Capturing the 'Dark Side' of Ellis Island Stephen Wilkes photographed a side of Ellis Island that no one sees. Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom documents weather-beaten remnants of the immigration hub's abandoned buildings.
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Capturing the 'Dark Side' of Ellis Island

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Capturing the 'Dark Side' of Ellis Island

Capturing the 'Dark Side' of Ellis Island

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Sometimes a journey of five years begins with a single hour. At least that what happens to Stephen Wilkes. Mr. Wilkes is a photographer who got an assignment to go out to Ellis Island for an hour's shoot in 1998. Not the part that's a tourist attraction, a restored National Museum of Immigration. Stephen Wilkes went out to the south part that was a hospital, where people who steamed past the Statue of Liberty on crowded ships were sometimes held back if they had an infectious disease or obvious disorder.

The hospital was shut down in 1954 and basically left untouched, except by salty harbor winds and time. When Stephen Wilkes began to take photographs there in 1998, trees limbs had started to reach into hallways. Layers of heavy lead paint peeled from the walls and dripped down from ceilings. Light licked in from cracks, playing over old chairs or a single abandoned suitcase.

The hospital looked like the empty husk of history - eerie, lovely and haunting. In his photographer's mind's eye, he began to see the people who had moved through those rooms. Stephen Wilkes has published a new book of photographs, "Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom." Some of these photos can be seen in our Web site,

(Soundbite of ferry)

SCOTT: So we boarded a Circle Line ferry on a damp, gray day to have Mr. Wilkes show us around the Ellis Island he knows. He says he tries to see the island as the people packed into boats did, beholding the lamp of the Statue of Liberty, and then...

Mr. STEPHEN WILKES (Photographer): Having all that energy and excitement going through your bones and just anticipating what life is going to be like, and then at that point of entry, when you get off the boat, somebody says you have something wrong with your eye here, you have to be separated. And suddenly that anticipation of hope and excitement changes to one of fear and unknowing. So I feel that's a certain kind of thing that kind of runs through the south side.

SCOTT: What would it be like when you would ride the ferry out here and people would say where you going, and you would say I'm going to the side of Ellis Island people never see, as a matter of fact?

Mr. WILKES: Well, that's the interesting thing. I mean when I started doing work on this project, people said, south side, what is the south side? Like they didn't even know it existed. Again, because most people are going to pull in the way we are, which is you come of the Circle Line and you get out on a dock and you're looking at this gorgeous restored great hall, and to the left of you is the south side, and for the most part, up until recently, you couldn't even see, like I said, the buildings; they were just so covered with growth.

So they used to use a term, the forgotten side, the south side, or the sad side. And it was left - probably when the island was officially close in '54, in 1954, it was pretty much abandoned. I mean it was as if the government just left, and they left the windows open. I was very fascinated, almost in - I think I wanted to be an archeologist when I was younger. And for me the exploration of this place was almost that kind of an experience, you know, like I was going through room by room and just capturing what I saw. I wanted to try to give the individual viewer of this work the experience they would have to view it there yourself for the first time.

SCOTT: Now here we are approaching, and of course on the right hand side where we're coming in, which where the great hall is...

Mr. WILKES: And this is the very building, by the way. This is another portion that I photographed. And these wonderful lead eagles...

(Soundbite of tourists)

SCOTT: So while the hundreds of tourists speaking scores of languages head to the great hall, we donned hard hats and walked to the forgotten side over dry eaves and broken glass. The ceiling is low. The chill, gray and dampness of the outdoors seep into the hallways. You find yourself thinking, who else - has anybody else walked here for 50 years?

When we first walked in here, you - very few people have been here - for 50 years? Forty-seven years?

Mr. WILKES: Yeah. Yeah, and people would come through periodically to look at it. But I think what was unique about my experience was that I actually study this place for five years. You know, I really had a unique arrangement where I was able to come and go and photograph it through every season. I waited, oh gosh, over four years just for snowfall to hit this island.

SCOTT: Quality of life is very important to you. And it also raises maybe a more mundane matter, the quality of air circulation, which is very important out here.

Mr. WILKES: Yeah. Form to follow function, really...

SCOTT: Yeah.

Mr. WILKES: ...and you see that as it we come down the corridor. Someone said to me once there's history in the light and these pictures, and I think that's really true.

SCOTT: Yeah.

Mr. WILKES: When the light would come through these hallways and in these rooms, it somehow, in a strange way sort of reenergized what had happened here. Air circulation was really important because it was the only way, at that time, they knew how to treat tuberculosis and a lot of infectious diseases.

So what you're seeing is the corridor here is created, again, as it is the spinal cord, and this where the doctors and the nurses would walk to get to various wards, and depending on the severity of the disease, they had their measles wards, they had tuberculosis wards on either side, and off of some of those wards they actually had a similar corridors but they were curved. And you know, again, it's kind of a unique design.

But it was very much the reason for curving a corridor was to effectively stop the spread of germs, and that's a major thrust to this, is the - in terms of its design. Here's where Corridor Nine was taken.

When I took that photograph, one of the things that struck me was obviously there was this magic light that was coming into the room. And I - to this day I believe I shot the picture on the summer solstice. And that's the only reason, I think, because I went back countless times afterwards and never got the light quite like that.

And that door at the end was open, and I remember this orange light radiating, but when I got the film back, what was so interesting was, I looked at the left side of the photograph, and if you notice, everything is in shadow, but thriving; green is thriving in the shade. It's all living.

And then if you look to the right, there's a white glow in all the windows and everything is white and bright, but everything is dead. And it became really an apt metaphor, I thought, to what happened on this island; it was life and death. You were going on a journey. You were going someplace. You really weren't sure which way you were going to go.

SCOTT: We walk from the spinal column of Corridor Nine into a hallway with several rooms. They're each about six by nine feet, with two small sinks and a window.

Mr. WILKES: One of unique things about my experience out here was that I would discover things, sometimes in the most unique ways. I remember vividly coming down this corridor many times, and I'd never really took notice of this particular room. But one day I came down and I decided I was just going to walk in. There were lots of leaves and there was fragments of paint that had fallen on the ground. And so when I walked in, I stood about right here, and I was bent over.

And I remember I was bent over at about five foot, five foot two, and I slowly just picked my head up, and you see from this angle, Scott, there was a mirror on that wall, and exactly in that mirror, at that height, bent over, and that's the only time you can see this, is a perfect reflection of the Statue of Liberty, and then I had this...

SCOTT: It's one of the only two times in the book that you put the statue in.

Mr. WILKES: Yeah.

SCOTT: It would have been so easy just to run it every other page.

Mr. WILKES: Right. As I saw it, I had this feeling of this Eastern European woman who was, you know, about five foot, five foot two, and I - all I could think about was that she would get up out of bed and she would see that reflection every single morning. You know, that's really - really as close as she ever got to freedom. And...

SCOTT: Wondering if she'll ever get to the other side of the statue.

Mr. WILKES: Exactly. Yeah. And I remember taking the photograph and coming back a week or two later. The mirror had been shattered, gone. The picture's gone forever.

SCOTT: You got it at just the right time.

Mr. WILKES: Yeah. Yeah. Got it just the right time, just the right time.

SCOTT: Why two sinks in rooms?

Mr. WILKES: Well, in tuberculosis ward, you always had one sink that you spit into and then you had one sink that you would wash from. So they never wanted to have anything that was infectious be in the same place where you washed from, and that was really why they created the two sinks. The very small one was a spitting sink and the larger one was to wash from.

SCOTT: Yeah.

Mr. WILKES: Amazing.

SCOTT: We make our way to a recreation room that was used in the ward for highly contagious patients. As you walk through the door, you can see the Statue of Liberty filling the far a window, but only that window and only from the doorway. To the people in this ward she must have seen both beckoning and elusive.

Mr. WILKES: One of things I'm thinking about doing as an addendum to my book is - as I show the work in a number of galleries, people come in and look at the photographs and they get so moved, they start talking about their own personal history, their grandparents, their great-great grandparents. And their stories are fascinating, and you know, they're stories that frankly would die with that generation...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. WILKES: ...if they don't talk about it.

SCOTT: You understand that in a personal way.

Mr. WILKES: Yeah, I do, actually. My mother escaped Austria in 1939. She - her family had gotten one passport and she left through Naples, Italy, and arrived here in America. She was nine years old. And she had a teddy bear.

My grandmother was a seamstress and she sewed all the family's personal belongings in the teddy bear. And my mother came across and didn't speak a word of English, and she remembers she described being at - on the docks coming over and she was supposed to be met by my aunt, who was receiving a telegram, and unfortunately it got there much too late.

And so my mother sat on the dock waiting for over five, six hours, not speaking a word of English. And so there has always been a sense, for me at least - so many children came through this side of the island; I always identify with my Mom of what it must have been like for a nine-year-old who didn't speak a word of English to have your whole family's belongings sewn into a teddy bear.

SCOTT: The rest of his mother's family made it to the United States within a year. The forgotten side of Ellis Island that Stephen Wilkes photographed no longer exits. An organization called Save Ellis Island has raised the money to stabilized the old hospital, which saves it from further decay but also cleans up some of the rhapsodical ruin and rust that still touched Stephen Wilkes. The paint that peeled off in generations, making walls look like topographical maps, dripping down like gaudy stalactites, is being stripped.

Save Ellis Island hopes to open the forgotten side to tourists in 10 to 15 years. In the meantime, there is his book, "Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom." Some of these photos can be seen in our Web site,

Our story was produced by Justin Cannon and recorded by Josh Rogerson(ph). This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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