Another view: passport photos

Between 1912 and 1925, the U.S. State department issued more than one million passports of various types: regular, emergency, special, and insular.1  Each of these types includes data from applicants of native and naturalized citizenry; insular residents would have a more complex and ambiguous status depending on their origin. In any case, an opportunity was inadvertently created for spouses and their minor children—though technically visiting aliens—to in effect emigrate as U.S. citizens. Because they had never been to the U.S., they were for all practical purposes immigrants. They left from the same ports, stayed in same steerage compartments and were processed at immigration stations in the same way as first-time immigrants. They also underwent physical examinations, could be detained or held for special inquiry, and in some cases were denied entry. The naturalization acts governing derived citizenship inadvertently made such scenarios possible and clear examples can be found in passport applications, particularly ones made at foreign U.S. consulates.

Despite the seemingly unintended consequences, earlier immigration policies enacted by Congress were deliberately crafted to allow for marital citizenship:

Married women were more likely to follow or accompany rather than precede their husbands to the United States. Not only could the husband generally find more gainful employment once he entered the labor force, but the chances of both husband and wife entering the United States improved if he arrived first or brought his spouse with him. A large percentage of men, married or single, arrived in the United States unaccompanied by family, and the government considered it sound social policy to foster the reunion of this resident man with his absentee family. Despite the restrictions imposed by the quota law, the government encouraged these men to reestablish a stable home life in the United States—if they intended to stay—by offering special admission and naturalization arrangements to the wives and children of male declarant aliens or citizens.2

The "Cable Act" of September 1922 would eventually change this, but until it fully came into force thousands would take advantage of the prevailing laws and enter the U.S. for the first time as naturalized citizens.3

First generation immigrants, many who were born in the U.S. then within a few years were taken back to their parent's homeland, also frequently appear in the applications. Though U.S. citizens by birth, many spent the better part of their childhood in another country (typically with close family) then returned to the United States. The outbreak of WWI and its devastating aftermath would both delay and hasten their return; such travelers truly had one foot in the old world and one in the new. Examples of this pattern can be seen with all nationalities, European and non-European alike.

While the precise number of U.S. citizens (naturalized or native) traveling abroad during this period is not known, based on the number of passport applications processed it is reasonable to assume that the number is upwards of one million.4 Compared to the total number of immigrant arrivals or total naturalizations during this time period, this number represents a fraction of the immigrant/foreign-born population of the United States. If one were to collect just the naturalized citizens or children of foreign parentage born in the U.S. who applied for passports, the number would be even smaller. Notwithstanding, the applications made by naturalized citizens, their spouses and minor children contain an immense amount of photographic material and can provide another view of immigrants—specifically those now returning to or entering for the first time as naturalized U.S. citizens.

While the passports themselves might have become scattered among thousands of families of their descendants, returned to the State department, surrendered to customs officials or simply discarded, many of the original applications are intact.

Passport photos: documentary, studio, vernacular or their own category?

Basic demographic information along with a physical description of the passport applicant had been recorded in U.S. passport applications since the early 19th century, but starting in December 1914 applicants were now explicitly required to supply duplicate personal photos: one for the issued passport and one for the original application to be kept on file. However, some passports issued years earlier would inconsistently require applicant photos (in triplicate) to be included. This practice appears to have been exclusively reserved for Chinese Americans, no matter whether naturalized or native born citizens.

After the passage of the Geary Act in 1892 and its subsequent 1893 amendment, Chinese Americans would become the first ethnic group or type of citizenry required to possess certificates of residence and certificates of identity with photos, at all times. The early inclusion of photos on Asian American passport applications was a continuation of a common practice dating back decades earlier and assigned to one ethnicity.

The uncertainty of the WWI era also led to the U.S. government to advise its citizens living abroad to carry passports.5 U.S. entry into the Great War in April 1917 would hasten such requirements, stepping up an already increasingly bureaucratic "documentary regime of verification". Essential information along with a second copy of a photo was included in the issued passport.

After investigating dozens of archival volumes of applications, I discovered that in addition to photographic material, original applications might also include poignant comments or statements made by applicants and consular officials. A fair amount of non-indexed supplemental material also turns up, including:

Supplemental material such as this can dramatically enrich the collective narrative and bring the reader/viewer face-to-face with the often grim reality of the times:

Additional scrutiny appears to have been applied to applicants emigrating from specific countries or territories.  For example, some applicants from Middle or Near Eastern countries supplied an inked fingerprint on their photo, if illiterate; Chinese-Americans required multiple photo identity verification, including by a Commissioner of Immigration; the identity of Italian-Americans appear to have required extra verification by Italian officials (e.g. the mayor) from the province an applicant resided in, which was written onto the photo itself (see passport application above).

The State department kept and eventually deposited the original applications at the U.S. National Archive and Records Administration (NARA). In 2012, NARA & Ancestry.com partnered in scanning immense runs of multi-page passport applications originally processed by the State department in the U.S. as well as at U.S. consulates throughout the world; the files were made freely available via the NARA catalog in 2021. Applicant names and other data were eventually indexed by Ancestry.com for genealogical purposes. As far as I can determine the collections do not appear to be widely explored or referenced outside of genealogical circles, and there only minimally.6

U.S. Consular Posts, Emergency Passport Applications, 1914-1925

After observing that U.S. consulates abroad predominantly attracted U.S. citizens who had a geographic or ethnic connection to the area where the consulates were located, I thought this might be a unique opportunity to visually group people along ethnic/national lines during the 1914-1925 time period, but more importantly link verifiable facts to such photographic portraits. Photos would of course first have to be extracted. In addition to the visuals, adding some biographical information culled from the applications themselves would allow for a more complete individual portrait. This is not possible in standard passport applications as they are more or less chronologically arranged, making broad collection in one area prohibitive.

Although the portraits themselves are a mix of amateur and studio shot photographs many were captivating—even stunning—in terms of subject matter and photographic composition.

Most were taken in the country where the citizens were living in or transiting from when making an application—not the U.S.

Given that the main partner in the scanning process was Ancestry.com, these collections appear to have been brought to light primarily as genealogical resources, but one can imagine how that works for typical users doing family research: they find or don't find an ancestor, then move on. Understandably, most people’s interest with such documents starts and ends with their family. There is, however, more undeveloped potential.

However, the passport application collections have had somewhat inconsistent access points. The digital scans were embargoed from release at NARA facilities or NARA websites for a period of five years. Until then (2017), they were to be published exclusively by Ancestry.com and available only through paid subscription or at NARA facilities—despite being public domain documents. NARA ran behind schedule in making them available online, so until 2021 access was obstructed by a paywall, which in turn kept web crawlers (e.g. Google) from indexing the webpages. Moreover, the files in the NARA catalog are currently unindexed, making even simple searches prohibitive.

The overall visibility of the existing collections—though available in digitized form since the early 2010s—is low.


Artistic and social contributions aside, one major distinction worth noting between the immigrant photos of Sherman and Hine and the passport photos described on this website is that Sherman and Hine (and others) rarely recorded the names or any personal information about their subjects.

In the end, except for the ascribed race/ethnicity and the year the photo was made, we know far more about the photographers themselves than their subjects. Moreover, particularly with Sherman's work, we see a less representative cross-section of arrivals who actually went on to become U.S. citizens.

With passport photos, however, in most cases the identity of the photographer remains obscure while the subjects' names and other biographical data can be discerned—a distinction that puts identity and meaning to immigrants' lives. No matter which category an individual might fall into—and the lines can be extraordinary blurry—the photos visually capture a century of shifting nationalities, of global migration...a century on the move.

1 United States. Dept. of State. Passport Office., The United States passport: past, present, future. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976, 220-221. See also: Nicastro, Kathie O. and Claire Prechtel-Kluskens, "Passport Applications: A Key to Discovering Your Immigrant Ancestor's Roots," Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives 25 (Winter 1993): 390-394.

2  Bredbenner, Candice Lewis, A Nationality of Her Own: Women, Marriage, and the Law of Citizenship. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, 117

3 See the "Married Women's independent Citizenship Act of September 22, 1922": “§ 2. That any woman who marries a citizen of the United States after the passage of this act, or any woman whose husband is naturalized after the passage of this act, shall not become a citizen of the United States by reason of such marriage or naturalization; but, if eligible to citizenship, she may be naturalized upon full and complete compliance with all requirements of the naturalization laws...” reproduced in "American Citizenship Rights of Women" 72nd Senate Hearing ~ Committee on Immigration. U.S. Library of Congress. March 2, 1933.

4 Robertson, Craig, The Passport in America: The History of a Document. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, 216.

5 Ibid, 80.

6 Since the photos are taken from U.S. government documents and the obligatory 72 years has passed, the original scans (made by whomever) can be adapted as "a work of art or scholarship." This is the legal basis that I entered under when working with the source material.

This page has paths:

This page references: