Passport Photos by Amitava Kumar


Review by Walter Cummins

A tangle of borders dominates Amitava Kumar’s Passport Photos. The most obvious are the boundaries between nations that require verification of a small booklet to allow crossings, a privilege in the hands of officials with the power to scrutinize the information within before they grant passage. But Kumar also addresses the existence of the many boundaries that can’t be located on a physical map yet still function as barriers to access, requiring qualifications beyond the possession of a legal document. In many cases, these barriers are insurmountable, millions of humans trapped into places and conditions they can never escape.

Passport Photos is a unique genre-bending book, constantly shifting among photographs, poetry, novel selections, essay passages, historical episodes, postcolonial theory, words on street signs, and Kumar’s often impassioned voice. His ability as a writer of fiction and nonfiction, with several books and many magazine publications, a Guggenheim grant, and a PhD, serves as the passport that gives him liberty to roam among  all these sources as well as to explore myriad corners of human existence.

The book’s method involves transcending intellectual and literary boundaries, but the book’s substance focuses on exploring economic and social boundaries, those of living places, of education, of occupation, of income, of gender, of opportunity, and—most essentially—of power. Not only can a person in a booth on a border control another person’s ability to pass into a different circumstances, many other judges, seen and unseen, concrete or abstract, function as sources of domination that determine our choices and our opportunities.

Kumar’s anger and frustration comes through on almost every page. He is hardly an academic observer analyzing the thoughts of others but rather a protester, objecting to the limitations and sufferings brought about because of so many locked borders. Kumar calls the book a “forged passport”: “If anything, it will help you enter only the zones of a particular imagination.”

He places fundamental blame on the controls and oppressions of those empowered by wealth. While he gives examples within borders, he finds them determined by international capitalism controlled by organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, by multinational corporations, and especially by the domination of the United States: “Lest it be assumed that it is only the repressive might of the postcolonial nation-state that is responsible for all the deaths in the Third World, we need to look a bit more carefully at the global context in which the imperatives of the nation-state not only collude with but also are so often scripted by the profit motive of international, primarily Western, capital.”

One example he uses to demonstrate the connection is the manner in which a seemingly beneficial corporate invention can yield great profits and harm millions of individual lives. General Electric’s ultrasound device provides a visual image of a fetus. While many would associate that with the positive ability to examine the  health of the unborn child, it also allows identification of the gender. In a nation like India, where there is a overwhelming preference for a male birth, the GE machine provides a knowledge that leads to the abortion of female fetuses and a resulting gender imbalance of men and women throughout the population: “Of 13,400 abortions conducted at a Delhi clinic in 1992-93, 13,398 were of female fetuses.”

Kumar considers this result the consequence of a GE profiteering opportunity: “… what I find appalling is the repression of the complicity between oppressive, dominant forces in India and the U.S. Let’s ask, for example, how U.S. multinationals like General Electric, with their marketing of ultrasound devices, profited from the heinous social practices in India.”

A major consequence of social and economic barriers within a nation is the diaspora of emigrants seeking occupational, educational, and lifestyle opportunities. While Kumar does consider other nationalities, like the treatment of Turks in Germany, his emphasis is on those born in India, of which he is one. The original Indians who came to the United States were physical laborers on the West Coast, looked down upon as “ragheads,” leading to a period of laws that shut them out even when they tried to argue that they were Caucasian. But in recent decades Indians became desirable because of their high educational levels as computer scientists, engineers, and physicians.

Although their passports are readily accepted, they face the difficulties of cultural adjustment and discrimination. In addition, India has lost the abilities of thousands of highly talented individuals. Kumar, rather than praising  what has been called a model minority, questions it: “Instead, this book asks: at what cost is this privileged status being celebrated? And at whose—or what—expense is this success being assumed?”

The more Kumar considers the issues, the more complex the problems become and the more difficult the search for solutions. The controls of corporate and governmental power have grown. What does the possession of a passport offer to those who are not already affluent and sought?  “The question that remains is this: what has been done to alter the structural conditions that will ensure an end to poverty as well as the inequality of wealth?”

He considers the illegal immigrant a harbinger: “The illegal immigrant is the bravest among us. The most modern among us. The prophet. … The peasant knows the reality of our world decades before the Californian suburbanite will ever get the point.”