Humanities2 MIN. READ

Sometimes an iconic image is misunderstood.

Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907
By Arne Norris
June 11, 2019

“I think that there is a powerful relationship between art that can stimulate conversation. The way that we frame art in relation to other works of art, but also our own lives, and the audience, is something I’ve been captivated by. It’s been transformative for me.”

Caroline Webb ’19 on her experiences curating the exhibition Seeing Otherwise at the Colby College Museum of Art, in partnership with Chloé Powers ’19, and Francis F. and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology Catherine Besteman.
Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907
Alfred Stieglitz
The Steerage, 1907
7 3/4 in. x 6 in. (19.69 cm x 15.24 cm)
Gift of Norma B. Marin

The world knows the Alfred Stieglitz photograph as an iconic image of 20th-century immigration. Caroline Webb ’19 knows the real story.

Webb curated the exhibition Seeing Otherwise, which was the culmination of Making Migration Visible, a Humanities Lab taught by Besteman in the spring of 2018. That lab led to Making Migration Visible: Traces, Tracks & Pathways, a state-wide initiative with partnering organizations offering parallel exhibitions, film screenings, performances, lectures, community dinners, and poetry curated by Besteman and Julie Poitras Santos, assistant professor at the Maine College of Art.

Besteman, who has studied and worked on migration and mobility issues for much of her career, acknowledged that some immigrant activists say there is a need to go beyond discussion to action. “What I’m hoping is that this initiative can help foster different kinds of conversation that can lead to different kinds of action,” she said.

For Webb, that conversation involved consideration of an image long interpreted inaccurately and used to bolster perceptions of immigrants—who in this case weren’t immigrants at all.

“Alfred Stieglitz made this photograph while traveling on the vessel Kaiser Wilhelm II with his family from New York to Germany for a vacation,” Webb wrote. “The people depicted in this image are likely artisans and construction workers returning to Europe after temporary work in the United States.

“Understanding the directionality of the Kaiser Wilhelm II enables us to rethink our assumptions of mobility and migration—as informed by national and social imaginaries—and the images that perpetuate these imagined stories. For me, this image provokes questions: What is left out of the image? How do assumptions create borders?”

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