Indiana Daily Student

IU students explore identity through artwork in the Passport Photo Project

<p>The Asian Culture Center led the Passport Photo Project event, in partnership with visiting assistant professor Vivek Vellanki on Thursday. Participants were asked to design their passport photos by thinking, “What do you want the world to know about you?” </p>

The Asian Culture Center led the Passport Photo Project event, in partnership with visiting assistant professor Vivek Vellanki on Thursday. Participants were asked to design their passport photos by thinking, “What do you want the world to know about you?” 

The Asian Culture Center, in partnership with Vivek Vellanki, Postdoctoral Fellow at CRRES, invited students of Asian descent to the Passport Photo Project event on Thursday. 

Six students gathered to design large prints of their passport photos during the event. Each of the participants gathered upstairs in the Asian Culture Center to cut and paste magazine pictures, paint or write on the images. Vellanki prompted the students to approach their designs with one question: “What do you want the world to know about you?”

Inspiration for the Passport Photo Project — which started in 2018 — arose from Vellanki’s 14-year interest in collecting passport photos. Vellanki has asked friends and family for their pictures over the years. He said keeping loved ones' passport photos is common practice in India, where he’s from. Vellanki said he’s shocked that after collecting almost 90 passport designs during the project, no two images look similar.

Related: [IU Asian Culture Center to lead Passport Photo Project event]

The project combined Vellanki’s interests in migration, identity and diaspora with the cultural significance of passport photos. Vellanki said he enjoys how the project can be collaborative for participants. 

“What's been amazing is that people are in conversation with each other, talking to each other about what it means to be an immigrant, refugee or international student in this country,” Vellanki said. “Which is often stories of struggle. But there's also moments of joy that become understandable when you share that sort of identity and experience.” 

While this event welcomed anyone of Asian descent to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Vellanki said he thinks it’s essential that these events create spaces for refugee, immigrant and international students. 

IU freshman Katelyn Wo said the project made her reflect on her multiracial identity. For her piece, she glued photos of white-appearing individuals on one side of her face, with Asian-appearing individuals on the other. 

“My dad's family is from Hong Kong, and then my mom's family is white,” Wo said. “I talked about how that plays into my identity, just like those halves.” 

Wo decided to glue magazine quotes to her photo as well, things like “Now is the time to start listening,” in reference to Asian voices. She also glued the word “diaspora.” 

“I thought ‘diaspora’ was interesting because I think something unique about the Asian American experience is that everyone has very different stories,” Wo said.  “Everyone you talk to, their families came here at different times.”

IU junior Shazia Akhtar helped Vellanki organize the project. Akhtar attended a previous workshop and said the experience allowed her to reflect on her identity as an international student at IU. Akhtar said she thinks the university lacks awareness of the issues that international students face. 

“My experience at IU has been very, very difficult,” Akhtar said. “I feel hurt by IU in a deep sense, because I feel they made a lot of claims about being very international-student friendly, but they fell short on those claims.” 

Because of how difficult the transition has been, Akhtar said she was thankful the project connected her with people who understood her identity. She appreciated that the workshop allowed students to explore how they see themselves. 

“Passports have recently become an acceptable answer to the question, ‘Who are you?’” Akhtar said. “It felt like finally there was one space that could almost be a home to me because everyone around me had similar experiences. They understood what I was saying without having to over explain myself. It just felt like a place where I could be myself.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated Vivek Vellanki's title.

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