Ph.D. Student Puts New Lens on Passport Photos

Drawing of a person with their face covered in post-it notes

What do you want the world to know about you?

Michigan State University Ph.D. student Vivek Vellanki asked 50 local immigrants of all ages and nationalities to answer this question. But he wasn’t collecting words. He gave them their own passport photo — simple, blown up to poster size. He also provided supplies they could use to change their images in any way they wanted. What he got in return was art. And he received so many answers, depending on how you see them.

The transformed photos have culminated in his exhibition, titled “Do You Have Anything to Declare?” which is on display at the MSU Union Art Gallery October 14-November 15. 

“These photos are objects of bureaucracy — a physical manifestation of the state’s practice of identifying and controlling migrants through the restriction of movement, gestures, and attire,” Vellanki said. “On our journeys to other lands, it is one of the first times we are told not to smile, not to look suspicious, to fall in line, to shave, to conform, to shrink.”

Research by Creation

The exhibition and a related photo book will serve as Vellanki’s dissertation for the Curriculum, Instruction and Teacher Education (CITE) program.

Rather than analyzing all of the transformed images as would be traditional in research, Vellanki, a talented photographer and former teacher, chose to let the collection speak for itself.

In this way, creating art can become a powerful avenue for educating others about important topics. Through the exhibition, Vellanki is opening dialogue about the often-misunderstood identities of immigrants in the community.

“Ever since I moved here there has definitely been a pressure to sort of conform…maybe masking some part of my identity,” said Manasi Mishra, an MSU master’s student from India who participated in the project. On her passport photo, she used cutouts from magazines, paint, and words.

“It was an interesting opportunity to express that side of me that I haven’t had a chance to do,” Mishra said. “I had no idea that this could be considered research. It’s revolutionary in some way.” 

The “Do You Have Anything to Declare?” exhibition is free and open to the public from 12-5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 12-7 p.m. Friday, and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.

Originally posted by the College of Education