The Big Issue : Edition 483
THEBIGISSUE1–14MAY2015 25 GHOSTISLANDON A SITE OFTEN VISITED BY TOURISTS, A PHOTOGRAPHER EXPLORES THE MANY MOODS OF OFF- LIMITS BUILDINGS LEFT TO DECAY, YET STILL WITH THE UNSEEN PRESENCE OF LONG-GONE PEOPLE. BETWEEN 1892 AND 1954, Ellis Island, close to Manhattan, was the busiest immigrant inspection station in the US. Since then, most of the island’s buildings, including the Immigrants’ Hospital, have been idle and allowed to decay. American photographer Stephen Wilkes says that when he first entered the hospital buildings, “the architecture was 50% the work of man, 50% the triumph of nature; like a Mayan ruin... But, although debris littered the hallways and I was wearing a respirator to protect me from the asbestos, I could feel the spirit of the people who stayed here... I felt the presence of humanity in the empty rooms, an energy.” Over five years, Wilkes made the former hospital, where children and adults who failed initial health inspections on arrival were detained and evaluated, his personal project. He was granted access to places few ever entered, and visited again and again to capture details. “I really went in-depth. Photographed every corner, every crevice in every imaginable light during all seasons; waiting four years to get a picture with snow. The history just gleamed off the building.” Wilkes captured the island on large- format film exactly the way he found it: “The act of discovery and photography occurred simultaneously.” His work (and resulting book, Ghosts of Freedom) helped raise awareness and money for the preservation of the structures. There was something else: strange things happened during the project. “I’d photograph a mirror (reflecting the Statue of Liberty, a monolithic paradox for those trapped next to it) that had hung on a wall for 50 years, only to return to find its shattered remains. Captured a shoe that mysteriously disappeared, though no one entered after me. The fact that the place now gets renovated therefore feels as a triumph with irony. The hospital is now accessible to the public for small-group hard-hat tours, but will never look as it does in these photographs.” by Jorrit R Dijkstra » See also stephenwilkes.com and ellisislandghosts.com.