Humanizing Ellis Island

The artist of large-scale photographic works boldly sprawled across building walls, roofs, and other public spaces in downtrodden areas of the world, in an effort to lift lives, JR has now turned his focus to one of the most downtrodden groups in history — those who passed through Ellis Island on their way to a better life in the United States.

In a two-part project, the French artist has installed another of his large-scale series, called Unframed, among the scenic rubble of the Ellis Island hospital. He also directed a short film, Ellis, documenting the plight of the millions of immigrants who sought refuge in the New World, starting on this hopeful island, where the Statue of Liberty could be seen and her call to the great unwashed masses heard loud and clear.

Starring Robert De Niro as narrator and written by screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), the film is told through the eyes of a fictitious young boy who, denied entry into America due to a medical condition, hides indefinitely in the hospital rather than ship back to his home country. Over the years he watches as wave upon wave of immigrants like him successfully enters New York City. “De Niro was the only person I proposed it to,” JR told Hint, “and the only person I could see in this role.”

Research was intensive, naturally. “I was really studying the history of immigration…I bought all the Ellis books I could find,” he said. “Also working together with Eric Roth has been an education. He’s been really attached to the project all the way through, because this is essentially the story of his family.” And, like all of JR’s work, the result has elicited strong emotions. “There was an older woman on one of the hard-hat tours who recognized her grandfather in the archival photographs I pasted in the old hospital wards. It brought her to tears and was very moving.”

“All the photos that you see in the film come from archival footage of Ellis Island except the portraits at the end,” he clarified. “Those were taken a year that we went all around America to take photos of undocumented people in the U.S. who were willing to show their face for immigration reform — to stand for their situation. We used those images to connect the past to the present.”

As for parallels to current immigration politics, “We started working on Ellis Island a year and a half before the [refugee] crisis started. Then suddenly, as we were locking the film, the biggest crisis that Europe has seen since the Second World War was exploding. A year before that I had gone to Lampeduza in Sicily to observe the Ellis Island of today, much like Greece. It was really interesting to see the process and how they were welcomed and had to hold numbers and such. A lot of the process was similar to what I’ve seen through researching Ellis Island.”

Ellis and Unframed will be shown from December 2 – 7 during Art Basel Miami Beach (Melin Building, 3930 NE 2nd Avenue, Suite 201). Until November 22, communities are invited to organize their own Ellis screenings — see Ellis for details.

Ellis trailer…

Unframed at Ellis Island hospital…

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