Xavier Goins photographs asylum-seekers who passed through San Francisco’s Angel Island from 1910 to 1940.
When Xavier Goins moved to San Francisco from upstate New York to study photography at the Academy of Art University, a whole new world opened for him. Unlike his hometown where it could take a decade for a new store to open, his new city was in a constant state of flux; the population rapidly changing and the environment always at risk due to wildfires and earthquakes. Goins was inspired to do his part in helping to conserve history. Through his work, he hopes to capture and preserve memories; pay homage to underrepresented stories; and ultimately to open himself up to and connect with people who come from different walks of life.
Goins became fascinated by Angel Island Immigration Station, an isolated arrival point in the San Francisco Bay. The station had been the hub for millions of people fleeing poverty, oppression, and war in China, Japan, and Nazi Germany between 1910 and 1940. At the station, immigrants were detained and interrogated, sometimes for several months, before being allowed in or sent back from the land of opportunity. He connected with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation that tracked those seeking asylum, and through them met Hop Jeong, a Chinese man who immigrated by himself at just 10 years old. Jeong became Goin’s first subject in his photo project “Built of Jade.”
Making the series was a race against time. Most of the asylum seekers he found through the foundation had already passed away, so he used public records to find anyone under 100 years old who might still be alive. “There have been so many times when I called and the person who picked up would say that the contact I’d been looking for had passed away several years ago,” Goins says. A few people he was unable to photograph because they died midway through the communication process.
Once Goins established an initial connection, he asked to visit the subjects’ homes. “Intimacy was a very important element to the photographs in this project,” he says. He began each session by putting the camera down for an hour and talking to his subjects, to hear their stories and establish rapport. Goins made portraits and also photographed the ID cards, childhood glasses, war medals from World War II, and photographs they brought with them to America.
Goins has immense respect for his subjects. “Some of these people left their families behind, and were held at Angel Island for months on end just to offer better lives for their children,” he says. Since he has met many of his subjects’ children, he saw for himself the immense differences in the freedom they had compared to their parents.
Sometimes, Goins had to be persistent. He identified one man, William, who he wanted to photograph, but for a year his wife declined Goin’s request. Goin tried once more while on a work trip and to his surprise, she agreed. By this time, William’s health was deteriorating, he says, “I ended up spending five hours at their place, ate dinner with them, and got great photos, a few months after this visit William died. His family contacted Goins and asked if they could have some of the photos he took. “At that point, they realized how important this project was and were very happy that I had gone down there to do that.”
“Built of Jade” has become a meditation on time, memory, and loss, both in it’s photos presented in the series and the urgency Goins has felt to memorialize each person while they were still alive. He reflects: “Time moves so quickly, and you have to recognize its importance before it’s gone.”