Ordinary people, extraordinary lives

Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.
—Susan Sontag,  On Photography, 1977 1

Some history from below

While examining the thousands of passport applications used in this project, a number of photos immediately claimed my attention. Not necessarily because of the photo's perfect composition or masterful execution, but rather because they invited questions. I felt a strong desire to know more about the lives behind the likeness portrayed and to try and connect memory with history, if that was possible. Who were these people? Why were they leaving or returning? Did they make it (back) to the U.S.? Whether they did or didn't, what became of them? I had to know.

It turns out that the visual pull I experienced (or imagined) wasn't arbitrary and as I sketched some rough outlines of peoples' lives based primarily on archival materials, it was clear that the photos were going to become even more compelling as narratives took shape. To paraphrase August Sander, these were people without masks and they had something to say.

Below you'll find explorations of a handful of individuals—and the often the complex and troubling era that shaped their (im)migration—that also represent some of the broader categories these travelers were a part of: immigrants, naturalized U.S. Citizens, sojourners, and return migrants. Where possible, I've contacted decedents/relatives of people from the photos to help tell a more rich and nuanced story. But the gaps are telling.

Works cited

1 Sontag, Susan. 2019. On Photography. London [England]: Penguin., 24.

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