Anna Giberson and Faculty Mentor: James Swensen, Department of Comparative Arts and Letters
This project focused on the study of the photographs of Portuguese immigrants in Massachusetts taken in 1942 by John Collier Jr., an important pioneer in visual anthropology. My goal was to analyze Collier’s photographs in order to raise awareness of the contributions made by the Portuguese immigrant communities in Massachusetts as well as the work done by Collier in documenting their community.
In order to fully research Collier’s photographs, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to study them at the Library of Congress. I began by looking through the photos on their online catalog. These photos were some of the first prints to be digitized and made available in the catalog. Due to this, the quality of many of the images was poor. This made it difficult to read any text included and fully analyze the images. After making a complete list of the photos that were missing or were low-quality, I turned to their microfilm reader. Using that technology, I found better quality images of many on my list, as well as a few that were missing from the online catalog. After exhausting that resource, I searched the file cabinets full of images organized by subject. From those, I successfully found and photographed the remaining images on my list, completing my compilation of Collier’s images of the Portuguese fishing community.
While at the Library of Congress, I searched their catalog to see if they owned any other documents that could be helpful in my research on understanding Collier’s photographs and the Portuguese fishing community. In this research, I found that the Newspaper Collection contained issues of the “Diário de Notícias” published in New Bedford, MA. Though the collection only had three issues, they were from 1945, which fit nicely within my research of Collier’s photos. According to the librarian, no one had requested these newspapers in years. Examining these issues gave me added insight into the Portuguese fishing community. Without the ORCA grant that allowed me to travel to the Library of Congress, I never would have discovered this newspaper that greatly expanded my research.
In conjunction with my time at the Library of Congress, I also studied John Collier Jr. and his technique of photography and how it related to visual anthropology. Reading through his methods and procedures, I was able to find clear instances in the photographs of the Portuguese fishing community where he must have used those practices.
My background research of Collier greatly expanded my analysis of the photographs. Knowing his process and motivation for taking the photos helped me understand what to look for and focus on in the images. I found that his key to using photographs was to have them be interpreted by the photographs’ subjects in order to gain the most accurate reading of the moments captured. This helped me realize some limitations to this project. While unable to analyze the photographs with their subjects from the 1940s, using my background in image reading gained from studying art history, research on the Portuguese, and the newspapers I found at the Library of Congress allowed me to still gain important insights into the Portuguese community.
Through this analysis, I found that the Portuguese not only had a significant impact on various industries in Massachusetts, but also contributed to the American war effort. The choice of the US government to send Collier there to photograph their community also highlights their impact as a model minority community. I also discovered that these photos perfectly and simply demonstrate Collier’s techniques in how to effectively photograph communities. These photos could be used as a way to teach and demonstrate his methods, as they are still applicable today.
This project reminded me that our country has been, is, and always will be built up and bettered by the contribution of immigrants. Working on this research has been one of the highlights of my undergraduate experience here at BYU. Being trusted with the opportunity to pursue my own research on a topic that I chose gave me immense freedom. I compiled my research and analysis into a paper discussing the influence of the Portuguese community and how the photos exemplify John Collier Jr.’s documentary style of photography. As I submit this paper to various journals in the hope of publication, I look forward to sharing my research with the world.