A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Framing Disability, Developing Race: Photography as Eugenic Technology

Jay Dolmage, University of Waterloo

Enculturation: http://www.enculturation.net/framingdisability

(Published: March 11, 2014)

“Whatever a picture is…we ourselves are in it.”
W.J.T. Mitchell

[Author's Note: "Full visual descriptions of all images are provided for accessibility. Please click on the footnotes underneath the images and their credits to access these descriptions."]

In this essay, I look back at photographs taken at Ellis Island in the very early part of the 20th century, an era, described by Barthes, as an age of explosions--explosions not only of population and immigration but also of the personal into the public and of technophilia, best metaphorized by the explosion of a camera’s flash bulb illuminating a new world. I am specifically interested in the ways that photography became a rhetorical tool of eugenicists and immigration restrictionists, and the ways that ideas about bodily fitness and defect drove the development of the technology.1

In Cara Finnegan’s terms, I develop a “rhetorical history of the visual,” in that my project “relies upon critiques of vision and visuality to illuminate the complex dynamics of power and knowledge at play in and around images” (198). In terms of method, I take up Walter Benjamin’s call for studying photographs—in the age of mechanical reproduction—in terms of their production, reproduction, and circulation. Yet, I also attend to what David Bate calls the “surfaces of emergence” in that I focus on not just a group of photos, but also the connected practices, institutions, and relationships that must be considered when undertaking an archaeology of photography (4).

The photographs under study, I suggest, are emblematic of an important rhetorical moment—the emergence of the American eugenics movement. They are also charts of an important rhetorical space—Ellis Island. In crafting this “rhetorical history of the visual,” I thus specifically link these images to the rhetoric of eugenics and to the social and cultural construction of categories of race and disability in this era—categories that still adhere today. I specifically argue that these photographs ought be understood as products of a technology—photography—that created a new archive and index for sorting and classifying human bodies in this era. Indeed, Ellis Island, and the photographs taken there, actually helped frame and develop both race and disability, contingently.


At Ellis Island, the key triumph of eugenics was the creation of new categories of disability, and photography readily facilitated these inventions. The terms “moron” and “feeble-minded” were both created at Ellis Island to classify immigrants. A regime of literacy and I.Q testing, but also a regime of vision, solidified these terms, terms that are still used to this day, despite their racist and pseudo-scientific roots. Perhaps the most overt example of this fusion can be found in the 1918 Manual of the Mental Examination of Aliens, published by the U.S Public Health Service for the use of medical officers performing medical examinations at Ellis Island.

Walter Benjamin has argued that one of the earliest functions of photography was as a physiognomic tool, to catalogue the human body in a way that translated embodied signs into insinuations of a mental hierarchy: “up to the highest representation of civilization, and…down to the idiot” (“Small History” 252). This “physiognomic photography” was then linked to “comparative photography” which made all photography a “training manual”: “just as there is comparative anatomy [there is] comparative photography, adopting a scientific standpoint” (“Small History” 253). In its classification of disability, the Manual is an example par excellence of this physiognomic, comparative photography.

The document clearly outlines a visual grammar for discerning “feeble-mindedness.”3 This grammar, providentially, could lead inspectors to any number of possible rhetorical usages.The Manual first offers a warning:

A great many feeble-minded persons on ordinary inspection present no physical signs whatever [sic] which would indicate real lack of intelligence. Nevertheless, the examiner should have made close examination of facial expressions, both in normal and abnormal persons, especially as to whether they might be gloomy, sad, anxious, apprehensive, elated, hostile, confused, sleepy, cyanotic, exalted, arrogant, conceited, restless, impatient, etc. An examination of the photographs which appear herewith may prove interesting and instructive in this connection. (13)

The photographs alluded to in this passage show several men (and, on other pages not shown, women) labeled as varying grades of “imbecile” or “moron” (see figures 2-5). The images make direct connections between facial characteristics and defect. As Elspeth Brown suggests, eugenicists at this time assumed that “photography could map intelligence” (118).4 And as Martin Elks has shown, there was a clear visual protocol used to classify the “feeble-minded” through photography in this era (381).5 Such protocols, as evident in the Manual, were clearly produced and reproduced at Ellis Island.

In the top left image, we see an 11-year old boy with close-cropped hair, wearing a striped short, labeled a 'low-grade imbecile,' a hand reaching from out of the frame to hold up his chin, his eyes directed to our right; in the top right image, we see a 20-year old man with a dark mustache, wearing a suit jacket, labeled

“Figures 2-5” (Knox, Manual 13)2

Choreographed by the Manual, the physical inspection process through which newly-arrived immigrants were paraded at Ellis Island was also markedly visual. Victor Safford, a medical doctor and officer at Ellis Island, writes in his memoir about his experience as an inspector. He explains, “a man’s posture, a movement of his head or the appearance of his ears…may disclose more than could be detected by puttering around a man’s chest with a stethoscope for a week, [thus] an attempt was made to utilize this general scheme” at Ellis Island (247).6 I have written at length elsewhere about the visuality of this inspection process, how inspectors utilized what Anne-Emanuelle Birn interestingly calls “snapshot diagnosis” to evaluate the mental and physical state of the incoming immigrant (see "Disabled Upon Arrival ").7 This “snapshot diagnosis” was indexed directly to the actual snapshots of immigrants in the Manual. 8 Like in the automobile assembly plants being built across the country at this time, or as in a photomat, “defect” was visually developed and manufactured at Ellis Island.9 The small eugenic idea that a person’s intelligence (and even their human worth) can be seen quickly in their face and captured in a “snapshot,” exploded into a much larger, pseudo-scientific, enforceable truth, an American social value.

Susan Sontag suggests that “the industrialization of photography permitted its rapid absorption into rational—that is, bureaucratic—ways of running society” (21). She has also noted that “photographs were enrolled in the service of important institutions of control…as symbolic objects and as pieces of information” (21). This industrializing tendency of photography is obvious in the use of photographs of mentally “inferior” types to guide line inspection at Ellis Island. As part of the Manual as well as other texts to be subsequently discussed, the photographs of the “feeble-minded” functioned bureaucratically as means of control. And their “subjects” became spectacles of rejection. As emphasized below, these techniques and documents rhetorically influenced the ways that everyone, from eugenics proponents, to Ellis Island inspectors, to common citizens, looked at one another.


The Manual did not work alone in shaping attitudes and judgments about disability. Another series of photographs extended these attitudes and judgments across American culture, making every non-white alien a possible eugenic menace, a body and mind to be framed according to criminological, pathological, and even freakshow referents. As Nancy Ordover explains, “American eugenicists, armed with charts, photographs, and even human skulls, were there to provide the visual and mathematical support that rendered racism scientifically valid and politically viable” (9). In this section, I show some of the key ways that photography provided this grounding and developed eugenic rhetorics that linger to this day.

Beginning in 1905, Augustus Sherman, an Ellis Island clerk, took a series of pictures of immigrants who had been stranded at Ellis Island.10 Sherman took more than 250 of what he called “immigrant type photographs” between 1905 and 1920. These images became incredibly popular at the time; they circulated as postcards, were framed and displayed in prominent locations, and were reprinted in periodicals, religious texts, and governmental reports. The majority of photographs simply capture an ethnic group or racial category on film, and label the subjects—for instance as “Russian Hebrews,” “South Italians,” “North African Immigrant” (see below); or sometimes more generally as “Eastern European Immigrant” (see below).

As Ellis Island Chief Registry Clerk from 1892 to 1925, Sherman had special access to potential subjects for his photographs. He particularly sought out the strange—“there could never be […] anything too exotic to capture on plate” (Temple 16). As Andrea Temple writes, he told staff, “if you see an interesting face […] contact Gus Sherman immediately!” (16). While preoccupied with the strange, Sherman photographed only detained immigrants—those who could sit still for a long photo shoot because their future was uncertain. These were people who had been already processed through the snapshot diagnosis of the line inspection and were seen as somehow questionable. Because they were, at least temporarily, not allowed into America, they were available for further viewing and “capture” on film. And because they had nowhere to go, they could be made to sit or stand long enough to be photographed.

This image is labeled 'North African Immigrant,' and the picture shows a seemingly middle-aged man with a beard, a knit or woven hat, and a large hooded jacket, frayed at the bottom and closed with buttons at the front. His legs are bare. He also has a tag affixed to his jacket with the number 2 printed on it.

“North African Immigrant” 11 National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument, Pub Dom, Sher 24.4A-6

This image is labeled 'Eastern European Immigrant,' and the picture shows a young man with a beard, a woven hat with a wide brim angled to the side of his head. He wears a sort of cape, a vest, and a white shirt tied at the neck. He plays a flute that he holds in front of him.

“Eastern European Immigrant”12 National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument, Pub Dom, Sher 23.1A-8

Because of the long photographic process, the cumbersomeness of the technology, Sherman was compelled to capture subjects in a literal state of limbo—without a country. Sherman thus photographed his subjects in their full ethnic costume, capturing them in their traditional dress often for the last time—before they were rejected and sent home, or made their way to New York.13 As Andrea Temple writes, Augustus Sherman “captured these people as they would never look again, as they might want to forget they had ever looked” (17).

Sherman’s photographs are certainly examples of the emerging form of “documentary photography” in this era. This “documentary photography” was also popularized by Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis. These two men also had close connections to Ellis Island and the immigrant experience, and both are most famous now for their bleak photographs documenting the impacts of industrialization and urbanization in America. Yet as Peter Mesenholler has argued, a key distinction exists between the photographs of Hine and those of Sherman. Sherman created an inventory of over 250 photos, each labeled according to race and ethnicity. In its cataloguing and sorting of bodies, Sherman’s propensity for human documentation thus overlaps with the rhetorical function of the Manual photos, as physiognomic and comparative texts. In addition, while Sherman’s photographs are part of a program of assimilation, they are also part of a process of abjection. As noted by the unnamed author of a 1907 National Geographic article featuring Sherman’s photographs, the immigrants photographed are depicted “just as they landed, most of them being still clad in their native costume, which will be discarded, however, within a few hours” ("Some" 317). A significant power of Sherman’s photograph then are their propensity to capture a truly liminal moment and space. The pictures speak at once to the foreign-ness from which an immigrant has come, and to the demand (however impossible) to shed this history; capturing the edge between the two imperatives. While Hine represented immigrants as victims of industrialization, then, Sherman represented immigrants as types—his photographs serves as a form of “human documentation” and as “effigies of people who have no social status” (Mesenholler 19).


Looking at the somewhat simple “immigrant type photographs” of Sherman, we may think a rather harmless cataloguing is all that is at work. Yet with its propensity for racial and ethnic labeling, the publication and early circulation of Sherman’s photographs also contributed to a system of knowledge production based on racial classification, especially as it functioned in relation to other documents published at that time. Sherman’s pictures were first widely published in 1906 in a book entitled Aliens or Americans? by Howard Grose, a Baptist minister. This book devotes chapters to describing given races of the “new immigrants” and making finer distinctions within races. For instance, in the chapter on “Italians,” Grose describes Italians in this particular way:

Most northern Italians are of the Alpine race and have short, broad skulls; southern Italians are of the Mediterranean race and have long, narrow skulls. Between the two lies a broad strip of country, peopled by those of mixed blood (132).

While allowing for variation within each “race,” the book advocates for a fine set of divisions within each group and a multiplication of differentializing characteristics. The question posed by the title of the book then is actually just a rhetorical one. These are all Aliens, until they can be fully converted to Christianity. Each chapter of the book is admittedly followed by a set of questions, designed to reinforce Grose’s didactic message about the need to religiously convert the masses. But in this school-book format, we also recognize that the question of the title of the book applies to each of the pictures, as in a test—look at each image, and you decide whether these people belong. Clearly, the images are meant to look foreign—the viewer is meant to understand that these people are Aliens, not American until they can be converted. In this way, the diagnostic glance of the immigration inspector is transferred to the reader, to all good Christian Americans. Sherman’s photographs accompany each chapter, and provide visual evidence of racial differentiation.

Sherman's photographs were also circulating when the “Dictionary of Races or Peoples,” presented as part of the 1911 Dillingham Immigration Commission to congress, was published. The “Dictionary” was co-authored by a group of immigration restrictionists, the Immigration Restriction League, many of whom had links to the American eugenics movement. This dictionary was used as a guide by the immigration service at Ellis Island and elsewhere from 1911 until the early 1950s. While it is impossible to know exactly how the two artifacts were put to use, it is quite possible that immigration agents, on a daily basis, referenced both the “Dictionary” and Sherman’s photographs. Regardless, the photos, their placement in Grose’s book, and the similarities between Grose’s book and the “Dictionary” all speak to a broader socio-cultural trend, a movement towards new racial classifications and thus “new” forms of racism.

In the “Dictionary,” first in order to distinguish between races and then to create further divisons within them, the Commission focused on skin color; on “psychic disposition”; on head measurements; and on not just language, but also perceptions of literacy. The key to the “Dictionary” was its sub-categorization: moving beyond the 5 primary colors of early 20th century ethnology to create hierarchies within ethnic groups. This “Dictionary” both borrows from and slightly evolves from the key preceding ethnological text, William Z. Ripley’s 1899 The Races of Europe, which divided Europe in Alpines, Nordics, and Mediterraneans, basing these divisions on physiognomy, somatotype, and skin color, as well as social and cultural distinctions, and rooting all divergence in heredity.15 As Robert Ziedel has written, the “Dictionary” had a “complex understanding of race, showing it to involve an imprecise mixture of physical, cultural, and social characteristics” (107). Nevertheless, the “Dictionary” was based on the idea of “ineradicable race distinctions,” granting great power to this imprecise mixture of factors (Ziedel, 107).

With the publication of the Dictionary, there were now many more ways to be racially abnormal. And as with the Manual photographs, immigrant type photographs and discursive descriptions were now useful for creating physiognomic distinctions and classifications that could further multiply hierarchical assertions of human worth.16 The “Dictionary” became a discursive analogue and counterpart to Sherman’s images, both in the ways the text and image actually overlapped, and in the ways they conceptually inter-animate. Together, these texts stack the snapshots of race distinction that eugenicists would opportunistically shuffle.

Matthew Frye Jacobson has written that in this era, the concept of “variegated whiteness” became prominent, and it was important to be able to mark ethnic others as not authentically or fully white, even if they may have been previously understood as “white.” He explains that “the salient feature of whiteness [before this era] had been its powerful political and cultural contrast to nonwhiteness,” yet artifacts like the “Dictionary” and Sherman’s photographs reveal how “its internal divisions, too, took on a new and pressing significance” (41). In his estimation, the “Dictionary” was “fundamentally a hierarchical scale of human development and worth” based on this idea of both marking out non-whiteness, and on selective distinctions in a field of variegated whiteness (Frye-Jacobson 79). The “Dictionary” manufactured brand new populations of non-whites, or not-fully-whites. Sherman’s pictures further helped people to “see” these new populations and to define the American through the creation of the alien.

It is not that Sherman himself intended for his photographs to enable a “new racism,” yet the divisions he catalogues, and the use of this catalogue, specifically between 1900 and 1924, allowed for this “new racism” to be experimented with and perfected at Ellis Island. For instance, Jewish peoples from varying backgrounds and geographies became Jews; then they became “Russian Jews,” then they also became, as Ellis Island doctor J.G Wilson wrote in 1908, “a highly inbred and psychopathically inclined race,” whose defects are “almost entirely due to heredity” (493). Sherman’s photographs became ways to identify these specific bodies, and to superimpose these eugenic value judgments through the rhetoric of the glance. The “Dictionary” could then write these distinctions into an enforceable hierarchy, and books like Grose’s could imprint these divisions on the popular consciousness. “Russian” was no longer simply a nationality; “Jewish” did not simply connote religion; both became racial labels, rhetorically expedient in the creation of classifications and divisions that could be further solidified with quack genetic science.

As Jeffrey Melnick argues, “the practice of racial naming (and unnaming) has acted as a gatekeeping force in American life” and always entails “the unnaming of whiteness itself as a racial identity” (265). Roland Barthes, John Fiske and Patricia Williams have all written about this process of “exnomination”—and this is how the “Dictionary” functioned rhetorically, to produce an abundance of “scientific” information about those who were not white, and in the process to avoid examining or naming whiteness. Siobhan Somerville argues that, “U.S culture [still] anchors whiteness in the visible epistemology of black skin” (21). Likewise and often concurrently, the idea of who is American is established through differentiating practices such as those fostered by Grose’s book, containing Sherman’s images: by training the individual to recognize who is defective, marked, tainted, and thus alien.17

Thus, when Sherman’s images are linked to texts like Grose’s, or like the “Dictionary,” the explosion of the flashbulb not only renders a vision of the Other, but this vision can be persuasively linked to an increasingly variegated and hierarchical genetic order, to a scientific “truth.” To figure out who was American, one had to scientifically create, locate, mark, and showcase the expulsion of he and she who were not.18 The “exnomination” of the American was realized through the photographic negative.


Importantly, this process of exnomination relied on the creation of new categories of “defect.” As Matthew Frye Jacobson shows, for anyone who arrived at Ellis Island before 1924, “race was the prevailing idiom for discussing citizenship and the relative merits of a given people” (9). Within this idiom, disability was the accent applied to differentiate and hierarchize. Race and disability rhetorically reinforced one another and worked together to stigmatize. Howard Markel and Alexandra Minna-Stern summarize this propensity: “in an era in which differences of skin color and physical characteristics were becoming increasingly medicalized, it is not surprising that exclusionary labels of disease and disability became an essential aspect of” immigration restriction (1328). Jacobson adds that the categories of the physically and mentally defective were created and used in service of racism, as a means of darkening a group of ethnic others with the stigma of disability (see Whiteness). I have investigated these connections between race and disability at length elsewhere, arguing that Ellis Island, as a rhetorical space, helped to construct disability as we know it today (see "Disabled Upon Arrival ”). This construction continues to inflect our understandings of race, “normalcy,” and difference and continues to shade and shadow how we look at others and ourselves. Sherman’s photographs neatly reinforce links between race and disability; they also locate the technology of photography, and its attendant, rhetorically persuasive, surfaces of emergence in this co-construction of race and disability.

This image pictures three men, on the roof of a building (a common backdrop for Sherman's photos). At the left, seated on a bench, we see a man with his head turned to our right, wearing a knee-length jacket. Beside him another man stands on the bench, so as to draw attention to his smaller stature–he stands at about the same head-level as the seated man. The standing man is wearing an ankle-length jacket with fur trim, and his chin is raised in the air. On the far right, we see a third man, also standing on the bench and just slightly taller than the man in the middle of the picture. He wears a turban and his head is larger than those of the other two men. He also wears an ankle-length coat, and he holds his hands on his waist. The image is labeled 'Subramaino Pillay (Right) and Two Microcephalics.'

“Subramaino Pillay (Right) and Two Microcephalics” (Mesenholler and Sherman 96).19

This image shows a side angle of 'Perumall Sammy' and the hand-written notation at the top of the photo suggests he was 'certified for congenital deformity of the abdomen, two arms and legs being joined at the abdomen…' He wears a long jacket, opened at the front where a pair of legs and arms, bound and partially covered with silk, are shown to be attached to his stomach. He has a mustache, long hair, and a hat perched at the very top of his head.

“Perumall Sammy, Hindoo, ex SS Adriatica April 14, 1911, certified for congenital deformity of the abdomen, two arms and legs being joined at the abdomen…” (Mesenholler and Sherman 97).20

The original Sherman photographs contain short captions, written on the photographs themselves in pen or typed (see images above). These include simple classifications like “Russian Giant” or “Burmese”; Histories of arrival and origin; Or a combination of histories of origin, classifications, and specific diagnoses (“Perumall Sammy, Hindoo, ex SS Adriatica April 14, 1911, certified for congenital deformity of the abdomen, two arms and legs being joined at the abdomen”).21 Walter Benjamin suggests that the captions that accompany a photograph carry an “altogether different character than the title of a painting” (“Work of Art” 6). These captions are often “directives,” and can be “explicit” and “imperative” (Benjamin “Work of Art” 6).

Sherman’s own, hand-written captions catalogue difference, but also direct our view explicitly, training us to classify each individual according to race and ethnicity at a glance.22 Further, in the images that he captures of bodily “abnormality,” the scribbled caption asks us to view the human as sum of his or her dysfunctional parts and to fuse race and supposed bodily “abnormality” or disability: not just a giant, a “Russian Giant.” In this way, the photographs of Augustus Sherman extend the rhetorical work of the “Dictionary of Races and Peoples.”  Specifically, the photographs work to fuse pseudo-scientific “evidence” of racial difference with “evidence” of bodily “abnormality.”

In their fusion of the image with a sort of diagnosis, these photos develop much of their rhetorical power from their allusion to the frames of the anatomy textbook, as mentioned earlier, and to the police archive. As Martin Elks has suggested, at this time the “camera became a “diagnostic tool” providing empirical proof of psychiatric sympotomology and physiognomy” (372). Barthes also wrote that “the photomat always turns you into a criminal type” (12). Susan Sontag agreed that “in one version of its utility, the camera record incriminates” (5).23 Allan Sekula writes that “every work of photographic art has its lurking, objectifying inverse in the archives of the police” (“The Body” 16). Photography has drawn “an unmistakable line between the professional reader of the body’s signs—the psychiatrist, the physiologist, criminologist, or industrial psychologist—and the “diseased,” “deviant,” or “biologically inferior” object of cure, reform, or discipline” (“The Body” 18). The key to Sherman’s rendering of the “deviant” other was the fact that this reading of the body’s signs was connected to a clear nationalist project at Ellis Island. As mentioned before, while the photographs are part of a program of assimilation, they are also part of a process of abjection. The photographs construct a binary relationship between the American reader and the Alien subject, a ghostly national type as the inverse of an array of criminal and “defective” types.


In addition to their original public emergence, reproduction, and circulation in Grose’s book, Sherman’s pictures were also published in National Geographic in 1907 in a segment entitled “Some of Our Immigrants.” These photographs are accompanied by simple captions such as “Arabs” or “Typical Southern Italian Girl” or, below, “Ruthenian Girl.”  

This image shows a young woman wearing a white headscarf, a vest, a blouse with floral stitching down the sleeves and front, and many beaded necklaces. She gazes directly at the camera.

“Ruthenian Girl” National Geographic 1907. 324.24

Statistics about the numbers of each racial group admitted to the United States come into particular focus in this 1907 article. The main concern seems to be the sheer number of immigrants flowing into the country: “no migration in history is comparable to the great hordes that have crossed the Atlantic during the past 20 years to enter our territory” (317). This focus is analogous with widespread panic about the immigration explosion at this time, and the images put faces to this threat. When Sherman’s photographs appear in National Geographic magazine again in 1917, however, many of the exact same pictures are given slightly different captions and, notably, several of the pictures follow Sherman’s own mantra that, “there could never be…anything too exotic to capture on plate” (Temple 16). The shift in the rhetoric on these pages from 1907 to 1917 reflects the historical shift from panic about immigration, to eugenic action against immigration. Importantly, eugenic action against immigration more clearly connects the immigrant body with notions of “deviance” and “abnormality.” While the 1917 issue of National Geographic does not include Shermans's images of Sammy Perumall, Subramaino Pillay, or Thumbu Sammy (nor does the 1907 version), it does end with pictures of a “Russian Giant” and a Burmese "dwarf.”

The 'Russian Giant' stands with his hands on the shoulders of two men in suits, whose heads reach only to the Russian man's waist. The men in suits each have moustaches. The Russian man wears a top hat and tuxedo with tails. The chain of a pocket watch is visible where his suit jacket is open. There is a set of double doors behind the men, and the Russian man is clearly taller than this doorway.

“Russian Giant” (Mesenholler and Sherman 99).25

The 'Burmese' man stands between two men in suits, the same two men from the 'Russian Giant' picture. The Burmese man stands at waist-height of the men on either side, and he holds a top hat in his hand. He wears a double-breasted suit.

“Burmese” (Mesenholler and Sherman 98).26

These photos mark and manufacture the genetic differences between aliens and Americans. For instance, the following captions accompany these final two pictures in the series:

“A Russian Giant, seven feet nine inches tall, with two men of normal size. The Russians who come to American are a sturdy, hardy, seasoned race. But not all of them are as tall as this giant” (130)
“A dwarf from Burma. He is not too small to enjoy his cigarette nor to be proud of his bracelet” (129).

These National Geographic photos are also staged in a particular way, so as to accentuate difference. While I have suggested that Sherman’s photographs fit somewhat into the genre of “documentary photography,” and overlap with the genres of the scientific and criminological catalogue, these photographs are also quite at home on the pages of National Geographic, where, as Catherine Lutz and Susan Collins have shown, photographs have traditionally reflected clear patterns of racial power (see Reading National Geographic). These are images of the exotic Other, analogous with National Geographic pictures that manufacture a colonial gaze. As George Stocking and others have shown, National Geographic, since its very first issue in 1896, can be characterized by imperialist racial and sexual politics (see Race, Culture and Evolution). These politics have also been consistently reinforced by the “scientific mission” of the magazine. As Philip Pauly and many others have argued, the magazine has always had a specifically scientific purpose, eventually somewhat diluted to create more popular appeal, yet always attendant to the editorial mission of the magazine (see The World And All That Is In It).

In accentuating the difference of immigrant bodies, Sherman’s photographs also fit into the genre of the anthropological photograph, a form of exoticizing “evidence” that reinforces the primacy of white Americans. As Christopher Vaughan writes, this was a dominant photographic trope in the era: “human beings and their cultural trappings were collected, like baskets and buttons, or bugs in a jar, for the study and more often the amusement of curious Westerners intoxicated by images of freaks” (232). This use of the word “freak” is interesting, particularly when considering a time in which the other dominant images of embodied “deviance” came from actual freak show photographs. Borrowing Robert Bogdan’s categories for the “staging” of freak show photographs, we can recognize that Sherman actually used common freak show “modes of presentation” for his subjects (104). That is, there are very common “techniques, strategies, and styles” for representing supposedly disabled subjects photographically so as to exaggerate physical difference (104).27 Several of the Sherman photographs evidence what Bogdan calls the “exotic mode”—in which the “emphasis was on how different and, in most cases, inferior the person in the exhibit was” (108). The exotic dress of the immigrant is often accentuated— an “Eastern European Immigrant,” for instance, is pictured playing his pipe, as though this is his natural pose. And this elaborate dress often combines unfortunately with the fact that each subject has recently survived a harrowing sea journey (not to mention the Ellis Island inspection process). The subjects are exotic in part because of their dress, and conveniently dirtied and “darkened” by the duress of their circumstances.

The Manual photos discussed at the beginning of this essay also exhibit one of Bogdan’s key “modes.” These photographs provide evidence of what Bogdan described as the strategy of including “helping hands” in the frame of photographs depicting “low-grade” subjects (106). You can view these hands holding the chins of several immigrants in the Manual. Further, in Sherman’s pictures of “giants” and “dwarfs,” for instance, simple visual contrast is used to accentuate difference: the smaller or larger (and also “darker,” ethnically “marked”) immigrant is buffeted on either side by medium-stature, well-dressed white men who act as the ground against which difference comes into relief. The same two white men accompany both the "Giant" and the "dwarf," suggesting that either these photos were staged simultaneously, or this staging was commonplace. The men’s presence in the frame, like the presence of the steadying hand in the frame of the photos in the Manual, reveal something of the visual rhetoric of these modes of presentation. The men seem to literally support the “Giant.” These hands, or the bodies of these “normal” white men, metaphorically transport the viewer into the frame as well, asking the white American, “normal” viewer to hold this specimen for themselves, to compare their physiognomy against this “enfreaked” example. The white hands and white figures thereby accentuate the exotic mode, and they act as “helping hands” to facilitate the othering of the racially and corporeally exotic alien.

The “Russian Giant” and the “Burmese” photograph of a diminutive man are also evidence what Bogdan calls the mode of “aggrandizement” (108). Compare these photographs to a hugely popular “aggrandized” freak show photo picturing General Tom Thumb, Miss Lavinia Warren, Commodore Nutt and “The Giant.”

In this photo, 'General Tom Thumb' is on the far left, wearing a military outfit and holding a military hat in his hand. Beside him is Lavinia Warren, wearing an elaborate white gown. 'The Giant' wears a three-piece suit and stands beside Warren, fully twice her height. On the far right is Commodore Nutt, also wearing a three-piece suit.

“Gen. Tom Thumb, Miss Lavinia Warren, Commodore Nutt and The Giant.” Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress) Portrait photographs 1850-1870.28

Clearly, the same contrasts between the diminutive “freak” and the subject of “normal” height can be recognized in both this photograph and the Sherman “giant” and “dwarf” photos, as they appear across the genre of freak show photographs. The presence of the single “normal” subject functions again as an invitation to the viewer to compare themselves against the “freak.”29

Extending this simple grammar of incongruity, Sherman also pairs or groups “abnormalities” that most sharply contrast with one another as when he gathers hydrocephalics and microcephalics, arraying them in a line. For instance, view the above image of “Perumall Sammy, Subramaino Pillay, and Thumbu Sammy.” Clearly, these photographs have both the physiognomic and comparative function that Benjamin and others allude to. We are to recognize the racial others in Sherman’s photographs as also deviantly embodied, and as “feeble,” as we are invited to abject these images from our developing notion of a eugenically progressive America.30


Sherman’s pictures were hung for several decades in the Manhattan headquarters of the federal Immigration Service. Peter Mesenholler also explains that Ellis Island Commissioners “gave copies of Sherman's haunting photographs to official [read: important] Ellis Island visitors as mementoes” (n.p). At this time, many people collected photographs, and freak show photographs were a very popular part of most collections. As previously mentioned, these immigrant photos would have fit, in many ways, into the genre of the freak show postcard photograph, investigated at length by Robert Bogdan, among others. Yet Sherman’s photographs also overlapped with the genre of the anthropological photograph of the exotic, primitive, colonized other, as well as medical and criminological archive photos. While the Ellis Island photographs borrow from these visual vocabularies, they also sent another message, particularly as they hung in the foyer of the Immigration Service offices, circulated as mementoes given to privileged visitors to Ellis Island, and, most markedly, aided line inspectors in identifying racial and ethnic “types.” The photographs became a key part of the immigration restriction machine of Ellis Island. The photographs develop, in the functionaries and the products of this machine, the power of the snapshot diagnosis to make distinctions and discriminations, (conditionally) assuring the viewer of his or her own normalcy. Moreover, while they catalogue strangeness and difference, they also attest to and facilitate the arrest of this difference at Ellis Island.31

In the years of peak immigration, from the late 1800s until the clampdown on immigration in the mid-1920s, an era that coincides exactly with Sherman’s tenure at Ellis Island, thousands of immigrants were processed through Ellis Island every day.32 Sherman’s photographs are a key documentation of this process, as they also facilitated this process through their use as referents. Further, as part of an emerging eugenic scientific catalogue, the photos shape and are shaped by the space of Ellis Island, itself shaped by American eugenic anti-immigration rhetoric.33 As Vicki Goldberg and Robert Silberman show, Sherman, “made images of foreign peoples as “documents”" (31). He used the photograph as a “cataloguing and institutional record-making device” (32). This usage, they suggest, “can underscore race and ethnicity and nationality and fortify an accepted sense of order in the world based on visual characteristics—in this case, costume, physiognomic features, and skin color” (32). Most importantly, while this cataloguing may have had scientific purposes—may have created new “racial knowledge”—the key function of Ellis Island was to sort out and to exclude undesirable aliens, and thus this became a key rhetorical function of the photos.

Nancy Ordover has shown that in the early 20th century “eugenics gave racism and nationalism substance by bringing to bear the rationalizing technologies of the day” (6). As I hope I’ve shown, one key rationalizing technology was the camera. The use of disability as a darkening mark applied to the body of an arriving immigrant later allowed for the accent of disability to be applied to entire “racial” groups. This momentum can be recognized in Sherman’s own, hand-written notes on his photographs, particularly the photos that most clearly evidence the grammar of the “freak show” photograph. When he writes “Perumall Sammy, Hindoo, ex SS Adriatica April 14, 1911, certified for congenital deformity of the abdomen, two arms and legs being joined at the abdomen,” the viewer effectively relates congenital deformity to the “Hindoo” race. Gathering and photographing Perumall Sammy, Subramaino Pillay, and Thumbu Sammy together is a means of highlighting their Otherness—hydrocephalic beside microcephalic, “dwarf” standing beside another sitting subject, and so on. But most importantly, these three are all also non-white. They are effectively “darkened” both by disability and race. When National Geographic publishes photos of a Russian “giant” and a Burmese “dwarf,” there is a clear eugenic message: these foreign others, clearly and starkly unlike the white men who surround them, come from different and possibly dangerous genetic stock.


As the “snapshot diagnosis” and the snapshots of aliens and the feeble-minded came to be utilized to detect (and in a way to create) feeble-mindedness, the nebulousness of this classification allowed the snapshot glance to take on supreme rhetorical power. Anyone could be seen as feeble-minded. And this label became a way to mark-out and exclude anyone undesirable—specifically, to mark out undesirable races, and the most undesirable within races. So this is the first visual rhetoric that we can identify with Ellis Island: faciality--the move to locate mental deficiency in the face and body of the immigrant. As Foucault has noted, medicine “constructs bodies through particular investigatory techniques and culturally located research goals” (Birth of the Clinic 3) This might proceed according to what he called “the nomination of the visible,” wherein the definition and coherence of difference is located in the skin and skull (Order 132). As Allan Sekula has shown, in this era, “a physiognomic code of visual interpretation of the body’s signs—specifically the signs of the head—and a technology of mechanized visual representation intersected” (“The Body” 16). Photography allowed for the superimposition of eugenic values onto the faces and bodies of aliens. As snapshot diagnosis developed that both framed and documented new categories of race and “deviance,” it participated in the rhetorical creation of these categories.

The second key visual rhetoric that we can locate at Ellis Island, then, is the coordination of racism and ableism; the visual co-construction of race and disability as connected grammars, and as ordinary and ordinal. The Sherman images clearly show the ways that race and disability were conflated—his pictures distill the idea that Ellis Island’s function was to mark out the freakish and un-American, and in so doing transfer not only the pleasure and power of the alienating gaze to the public but also some tenuous reinforcement of the public’s own normality. Just as photographs were used to help inspectors apply the label of feeble-mindedness, now photographs were being used to conflate racial difference with bodily abnormality. 34 As Vicki Goldberg and Robert Silberman have argued, “racial stereotyping did not of course originate with photography, but photography has proven to be an unusually powerful instrument for reinforcing and propagating racial (and racist) imagery” (32). My argument is that photography at Ellis Island industrialized a visual rhetoric that manufactured new classifications of race and disability. The visual rhetorics established at Ellis Island certainly didn’t originate there, and their development are the product of a variety of overlapping attitudes that spread forwards and backwards from the moment I am looking at, as well as radiate outwards from the space I am looking at. But I want to make the tenuous claim that Ellis Island was instrumental in incorporating and interpellating a certain way of looking.

Between 1900 and 1925, it was at Ellis Island where new forms of racism and nationalism could be best implemented: thousands of immigrants poured through every day. The ways that these immigrants were processed and viewed became a eugenic product. A vision of the foreign other could be fixed, developed, and reproduced on a grand scale. The power of the snapshot diagnosis employed by Ellis Island inspectors was then transferred to the viewer of these photographs. To view one of Augustus Sherman’s photos was to become an inspector oneself. Inspection of Others was a given. Yet, as if holding up a mirror, Sherman's pictures offered an opportunity to practice a glance that you would train on yourself as well, anxiously policing your own normality. As my epigraph by W.J.T. Mitchell suggests: “Whatever a picture is…we ourselves are in it.” In the end, perhaps this is the most important surface of emergence to study when examining any photograph: the existence of the image and its rhetorics in our own thoughts and actions. Thus, the final visual rhetoric of Ellis Island was this: training the glance upon yourself.

In fostering such training, Sherman’s archive became an extension and a reinforcement of Ellis Island as a rhetorical space, especially as it transferred the incriminating gaze of the snapshot diagnosis to film and into an embodied practice. Sherman’s photographs and those of the “feeble-minded” become training manuals for other inspectors, and for the new citizens of America as they carried Ellis Island with them into their new lives.The Ellis Island photographs of Augustus Sherman worked in concert with eugenic rhetoric, protocols for the inspection of aliens, narrowing immigration legislation, and texts such as the "Dictionary of Races and Peoples" to create new hierarchies of race and disability. The texts, along with the technology of photography, reached into and rearranged bodies. This coding and technologization were perfected at Ellis Island, and we recognize this intersection frozen in Sherman's images.

In helping to create new hierarchies of race and disability, Sherman's photographs were instrumental in the project of immigration restriction. As Elizabeth Yew has shown, thanks to the work of the American eugenics movement, by the early 1920s, “with the inferiority of certain races proven by science, America could, at last, close her doors” (n.p). The doors did close, and tightly, beginning with the racial quota laws of 1921. But the rhetorical effect is much more far-reaching. As Eithne Luibheid asserts, the examination process at Ellis Island “individuated” each person examined, and “tied [her or him] in to [a] wider network of surveillance” placing “immigrants within lifelong networks of surveillance and disciplinary relations” (xii; xvii). Every immigrant became an agent, as did every one who picked up Aliens or Americans? or National Geographic.

So, finally, I want to suggest that we all carry Ellis Island and this history with us today. We are subject to the same gaze, governed by the same rhetorical vision. Studying these photographs, together with the rhetorical space of Ellis Island, and the discursive explosion of eugenics, allows us to recognize unique and complicated connections between spaces, words, images and bodies. As bleak and pessimistic as the message may be, studying these texts allows us to recognize the historical—and the current—predominance of specific visual rhetorics. This study should hopefully allow us to "see" the other ways that we continue to frame and develop race and disability, as we freeze and arrest difference through technologies like photography or through other "explosions" of media.

Henry Laughlin, a key eugenic spokesperson and the chairman of the American Immigration Restriction League, was invited to testify in front of U.S Congress several times in the early 1920s, on the issue of immigration restriction.35 Whenever he testified, he brought charts, graphs, pedigree charts, and the results of hundreds of IQ tests as evidence of "the immigrant menace.” In his 1922 testimony, Laughlin plastered the Congress Committee room with charts and graphs showing ethnic differences in rates of institutionalization for various degenerative conditions, and he presented data about the mental and physical inferiority of recent immigrant groups. This data included a “rogue's gallery” of photographs of “defectives” taken at Ellis Island, which purported to show, menacingly, “Carriers of the Germ Plasm of the Future American Population” (Gelb, et. al.). These photographs were those taken by Augustus Sherman. Clearly, across Sherman’s photographs we can recognize the clear and effective uses of a visual grammar to conflate alien-ness and defect. This conflation led to the rejection of thousands of immigrants, but it also shaped attitudes that may linger in American culture, and that may in fact shape persistent visual rhetorics, technologies, and ways of "seeing."


1 Throughout this essay I will be arguing that the over-emphasis on the visibility or visuality of disability – how it is created and cemented through regimes of vision – is a problem, a historical problem. Therefore, I will also be trying to avoid the uncritical use of terms like "see" and will instead substitute words like "view" or "understand" or "recognize" or "look" that I hope offer less "ocularist" ways of making my point, except for when I call attention to the term through italics or scare quotes. Interestingly, one time I can't seem to avoid using "see" is when I am directing the reader to another citation.

2 I think it is important to note that the historical over-emphasis on the visuality of disability and race was also discriminatory in a very straightforward sense: if you couldn't "see," you were further excluded. My hope is that this essay captures this clearly, while refusing to reinforce this exclusion. So I will provide thick visual description for all of the images I include in this essay. In the top left image, we see an 11-year old boy with close-cropped hair, wearing a striped short, labeled a "low-grade imbecile," a hand reaching from out of the frame to hold up his chin, his eyes directed to our right; in the top right image, we see a 20-year old man with a dark mustache, wearing a suit jacket, labeled "low moron"; in the bottom right image, a teenager wearing a heavy coat is pictured, labeled "a constitutional inferior"; in the bottom left image we see a 17-year old with blond hair, labeled a "high-grade imbecile."  

3 Feeble-mindedness, as it was invented at Ellis Island, was a usefully nebulous classification. In the Journal of Heredity, Howard Knox, arguably the most powerful man at Ellis Island and the number one surgeon at Ellis Island from 1912 to 1916, writes that “fortunately the term “feeble-mindedness” is regarded by most alienists as a sort of waste basket for many forms and degrees of weak-mindedness, and since it is incorporated in the law as a mandatorially [sic] excludable defect, it is especially suited to the needs of the examiners who for the sake of conservatism and certain fairness include many imbeciles under the term” (“Tests,” 125). Knox’s motivations, of course, were always eugenic: “fortunately,” he writes, “the laws are such that feebleminded aliens may be certified and deported before they have had an opportunity to contaminate the blood of the nation or to commit any crime” (“Tests,” 122)

4 Brown links this belief to the era’s “promise of standardization through photography” (i). She traces industrial uses of photography in the progressive era of the 1910s and 1920s and suggests that photographs were seen as “unmediated scientific tools” because of their supposed “indexical relationship to the real” (20).

5 Most people will grant that disability has always been a highly visible or visual phenomenon, thinking mainly of the sorts of physical disabilities (and people with those disabilities) that are, in the words of Lennard Davis, "a disruption in the visual field" of the so-called normal viewer (128). But it is less widely understood how even supposedly "invisible" or less-visible mental or cognitive disabilities have historically been defined through visual regimes and technologies.

6 As Safford writes, the cursory inspection processes may actually have had greater power than the detailed inspections that followed upon detainment. For instance, he suggests that “if after taking into an examination room a person regarding whom suspicion has been aroused” due to the snapshot diagnosis that “appears normal,” then “the medical officer knows the passenger should not be released without looking further” (248). In this way, the snapshot glance takes actual “scientific” or “medical” precedence over other diagnostic techniques. Foucault writes that the classical use of the spectacle to discipline and punish was “a manifestation of the strongest power over the body” of the condemned, whose punishment “made the crime explode into its truth” (Discipline 227). Once the body was made a spectacle, it was totally incriminated, regardless of the individual’s actual guilt or innocence. In a similar way, the Ellis Island process didn’t really need or use diagnostic techniques to discover actual “defect.” Instead, the spectacle of rejection was needed to send a message to all other immigrants. The flash bulb of the camera and the magic of the glance were used to create this “explosion into truth.” The photographs from the Manual can be considered a key part of the manufacture of this spectacle of rejection.

7 One way to better understand this “snapshot diagnosis” is to look at consonant developments in the field of medicine. For instance, Foucault distinguishes between the medical gaze and the development, in this era, of the medical glance. In his words, “the gaze implies an open field, and its essential activity is of the successive order of reading; it records and totalizes…the glance, on the other hand, does not scan a field: it strikes at one point, which is central or decisive; the gaze is endlessly modulated, the glance goes straight to its object (Birth of the Clinic 149). At Ellis Island, the six-second physical transformed the gaze into the glance. Inspectors needed to, very quickly, sort desirable from “defective” immigrant bodies. They also needed the glance to transform outward bodily signs into harbingers of mental inferiority. Thus these cursory inspections were largely a matter of intuition, a kind of magical medical view. In the words of Victor Safford, “from long experience physicians sometimes acquire[d] a most remarkable intuitive power” (245). As Samuel Grubbs writes, recalling his work as an immigration officer, “I wanted to acquire this magical intuition but found there were few rules. Even the keenist [sic] of these medical detectives did not know just why they suspected at a glance a handicap which later might require a week to prove” (qtd. in Fairchild, 91). Regardless of the provenance of the process, suspect bodies and minds were identified and sorted out from the stream of immigrants. The marked were removed for further mental and physical examination. Line officers could not deport immigrants, but their inspections and markings had an important rhetorical effect. It may have even been the case that examination on line and in intensive exam was, in the words of Amy Fairchild, “chiefly a spectacle” used to send a message to all immigrants, not necessarily to reliably discern “defect” (99).

8 While this essay is primarily concerned with "surfaces," snapshot diagnosis was also indexed to a deeper investigation of bodies. As Ellis Island expanded, it developed a huge Contagious Disease Hospital, centered around “an autopsy amphitheater that enabled visiting physicians and medical students to study the pathology of exotic diseases” (Conway, 9). This calls to mind Foucault's chapter in Birth of the Clinic: "Open Up a Few Corpses." In this chapter, Foucault shows how enlightenment science moved the gaze from the level of the skin to the deeper, previously hidden level of the tissue (135). Immigrants who had died on the trip overseas or while at Ellis Island could be exhibited, their “exotic” bodies used to develop new medical knowledge. This amphitheater is itself an analogue to the architecture of the entire island—a means of dispassionately focusing on bodies in order to alienate, Other, and exoticize difference. The Hospital functioned not just as a place to heal and inoculate but also as a space for framing defect and for deepening the medical gaze.

9 Fairchild's work shows just how powerful the Ellis Island process was, rhetorically, and specifically visually. Mae Ngai also suggests that the alien has always been a “kind of specter” (7). I find the metaphorical interaction between the spectacle and the specter interesting here—the spectacle being the hypervisible text, the specter being the ghostly presence. Through the spectacles of Ellis Island, it seems that specters of racialized and disabled otherness were given an indelible rhetorical power.

10 Sherman worked as the unofficial photographer of immigrants under two different Ellis Island commissioners—Frank Sargent and then William Williams. Sherman often photographed specific individuals and groups at Commissioner Williams’ request. He was eventually promoted to senior clerk and personal secretary to the Commissioner of Immigration (under Williams) and often served on the Boards of Special Inquiry, which met daily to determine the fates of possibly undesirable immigrants. He became an important bureaucratic cog and Ellis Island personality, involved and instrumental in all of the immigration station’s machinations.

11 This image is labeled "North African Immigrant," and the picture shows a seemingly middle-aged man with a beard, a knit or woven hat, and a large hooded jacket, frayed at the bottom and closed with buttons at the front. His legs are bare. He also has a tag affixed to his jacket with the number 2 printed on it.  

12 This image is labeled "Eastern European Immigrant," and the picture shows a young man with a beard, a woven hat with a wide brim angled to the side of his head. He wears a sort of cape, a vest, and a white shirt tied at the neck. He plays a flute that he holds in front of him.

13 If these immigrants did eventually make it to New York, they almost immediately began the process of assimilation, leaving their old identity behind, Sherman’s images perhaps the fading evidence of their previous lives. It has been noted that the newly arriving immigrants’ immediate removal of traditional dress left a literal “sea of clothing” at Battery Park (Temple 16).

14 Messenholler suggests that the photographed subjects at Ellis Island then became “effigies” used to “classify and control deviance” across the nation (Messenholler n.p). Ellis Island held up the defective, alien body as a warning to the rest of the country—this alien, this exclusion, could be you. Interestingly, Ellis Island, before it became an immigration station, was also at one point called Gibbet’s Island, so named after the gibbet, a somewhat medieval device, a kind of wire cage, used to suspend and preserve the bodies of dead pirates, after they had been hanged, and to hold these bodies up in New York harbor for passing sailors to see, and therefore to recognize the perils of the pirate life. This statement of corporeal power, this display of force, this use of the specter of the Other body, might be seen as a powerful symbol of what later took place on this same island once it became an immigration station. Sherman’s photographs could be held up as examples and effigies of the bodies the nation had rejected, and thus as threats to all bodies in America and on their way to America.

15 The Dillingham Commission also submitted a report titled "Change in Bodily Form of Descendents of Immigrants," authored by anthropologist Franz Boas. This text that was actually read as an argument against the idea of a set constellation of races, and for the idea of biological plasticity.

16 Yehudi Webster shows that “the sighting of races is a function of usage of specific criteria of classification” (45 italics mine). Siobhan Somerville argues that, “the significations of the body are not predetermined loci of difference, but a deeply problematical and asymmetrical production” (4). The “Dictionary” was a key text in setting these specific criteria of classification, each a deeply problematical and asymmetrical production.

17 As Foucault has noted, medicine constructs bodies by “limiting and filtering” what we see through classification systems, and then transcribing difference into language (Birth 135). This might proceed according to what Foucault calls “the nomination of the visible,” wherein, as I explain in the conclusion, the definition and coherence of difference is located in the skin and skull (Birth 132). In Sherman's photographs, we can see how the exnomination of whiteness, and the intense nomination of the visibility of nonwhiteness worked in concert. In the photo of a Russian "giant" and a Burmese "dwarf," this relationship is shown quite notably: the white men flanking these two non-white "specimens" serve as the normate backdrop to their otherness – the white men do not even need to be named or labeled in the photo.

18 Foucault suggests that such classification was a “new racism”: “a racism against the abnormal, against individuals who, as carriers of stigmata or any defect whatsoever,” allows them to be detected and seen as a danger. Foucault argues that this “new racism” was most successfully enforced by Nazism. Yet Ellis Island was a place where this “new racism” was also successfully developed. The Dillingham Commission’s “Dictionary,” co-written by prominent eugenicists, did indeed signal a shift from ethnicity to race as the determining, classifying, and stratifying factor in a new calculus of discrimination, a division within which defect and disability became the common denominator. This, in his words, “is an internal racism that permits the screening of every individual within a given society” (Abnormal 317). This “new” racism automatically and always interacts with the “old” racism of identifying differences between larger ethnic groups. As Martin Pernick points out, there are historical bases for this shift—movements more gradual and diffuse than Foucault suggests, yet still recognizable. Pernick writes that early twentieth-century eugenic rhetoric helped to convert ethnicity into race – linking race to the idea of “heredity as immutable” (56). As I have argued elsewhere, a clear line can be drawn from Ellis Island and the rhetoric of immigration restrictionists and American eugenicists, across the Atlantic, to Germany and the Nazi T4 program. Nazi doctors named American eugenicists as their ideological mentors at Nuremberg. The chalk marks at Ellis Island might be seen as a precursor to the armbands and the tattooing of the Nazi regime. In 1936, Nazis gave a medal to Harry Laughlin, IRL founder (Carlson, 12). He was recognized by Hitler for his “model eugenic law” (Carlson, 12). Hitler also praised the 1924 American Immigration Restriction Act in Mein Kampf.

19 This image pictures three men, on the roof of a building (a common backdrop for Sherman's photos). At the left, seated on a bench, we see a man with his head turned to our right, wearing a knee-length jacket. Beside him another man stands on the bench, so as to draw attention to his smaller stature – he stands at about the same head-level as the seated man. The standing man is wearing an ankle-length jacket with fur trim, and his chin is raised in the air. On the far right, we see a third man, also standing on the bench and just slightly taller than the man in the middle of the picture. He wears a turban and his head is larger than those of the other two men. He also wears an ankle-length coat, and he holds his hands on his waist. "The image is labeled Subramaino Pillay (Right) and Two Microcephalics."  

20 This image shows a side angle of "Perumall Sammy" and the hand-written notation at the top of the photo suggests he was "certified for congenital deformity of the abdomen, two arms and legs being joined at the abdomen…" He wears a long jacket, opened at the front where a pair of legs and arms, bound and partially covered with silk, are shown to be attached to his stomach. He has a mustache, long hair, and a hat perched at the very top of his head.

21 It is important to ask what happened to people like Sammy Perumall. The fact that he was being photographed does not bode well: he was at least in detention, and likely waiting to be deported, though this is impossible to know with certainty. But if we don't at least ask what happened to these people, then they simply become symbols or effigies. If Sammy Perumall was deported, did he have family in India to return to? Was he separated from family who traveled with him? Did he have sponsors in the US who could come to his defense and prove that he should be allowed to stay?

22 This "training" was quite literal. Often, the Public Health Service stationed its newest doctors to work as inspectors at Ellis Island as an extension of their education, thus initiating these doctors through the Ellis Island diagnostic process. Many inspectors were also former immigrants themselves who had come through Ellis Island and then returned to work there.

23 For instance, see Lombroso’s criminal anthropological photographs or August Sander’s “tremendous physiognomic gallery” of German citizens (Benjamin 252).

24 This image shows a young woman wearing a white headscarf, a vest, a blouse with floral stitching down the sleeves and front, and many beaded necklaces. She gazes directly at the camera.

25 The "Russian Giant" stands with his hands on the shoulders of two men in suits, whose heads reach only to the Russian man's waist. The men in suits each have moustaches. The Russian man wears a top hat and tuxedo with tails. The chain of a pocket watch is visible where his suit jacket is open. There is a set of double doors behind the men, and the Russian man is clearly taller than this doorway.

26 The "Burmese" man stands between two men in suits, the same two men from the "Russian Giant" picture. The Burmese man stands at waist-height of the men on either side, and he holds a top hat in his hand. He wears a double-breasted suit.

27 The techniques were first used in the criminal anthropological photos of Lombroso in the 1880s (see L’Homme Criminel) and later used by Tredgold in his 1908 text on mental deficiency as well as Henry Goddard’s landmark 1914 text on feeble-mindedness.

28 In this photo, "General Tom Thumb" is on the far left, wearing a military outfit and holding a military hat in his hand. Beside him is Lavinia Warren, wearing an elaborate white gown. "The Giant" wears a three-piece suit and stands beside Warren, fully twice her height. On the far right is Commodore Nutt, also wearing a three-piece suit.

29 In the “aggrandized” mode, the subject is also often fancily dressed, almost to the point of irony. For instance, in one Sherman picture, the “Russian Giant” wears a top hat and tails; the “Burmese” subject wears a three-piece suit, his hat in his hand. This mode “emphasized how, with the exception of the particular mental, physical, or behavioral condition, the freak was an upstanding high status person” (Bogdan 108). The entailments can be both positive and negative—can lead to respect or ridicule. Certainly, we should respect men who look so dapper after crossing the ocean. But the freak show’s simple visual syntax incites more simple reactions based on the supposed incongruity of “abnormal” bodies in civilized dress.

30 Rosemarie Garland-Thomson extends this line of argument in her scholarship on the freak show; there are cultural processes that make physical abnormality or particularity “a hypervisible text against which the [‘normal’] viewer’s indistinguishable body fades into a seemingly neutral, tractable and invulnerable instrument of the autonomous will” (10). The excessiveness and Otherness of the disabled body allow for the construction of a mythical norm. It is only against an Othered body that the normal body is allowed to perpetuate its deceit (of transparency, of being standard, of being whole).

31 In addition to the flexible and interchangeable use of racial and ability criteria, inspectors at Ellis Island also looked keenly for signs of sexual deviance. For instance, questions about sexual preferences and histories were part of almost every medical inspection. The 1917 Immigration Act listed “abnormal sex instincts” as a “constitutional psychopathic inferiority” (United States Congress. House.). Indeed, discursive and visual interrogations of sexuality consituted a key feature of Ellis Island's inspection procedures. One of the most famous detainees in the history of Ellis Island was Frank Woodhull (identified as Mary Johnson of Canada by Sherman), who “lived forty years as a man,” according to the hand-written note written by Sherman on his photograph. Frank’s case is a particularly interesting one. He was not actually detained or deported, yet his picture served important rhetorical purposes—it revealed that the camera eye, the eugenic eye, and the eye of the immigration inspector (in this case, perhaps, a compound) could not be fooled.

32 As Ellis Island expanded, it grew in the direction of this lexicon of pathology and expanded the Island’s use as a massive ‘laboratory and operational theater’ The previously mentioned autoposy amphitheater, which surrounded the Contagious Disease Hospital, is itself an analogue to the architecture of the entire island—a means of dispassionately focusing on bodies in order to alienate, Other, and exoticize difference. The Hospital functioned not just as a place to heal and inoculate but also as a space for framing defect.

33 As mentioned, cursory physical examinations—known as the “six second physical”—were imposed upon newly-arriving immigrants, and immigration agents were trained to notice, immediately, inferior stock. These practices effectively “turned entry into the U.S into a passage partially defined by a medical vocabulary and pathology of health” (Markel and Minna-Stern 1315). This medical lexicon was repeatedly imprinted upon the immigrant, and this printing was done hastily, efficiently, mechanically. As immigrants were processed through Ellis Island, they became part of an indelible cultural and discursive marking, their bodies were interrogated, written across, and read into. For example, immigrants who would be detained for further inspection were marked with chalk codes, their bodies literally written-upon (Dolmage).

34 As Anna Stubblefield has argued, Henry Goddard’s invention of the term “moron”—grounded on the studies he conducted at Elllis Island—was the “most important contribution to the concept of feeble-mindedness as a signifier of a racial taint,” through the diagnosis of the menace of alien races, but also as a way to divide out the impure elements of the white race, as a “signifier of tainted whiteness” (173; 162).

35 Starting in the late 1800s in the U.S, immigration debates became a rhetorical arena through which one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas of Western civilization took form: eugenics. The Immigration Restriction League, which began in 1894, came to have a remarkable influence on Congress, on the political, intellectual and business leadership of the country, and on the U.S. public. The immigrant was reframed as a menace, as a possible strain on resources, and as an undesirable undercurrent in the national gene pool. Eugenics, the “science” of positively advocating for particular forms of human regeneration, coupled with the negative restriction of the propagation of certain classes and ethnicities, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, became the modus operandi of North American national health and immigration policy. Laughlin and the IRL used Sherman's photographs to reinforce their very successful arguments.

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