Migration Photography through the Ages

Migration is not a new event. In fact it has been taking place for thousands of years as people have moved around the country or abroad because of circumstance. Settlers would have been migrants as well as founding fathers of lands. There was a great deal of internal migration especially in the UK during the world wars as children were evacuated away from the major cities into the countryside. This was a large movement of migration that took place over several years, so much so that there was often too many children going to one place that homes needed to be found for them. Essentially the people that took in the children would have acted as their host families, as we see some people doing today and taking in people and refugees.

Migration doesn’t just happen in the UK though, there are also cases of people emigrating   out of the UK, such as to America, or other EU countries and throughout history these have been documented through photography and other mediums. Migration wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it wasn’t always forced. Sometimes there was the promise of a new life and more hope, and this was what convinced people to make the move. But in some cases, migration was forced, but this was entirely based on circumstances and events taking place that may have been out of their control.

I have found some interesting articles online that look at migrations through the ages through photography, art and other installations. It is so interesting to see this difference of ages and the way in which migration was documented, as well as how we see it now.

The first webpage I have looked at is one from the Metro. Although not a particularly reliable source thanks to it being a newspaper and relying mostly on gossip and showbiz news, I did find the article on images of migration particularly interesting and worth noting. The photographs in the article show human mass migration throughout history and was published in 2015. It looks at the hundreds of thousands of displaced people who were fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, enduring long sea journeys and risking their lives walking hundred of miles on foot. There are also images of how people have embarked on similar journeys in the past, in some cases fleeing war, famine and poverty. In other images, people are seeking work or a better life or even returning home.


In the above photographs, there are two types of migration taking place because of the world war that was happening. In one British refugee children are on their journey to New York after setting sail from Southampton. They were part of a group of 60 under the age of 15, escaping the Battle of Britain which took place from June until October 1940, which RAF fighters were clashing with German Luftwaffe over the UK skies. In the other image, we are looking at some European immigrants that fled to New York on the Queen Mary ocean liner. It was believed that more than 50 million people were displaced during WWII.


In the black and white image, Muslim refugees are sat on a roof on a very overcrowded train attempting to flee India after the country gained independence from Britain in 1947 and was then partitioned into India and Pakistan. During this time, the subcontinent was plunged into violence with around 1 million Hindu’s, Muslims and Sikhs killed in rioting. About 12 million people were uprooted from their homes.

In the colour image, it shows about 100,000 people leaving the Mugunga refugee camp in Zaire for Rwanda in 1996, just 2 years after the Rwandan genocide. The people in the image were mostly Rwandan refugees returning home, allegedly freed from the control of the Hutu militia. Marian rebels had also moved in to occupy the camp they were living in.




These were both massive movements of people migrating because of circumstances that risked their lives. They had to get out.


In these images from the 2000’s an Albanian refugee is sitting on a bus with her baby as they arrive in Prizren after fleeing Macedonia on foot after a major conflict broke out between the ethnic Albanian minority and the Macedonian majority.


In 2006, hundred of people are heading off to work on the construction of a venue that was used for the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. China is home to one of the largest mass movements of people in the world, with around 253 million internal migrants.


And in 2007, hundreds of migrant workers are lining up to get train tickets in China’s Zheijiang Province so they can visit home before the Chinese New Year on February 7th. 15 temporary trains had to be brought in to try to ease the traffic surge.



Just from these 7 images it is obvious that migration isn’t always optional. Sometimes it can be good and sometimes it can be bad. But migration can happen at any time for any reason. People migrate everywhere, not just to certain places. They go wherever they can feel safest.


In London, there is currently a migration exhibit taking place known as the ‘Museum of Migration.’

There is so much on migration currently in the national news and in politics internationally. With increasing attention, more people need to be become aware of migration and the things people face on their journeys to find a better life. In this particular museum in London, there are plenty of little touches that are very clever in regards to migrations. Upon the entrance there are doors labelled ‘boarding’ and ‘arrivals’ as well as sign for ‘departures’ upon leaving – a nice touch and reference to all those travelling abroad. There is a great quote from author Robert Winder too that greets people visiting the museum:

Ever since the first Jute, the first Saxon, the first Roman and the first Dane leaped off their boats and planted their feet on British mud, we have been a migrant nation. Our roots are neither clean nor straight; they are impossibly tangled.

There are many different exhibitions within the space, including models, photographs, works of art and even a giant map where people can map their own migrations. There are aspects of art created from all different areas of migration including those from the Jungle migrant camp in Calais, and there is even a display of lifejackets that aren’t functional but highlight the perils of the journeys made by people seeking a better life.

Another part of the museum looks at personal stories of immigrants through the ages, focusing on how London has been shaped by many immigrant communities from Italians in 1940 through to Portuguese fans celebrating their 2006 World Cup victory over England in Stockwell. There are plenty of comments from immigrants and their experiences coming to the UK, including the racist remarks some have received, such as signs showing rooms for rent but listing ‘no coloureds’, to asylum seekers who have recently arrived legally but are still wary of the police. There are also plenty of positive stories though, of people making their new location their home, and enjoying everything to has to offer.

There are plenty of great stories to be found surrounding migration, especially as it has been going on for years and years and is not a new phenomenon. It is often hearing from people who have experienced it first hand, that helps to challenge prejudices and make more of us realise the true perils they go through. Migration through the ages is important to realise because it shows there are so many reasons as to why people may need to move, but their stories aren’t any less important, nor their lives to someone who hasn’t moved. It is so interesting to look into migration through the ages and actually realise just how many different conflicts or other reasons there are that cause people to move.  But it is also nice to see that there are some positive stories from migration and it is not all bad.



These seven powerful photos show human migration throughout history





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