I need my passport to write this article. Or, more specifically, to get paid to write this article. It is standard university procedure, one I’ve gone through multiple times in my various roles at The University of Edinburgh. Your passport is scanned, your photo checked, and your right to work in the UK confirmed. It takes – hopefully – only a few minutes.
It is a funny thing, going through this process while simultaneously poring over Aayushi Gupta’s Performing the Passport Photo, exhibited in this year’s ECA Degree Show. In this series of photographic and performance pieces, Gupta deconstructs and satirises the process of taking a passport photo, interrogating what it means to have complex human identities simplified and standardised in order to permit people to live, travel, and indeed as I have found, to work.
In Preparing for the Passport Photo, for example, a series of uniform portraits printed in a strip on glossy paper, Gupta pulls her facial features into various contorted shapes – eyes wide, hair impossibly smoothed back – to ensure her photo meets regulations. In Untitled (Final Image from Performance Experiment 1), meanwhile, Gupta places tape over her face to mimic the guidelines of the photo template.
There is a real lightness and wit to Gupta’s work that makes her portfolio a delight to explore. In Passport Photo Guidance Form, a series of increasingly ridiculous poses demonstrate what should not be done: a lock of hair comically pulled over the eyes, face painted green, mouth open defiantly wide. In Untitled (Performance Experiment 1) – a piece I would have loved to see live – Gupta uses a ruler to contemplatively measure her own face against the life size template behind her. These slapstick touches work to emphasise the farcical and arbitrary rules that claim to accurately represent a person’s identity, ridiculing the bureaucratic systems that place all their faith in these rules.
Through this humour, however, Gupta offers a serious and powerful provocation of the limitations of the passport photo and passport as signifiers of identity and belonging. In her accompanying statement, Gupta discusses her own political and national liminality, and the ways in which her passport and various travel documents act as “physical manifestations of a fragmented yet ‘official’ identity”, while nevertheless failing to capture her complicated experiences and personhood.
One of my favourite details of her work, meanwhile, in Untitled (Performance Experiment 1.2), are a series of graffitied letters demanding “TOURIST / MIGRANT / IMMIGRANT / NON-RESIDENT / EXPATRIATE”, drawing attention to the ways in which these systems of bureaucracy feed into wider concerns about policing borders and immigration control. Much as passport photos fail to convey Gupta’s identity, this piece seems to claim, they also fail to understand and represent the complexities of nationality, homeland, and movement in this increasingly hostile world.
In Performing the Passport Photo, Gupta brings what she describes as “one of the most mundane and heavily regulated types of photographs” under the banner of creative photography, playing with its conventions and boundaries in order to reveal its absurdity and violence. It is a playful yet profoundly mature work, one that I would love to see on photo booths everywhere.
Anahit Behrooz is an arts journalist based in Edinburgh. She currently works as events editor at The Skinny, with words in The List, Girls on Tops, Culture Trip, and others. Twitter: @anahitrooz