UPDATE OCT. 2020: A new exhibition by Vivek Vellanki has been showcased by the East Lansing Public Library. The project, called 51 Pounds (Take Me With You), consists of photographs of objects that depict what immigrants would take with them if they were forced to leave. Read more.
By Nicole Geary
What do you want the world to know about you?
Michigan State University Ph.D. graduate Vivek Vellanki asked 50 local immigrants of all ages and nationalities to answer this question.
But he wasn’t collecting words.
He gave them their own passport photo, blown up to poster size. He also provided supplies they could use to change their images in any way they wanted.
What he got in return was art. And he received so many answers, depending on how you see them.
The transformed photos culminated in his exhibition, “Do You Have Anything to Declare?,” which was open during October and November 2019 in the MSU Union Art Gallery.
“These photos are objects of bureaucracy—a physical manifestation of the state’s practice of identifying and controlling migrants through the restriction of movement, gestures and attire,” said Vellanki, who is from India. “On our journeys to other lands, it is one of the first times we are told not to smile, not to look suspicious, to fall in line, to shave, to conform, to shrink.”
RESEARCH BY CREATION
The exhibition and a related photo book will be part of Vellanki’s dissertation for the Curriculum, Instruction and Teacher Education (CITE) doctoral program.
Rather than analyzing the transformed images through traditional qualitative research approaches, Vellanki—a talented photographer and former elementary teacher—chose to let the collection speak for itself.
Creating and experiencing art can be a powerful avenue for educating others about important topics, Vellanki believes. Through the exhibition, he helped to open dialogue about the often-misunderstood identities of immigrants in the community.
“Ever since I moved here, there has definitely been a pressure to sort of conform … maybe masking some part of my identity,” said Manasi Mishra, an MSU master’s student also from India who collaborated on the project. On her passport photo, she used cutouts from magazines, paint and words.
“It was an interesting opportunity to express that side of me that I haven’t had a chance to do. I had no idea that this could be considered research. It’s revolutionary in some way.”
During his journey as a doctoral student at MSU, faculty in the Department of Teacher Education—and across campus—encouraged Vellanki to rethink how he would contribute to our understandings about education by learning more about himself.
Now that he is ready to graduate in May 2020, what does he want the world to know about how he got here?
When Vellanki arrived in East Lansing from New Delhi, India in 2015, he had already been through a few transformations.
Years before, he had been studying the circadian rhythm in mice in a lab, pursuing his second science degree, but he lost interest. He had a professor, however, who made him curious about teaching and soon he found himself switching careers to education.
Leading an elementary classroom in Pune, India, he began thinking about what it means to teach. And what he was teaching.
“The school had us follow curriculum that was made in the U.S. I was talking to my students about John eating blueberry pies, but I had never had a blueberry in my life. Why were those ideas being pushed and not other ideas?” he asked.
Vellanki followed that simmering passion, to question the overbearing influence of more powerful nations and corporations in schools, as he earned his master’s in education at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and worked on teacher education reform programs at the University of Delhi. It was what brought him to MSU and to his doctoral advisor Alyssa Dunn, whose book “Teachers Without Borders?” about Indian teachers working in U.S. schools had caught his attention.
He made a case, in his first guidance committee meeting, for a dissertation focused on examining transnational networks of influence on policy and practice.
“We said, ‘You could do that, but you have so many experiences and interests that would make your research more personally meaningful to you,’” said Professor Lynn Fendler, who had gotten to know Vivek, including his love for photography and the South Asian diaspora, during the proseminar course his first semester. “Quickly, the rest of the committee agreed, and that set up a situation where Vivek felt that he could be more open-minded.”
It was the beginning of a process for Vellanki that Fendler, a long-serving faculty member and doctoral advisor in the college, had witnessed many times before.
“Students come in with a certain preconceived notion of what research is supposed to look like, and they don’t always know they have permission to do their own original work,” Fendler said. “When you are at a first-rate research institution, you are always building knowledge. We want them to contribute to the field at fundamental levels of theory and methodology.”
The TE department welcomes a multitude of methods, from quantitative to qualitative and, increasingly, those based in the arts and humanities. Similarly, students can weave in courses and faculty from a host of disciplines across the university.
So Vivek changed course and dove into learning and pursuing projects on topics that merged ideas about education, photography and citizenship. He expanded his network of mentors and peers to the art and anthropology departments and to the community. His first photo exhibit was a collaboration with Uria Davesar, a middle school student, at a local coffee shop in November 2018.
Then in 2018, he co-led a writing and photography workshop at the East Lansing Public Library that brought together middle school students and senior citizens. Working with Jacqueline Carroll (art teacher at East Lansing High School) and Jane Kramer (a fine-art photographer from the area), the Lenses Collective lasted eight months and culminated in an intergenerational photo exhibit. The intention was to illuminate false narratives about their roles in society, either too young or too old to matter.
When Fendler walked through the event, she asked him, “How do you feel about this? Is this enough to sustain you for the next couple of years?”
She could see that he had doubts. After all, Vellanki hadn’t been able to get something Fendler had said at that first committee meeting out of his mind: “Methodology as a lifestyle choice.”
He was “ready to cry.” While this was a very meaningful project for him and his participants, he wasn’t sure about it being the foundation for his career as a scholar and artist. They went to Reno’s Sports Bar and discussed what else he could do. It wasn’t too late.
“When this kind of educational inquiry is truly meaningful, it’s not alienated from who you are as a human being,” said Fendler, who has directed 35 dissertations in her career of which Vellanki’s is the last. She retires in May 2020.
“I’m listening to the logic, the epistemology, but I’m always looking for a sparkle. I’m waiting for them to lose themselves and start going with a topic. I keep listening until I hear a dissertation.”
PASSPORT TO CHANGE
Vellanki is fascinated by passport photos. In fact, he had been collecting them from his friends for almost a decade.
“Everyone has a distinct memory about when they took theirs,” he said, remembering that he shaved his beard for the U.S. visa photo. Passport photos are a ticket to move around the world, to come into the U.S., but they are also stripped of personality, of the stories people carry with them.
“If the state sees immigrants as these flat mono-dimensional people, how can we talk back to that?” Vivek said.
Enter the Passport Photo Project.
Over one year, Vellanki arranged many opportunities for immigrants to artistically re-create their photos. One group was comprised of 15 students at Waverly High School in Lansing.
“The students were just so drawn to him,” said social studies teacher Robert Lurie, who’s also a session director for LATTICE, which links local teachers with international students at MSU. “He gave them some legitimacy in this environment, where newcomers sometimes feel they are not full participants at school.”
The exhibit was seen by members of the public and by MSU students in teacher education, as well as art, anthropology, English and other majors. Vellanki plans to host another show in spring 2020, thanks to a grant from the East Lansing Arts Council and support from the library, and to continue collecting transformed passport photos into the future. He also has at least two other ongoing projects related to photography (see below).
“There’s still a lot of room for us to think about what photographs do in people’s lives from an educational standpoint, both in and out of the classroom,” he said, pointing to the increasing role of social media platforms like Instagram and surveillance via photo recognition.
The written part of his dissertation includes a chapter on the role of photography in education research and one on how photos—including the art featured in his passport project—can help us shift our thinking about belonging and citizenship in the world.
Vellanki received the Homer Higbee International Education Award from MSU in 2018 for contributing to international communication and cooperation. He also won the Office for International Students and Scholars’ essay contest in 2015 for this piece about merging lives and cultures with fellow students at MSU, “Cobbled Shoes.”
“I have been fortunate to be surrounded by friends, colleagues and mentors who have pushed me to do the work that I most want to do, and to find resources and support even beyond the college,” said Vellanki, who credits MSU Photography Assistant Professor Lara Shipley among his greatest influences. He has also collaborated closely with scholars focused on early childhood, urban education and higher education, among others.
After graduation, Vellanki will become a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society at Indiana University, as well as a visiting faculty member in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at IU.
Looking back on his early life, before he got his first passport and helped so many others transform theirs, he now sees education through a new lens.
“Schools often push us away from our own desires, hopes, lives and communities,” he said. “Doing this doctoral degree has made me realize not just how much more I have to learn, but how much unlearning I have to do if I really want to live the life I want to live and do the work I want to do. I will use this experience to support my future students, wherever they might be.”
A DIFFERENT LENS
Vellanki creates new ways to view the world wherever he goes.
“51 pounds” – A collection of photos depicting what immigrants would bring back home if they had to leave the United States, adding up to no more than 51 pounds—the weight limit on an airplane. This project became an outdoor exhibition at the East Lansing Public Library in October 2020.
“Notes from the City” – Featuring booklets, including a map, photos and writing, documenting his encounters in various cities he has traveled to in the past five years.