained a very thin area of scholarship on this collection of the celebrated photographer’s work. Likewise, these photographs take on a new significance in the current era of unparalleled global migration, providing an important lens for gaining perspective on the present.

Over the past century, the figure of the refugee has remained problematic. The example of Hine’s photography and its (limited) use by the ARC is characteristic of the recurrent rise and fall in sentiments towards refugees. Even the framing of Hine’s portfolio of European images as ‘lost’ in institutional memory, in the archives, and in its underrepresentation in Hine scholarship (its treatment as an outlier in his corpus) is part of the photographic situation of refugeedom in which the refugee subject continues to appear as challenging, if not disruptive. More pointedly, the general absence of refugees in historical and political scholarship has been described as a ‘production of neglect’, the result of repeatedly regarding refugee crises as exceptional rather than recurrent and linked to broader historical events (Gatrell, 2013: 11; Scott, 1988: 84). Hine’s pictures may have been obscured behind a uniquely convoluted cataloguing system, but the photographs were not unknown to scholars and practitioners. Rather, they were undervalued, neglected, and treated as ambiguous outliers in similar ways that refugees are treated in the social and political sphere. In diminishing their visibility, the refugee subject and the unique conditions of refugeedom are obscured, enabling the refugee to be viewed merely as immigrants, or worse yet, ignored altogether (Madokoro, 2016: 219).

As there emerges growing interest in histories of refugee experiences, the corpus of archival photographs depicting so-called ‘refugees’ itself expands the civil space afforded by the camera. Engaging with these pictures made in the past from a position of the present, enable us to rethink the opportunities and limits of our contemporary frames: regarding refugees and regarding humanitarian aid. Who are refugees? What are defining characteristics of a refugee? Who is responsible for producing or supporting them? The value of the work of academic study of refugee histories is said to be in ‘[making] its way into wider debates, whether through policy consultation or the media’ (Stone, 2018: 106). The same holds true for the value of visual histories while also challenging scholars and practitioners to question practices of representation and the role of visuals in mediating social relations within the photographic situation of refugeedom.

Notes

1

Hine’s first project was photographing immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. From there he worked with a network of social reformers, particularly associated with The Survey, a sociological revue, and the National Child Labor Committee. Some of his most recognized work comes from this latter project which he ended a few months prior to being hired by the ARC to go overseas.

2

The Library of Congress holds the bulk of Hine’s European photographs in the American Red Cross collection, which was deposited there in 1944. The Eastman Museum, in Rochester, New York, and the Methodist Church each also have smaller deposits of original Hine prints and negatives from his time in Europe.

3

Other notables included: Ida Tarbell and William Allen White (Irwin, 2013: 84). Hine was one of thirty-seven photographers the ARC hired to record their overseas activities.

4

By 1913–14, Hine was ‘considered the most extensive and successful photographer of social welfare work in the country’ (Rosenblum et al., 1977: 20).

5

During his first six months in Europe, he was photographing activities of the Bureau des Refugiées et Relief, the Bureau des Mutilés, and the Children’s Bureau in and around Paris. Given the rank of Captain, Hine was afforded many liberties in his choice of photographic subject matter that his civilian photographer counterparts did not (Kaplan, 1988: 65). Still under the restrictions of the military censors, Hine was guided in his photographic subject matter by the fact that he was employed by the ARC.

6

The Library of Congress holds the bulk of Hine’s European photographs, which are within the American Red Cross collection. The ARC deposited their collection with the LOC in 1944. The George Eastman Museum, in Rochester, New York, and the Methodist Church each also have smaller deposits of original Hine prints and negatives from his time in Europe.

7

In 1988, when re-discovering Hine’s photographs in the Library of Congress and other collections, Kaplan resorted to comparing written notations accompanying the prints or negatives Hine made, enabling handwriting comparisons to other known samples. She also traced the unbroken lineage of photographs or collections of pictures associated with a particular publisher or project. Kaplan also isolated several of Hine’s photographs solely on his characteristic style, which I have also done in identifying certain photographs that only appear in the Magazine and not in Hine archival collections.

9

The final five photographs are stylistically consistent with Hine’s corpus. I have only been able to locate two of the five photographs in the ARC’s collection of photographs held by the Library of Congress. Neither identify Hine as the photographer, but the style of picture and captioning strongly suggest these were made by Hine (LC-A6196- 4246 [P&P] and LC-A6196- 4799 [P&P]).

10

Hine photographed at Ellis Island from 1906–09 and again in 1926; for the NCLC his first project was New York Tenement Homework (1908); additional photography projects included photography for Charles Weller’s book Neglected Neighbors: Stories of Life in the Alleys, Tenements and Shanties of the National Capital (1909; Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Company) and a special feature entitled The Pittsburg Survey (1909) about the working conditions, particularly the workday length, of the largely immigrant labor force in the steel mills and mines for the socially progressive magazine Charities and The Commons (later renamed The Survey), which led Hine to been hired on as staff photographer.

11

In 1907 alone, a year when Hine was making photographs at Ellis Island, over one million immigrants passed through the processing center.

12

As quoted in a letter from H. D. Gibson, chairman of the ARC Commission to Europe, to Lieut. Col. Homer Folks who was Director of the Department of General Relief for the ARC in Europe before becoming director of the Special Survey Mission.

13

From November 1918 to February 1919, Hine traveled as part of the Special Survey team in the Balkans. This was followed by a quick ten-day trip in April 1919 through northern France and Belgium to survey reconstruction needs along what had been the Western Front. Hine made between 1,300 and 1,500 prints and negatives while working overseas with the ARC. Approximately 1,000 of these were made in Italy, Serbia, Greece, and Belgium between November 1918 and April 1919 (Kaplan, 1988: 10).

14

In the end, we know little of Hine’s personal views about the European-ARC pictures. In reference to a post-war project about the dignity of labor, Hine wrote in 1936 that the European pictures were ‘negative’, but also akin to a ‘visual joy-ride’ (Gutman, 1989: 13). Homer Folks wrote in a letter to his wife, ‘I don’t think Hine was ever so happy in his life as here’ (Gutman, 1967: 26–7). This reflects a paradox that has become a point of critique against more recent conflict and humanitarian photographers such as Sebastião Salgado and James Nachtwey (Linfield, 2010).

15

Walter Rosenblum knew Hine through their association with the Photo League in New York City.

16

Speaking in 1911, Hine said: ‘So many times have social workers told me that photographs of healthy, happy children do not make effective appeals in our child labor [sic] work, that I am sometimes inclined to think we must mutilate these infants in industry before the shame of it can be driven home’ (Hine, 1911: 121–2).

17

Historian Peter Gatrell (2005) notes that ‘refugeedom’, a term he translated from a popular Russian word, has been used to refer to the conditions and experience of being a refugee since 1915.

18

In relation to scholarship on humanitarian photography, the 1984 Ethiopian famine is often cited as the originator of the trope of the starving child. Suzanne Franks (2013) recognizes that the 1967–70 famine in Biafra just as easily can be, and is, seen by many – particularly those for whom those images form part of their living memory – as the source for this visual cliché. Histories of humanitarian photography have been sourcing its deeper roots (Gorin, 2014; Fehrenbach, 2015; Kind-Kovács, 2016).

19

The illustrator of the lead image (Charles A. Winter) – a sentimental painting of a teacher surrounded by her doe-eyed charges – is the only artist credited revealing the lower value afforded to photography, despite the apparent recognition of Hine’s reputation. The photographs are part of the NCLC collection.

20

There was also a recurring series in 1920 entitled ‘It’s Mighty Good as It Is, But It Could Be a Better America’, a particularly courageous section that tried to air otherwise silenced issues on race, class, gender, and age discrimination.

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Gutman, J. M. (1989), ‘The Worker and the Machine: Lewis Hine's National Research Project Photographs’, Afterimage, 17:2, 1215.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hunt, L. (2007), Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.).

  • Hutchison, J. F. (1997), Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross (Boulder, CO: Westview Press).

  • Irwin, J. F. (2013), Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jenkinson, J. (2016), ‘ Soon Gone, Long Forgotten: Uncovering British Responses to Belgian Refugees during the First World WarImmigrants & Minorities: Historical Studies in Ethnicity, Migration and Diaspora, 34: 2, 10112.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jenkinson, J. (ed.) (2018), Belgian Refugees in First World War Britain (London: Routledge).

  • Kaplan, D. (1988), Lewis Hine in Europe: The Lost Photographs (New York: Abbeville Press).

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kirkwood, S. (2019), ‘ History in the Service of Politics: Constructing Narratives of History during the European Refugee “Crisis”’, Political Psychology, 40: 2, 297313.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Linfield, S. (2010), The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press).

  • Madokoro, L. (2016), Elusive Refuge: Chinese Migrants in the Cold War (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press).

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    The Red Cross Magazine, July 1918, 13:7, 44

    Source: Public domain.

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    ‘Refugee family en route somewhere. Skoplie, Serbia’

    Source: General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church (GCAH-79306).

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    ‘Refugees cooking meal on road to Gradletza, Serbia’

    Source: General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church (GCAH-79299).

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