I had armed myself with a passport although I was convinced that when everything was back to normal it would be useless. Before the 1914 war passports didn’t exist. You had to have one for Russia or Turkey, otherwise you went where you liked provided you had the money. […]
‘All this passport business is only because it’s wartime,’ I said. ‘They’ll stop it as soon as the war’s over.’ He smiled a little and said, ‘Perhaps, perhaps.’Jean Rhys, Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography
I have been thinking about passports and identity papers, struck by Rhys’s remarks on passports, as I think it’s easy to forget what a relatively recent development they are. Her novels are full of references to papers and identity, reflecting the climate of the time, not only in the increased visibility of passports and documentation relating to the movement of people; but also in the way they create a portrait of a Europe in flux. The First World War, revolution in Russia, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of new nation states in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, resulted in the presence of millions of refugees and stateless, transient populations throughout Europe. You can read more on this here.
In my project I am thinking about freedom of movement, and this seems particularly relevant in times which appear obsessed with controlling the movement of people, and deciding who is able to move where and who isn’t. With ever-greater exclusivity and ruthlessness in policing and monitoring the borders surrounding Europe. When the principle of freedom of movement within Europe is fading, which perhaps many had taken for granted. Passports and identity seem more important than ever as everyone scrambles around for papers and proof of who they are, their claims to a particular place. It is a process that seems to forget the extent to which people and lives can become intertwined, that it is possible to retain a series of different identities simultaneously, and that these can change and adapt over time.
For the UK, I think the loss of freedom of movement across the European Union will have greater resonance with time. When the reality sets in of what has been given away, or negotiated out of existence, and of what has already changed irrevocably. Throughout all the discussions, I can only think of it as a personal loss. I’ve been imagining applying for my next passport and how I will feel when it no longer claims me as a citizen of the EU. For those of us who have invested emotionally in the idea of Europe it is like a part of our identity being stripped from us overnight. Meanwhile, no one mentioned that the inevitable weaving together of people and their lives, of everything which couldn’t be expressed in a simple “Yes” or “No” is something that would also require a painstaking disentangling; a process from which there seems no way out, and one which only feels like a step backwards into uncertainty.
For more on passports, I enjoyed reading this article on passport photographs from Atlas Obscura.