Paromita Vohra: Those secret travel photos

Nov 11, 2018, 08:19 IST | Paromita Vohra

While idyllic sunsets and magical vistas are the travel photos we all share, there is an entire invisible photographic world, the political and aesthetic underbelly of travel: visa and immigration photos

Paromita Vohra: Those secret travel photos
Illustration/Ravi Jadhav

Paromitra VohraNow that holiday season is upon us, social media is exploding with holiday pictures (mea culpa, too). Instagram has changed how we travel, driving hordes to 'undiscovered' locations, jostling to replicate the same iconic shots. In 2015, the tourism board of Wanaka, a New Zealand town, began to invite social media influencers to post about their travels, resulting in a 14 per cent increase in tourism.

While idyllic sunsets and magical vistas are the travel photos we all share, there is an entire invisible photographic world, the political and aesthetic underbelly of travel: visa and immigration photos. Last month, I had to make a new passport and apply for visas. This was an utterly traumatic process. One, because contact with the authorities brings on Kafkaesque feels. The forms and websites of all these departments are designed to exacerbate this terror in a way hostel matrons can only aspire to. Every sentence is ominously crafted to make you feel that a spelling mistake could result in jail-time and permanent banning from contemplating any trips.

Perhaps, this first reason directly impacts reason two for the trauma — the fact that in visa and passport photos, despite our best efforts, we always look like we've been picked out of some petty-thugs of Hindostan line-up. There is always that hunted-cum-horrified look of fear and self-loathing, that sullen-but-hapless air of defeat, that attempt at sincerity, which somehow looks sinister. It's as if we conform to the suspicious gaze of nation-states and administrators by immediately looking like culprits and criminals in such photos.

And, of course, woe betide if you have to apply for more than one visa. Globalisation will standardise hamburgers and fashion across the world, but visa photos? Kabhi nahin. Schengen, US, UK, Singapore, all have colluded to ensure a different size and a different backdrop for each. The only thing they have in common is they want to see your ears. Milaad, my ears don't show not because I am treasonous, but because they are flat and the only neat thing about me. I've had to subject myself to the ignominy of the photographer putting tape behind my ears to make them stick out. Now I looked both tragic and comical at the same time. Body-shamed for ears! There is no justice.

Before digital photography, things were worse. In all my photos I looked like I was on the verge of tears, which, I probably was, in anticipation of the unknown results I would receive the next day.

Digital photography provides a hope, or illusion, of control. In the photo studio I visited, there was a very big sign. It said: only 5 attempts allowed. After that, extra charge '100. I imagined various people, spoiled by selfie-taking, checking and demanding a re-shoot on the spot.

But, even if you manage a good photo (bitter laugh), this will be undone as soon as you reach immigration. The world's airports harbour many photos of us all looking jet-lagged, messy, sans-airport look, captured by unflattering webcams, designed by the state and some corporate manufacturer, to cut globetrotters imagining they are so maverick and cool and free, down to size. Well, perhaps we should cherish this as an experience in human fragility. A reminder that perfection is possible on Instagram, but real life is complicated. At least, that's the story I'm telling myself.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning, Mumbai-based film-maker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

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