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Issue 19. Autofiction and/in Image - Autofiction visuelle

On Passports: W.G. Sebald and the Menace of Travel

Author: Colin Dickey
Published: November 2007

Abstract (E): For Sebald, whose travelogues are intertwined with his meditations on the relationship between photography and writing, the passport takes on a peculiarly iconic significance, as it is not only a document comprised of both photography and text (in the form of the bearer's name and data), but also occupies the nexus between individual identity and bureaucratic power. In a rare comic scene in Vertigo the narrator's passport is inadvertently taken by another traveler, raising the possibility that he might be trapped indefinitely in Italy . Despite its tone, this scene goes to the heart of Sebald's interest in subjects dislocated from their countries of origin, suggesting how these dislocated travelers are subject to the photographs that name them, not the reverse. The passport photo bears this out - as the "truth" of identity, it is, from a bureaucratic point of view, more "real" than the traveler him/herself. The documents in Vertigo offer another layer of identity: a wide black swath cutting through the face, and on another document, all but the first initial of Sebald's first name are obscured, suggesting that these documents stand, not for the man Winfred Sebald, but for the writer, W. G. Sebald.

Abstract (F): Pour Sebald, de qui les récits de voyage sont mêlés de méditations sur le rapport intime entre la photographie et l'écriture, le passeport a une signification singulièrement iconique. Non seulement, il s'agit d'un document qui consiste à la fois d'éléments photographiques et textuels (dans la forme du nom et coordonnés du titulaire), mais il forme également le nexus entre l'identité individuelle et le pouvoir étatique. Dans une rare scène comique de Vertigo , le passeport du narrateur est, par hasard, pris par un autre voyageur, ayant pour résultat potentiel la résidence forcée et indéfinie du narrateur en Italie. Malgré son ton comique, cette scène touche à l'intérêt fondamental porté par Sebald à des sujets chassés de leur pays d'origine, évoquant de quelle façon ces sujets sont constitués par leurs photographies et non l'inverse. La photo insérée dans le passeport constitue, du point de vue bureaucratique, une identité plus 'vraie' que celle que représente la présence réelle du voyageur. Les documents dans Vertigo offrent une autre strate identitaire : un grand ruban noir à travers les visages, et sur un autre document, le nom de Sebald devient illisible à part la première de ses initiales, suggérant que ces documents représentent non pas l'homme Winfred Sebald, mais l'écrivain W.G. Sebald.

keywords: Sebald, photography, displaced persons, identity, travel writing

To cite this article:

Dickey, C. On Passports: W.G. Sebald and the Menace of Travel. Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], 19 (2007).


The process of making a photographic image, which purports to be the real thing and isn't anything like, has transformed our self-perception, our perception of each other, our notion of what is beautiful, our notion of what will last and what won't.

W. G. Sebald (in Anderson, 2003: 110)


A man consists of a body, a soul, and a passport.

Russian proverb



Passports and identity


"Literary theorists searching for the springs of 'modernism' are likely to look too high," Paul Fussell writes, directing our attention not towards "the presumed intellectual causes of unprecedented events," but instead simply "to the fact that they occur." Rather than look to Nietzsche or Freud, he argues, one can find a key to the modern psyche in something as small as the passport photo,

an example of something tiny which has powerfully affected the modern sensibility, assisting that anxious self-awareness, that secret but overriding self-contempt, which we recognize as attaching uniquely to the world of Prufrock and Joseph K. and Malone. There are other unprecedented contributors to the modern neurosis: things like the numbers used in the modern world for personnel identification and coercion….But the passport picture is perhaps the most egregious little modernism. (26)

As Fussell suggests, the passport (standardized in its current form by the League of Nations in 1926) embodies several trends of modernity: in its history one finds the rise of the modern state, the transition from the disciplinary societies of the nineteenth century to the control societies of the twentieth, the birth of global culture, and, at its heart, the role of photography in all of these developments.


Among the early critics to seriously investigate photography's relationship to modernity was Walter Benjamin, who saw in the photograph not only the potential for liberation and revolution, but also the possibility of state control and increased surveillance:

Technical measures had to come to the aid of the administrative control process. In the early days of the process of identification…the identity of a person was established through his signature. The invention of photography was a turning point in the history of this process. It was no less significant for criminology than the invention of the printing press was for literature. Photography made it possible for the first time to preserve permanent and unmistakable traces of a human being. (26-27)

In the past century, it is this facet of photography, its ability to preserve an index of an individual's presence, that has been thoroughly realized by regimes of ever expanding surveillance and state control. Benjamin himself became a victim of this fact, when, on September 27, 1940, he and his traveling companions reached Port Bou, Spain, and reported to the Spanish customs office to obtain the necessary stamp on their passports for entry—upon learning that the border had been inexplicably closed to refugees, Benjamin took his own life. As such, the passport, ostensibly nothing more than a photograph, an accompanying name, and a state guarantee of a correspondence between the text (the name) and the photo, can be seen as one of the figures which most strongly bears out Benjamin's comments on photography. The passport, after all, is not an innocent document of identity; it serves to mark an individual as a subject of a sovereign state, thus subordinating him or her to that state. As Mark B. Salter writes in his book Rights of Passage: The Passport in International Relations, "though the passport is only one government tool among many, it illustrates the ways in which the bureaucratic control of individuals creates certain kinds of relationship and subjects. The passport created the sovereign subject by linking her directly to the sovereign's international legal personality" (150).


This has been true of the passport long before the introduction of photography, and long before it was even known as a "passport." Salter traces the concept of the passport of the medieval doctrine of no exeat regno, which stated that the king had absolute sovereignty in determining who was allowed to exit his lands. This doctrine, which Salter argues was designed to wrest authority from religious, mercantile, and feudal power sources, evolved into the "safe-conduct document," which "was used to consolidate the ruler's monopoly of mobility and violence within a state's territory." (13) The "right to pass" a border, then, becomes increasingly the purview of a sovereign power, and the body of the individual who bears a document allowing such passage is already employed as a tool which helps to legitimate that power.


What changes with the introduction of photography is the way in which one's self-identity is radically foregrounded in this process, as now it is also a document of identity. Prior to the twentieth century, as Benjamin notes, one's signature was the prime mode of identification. The signature is a mark one creates, develops, and becomes an expression of oneself. When the signature is replaced by the photograph, however, the locus of agency changes—it is now the camera, and not one's own hand, which determines how he or she will be identified. And while the photograph lays claim to an objective, indexical record of its subject, this is rarely the case, and there can often be a large discrepancy between one's photo and one's body.


Part of the problem in using the passport as an unequivocal marker of identity has to do with the technological requirements of the document itself; Martin Lloyd, in his history of the passport, describes how states have constantly struggled with how to affix and regularize photographic portraits in such a way as to render a stable and tamper-proof linkage between one's name and one's photo. As technological changes improved the document as a whole, though, the quality of the photographs, and thus their fidelity to their subjects, began to deteriorate:

Continuing technical progress has brought in colour photographs, and these were first used in American passports in February 1958. Photographs processed digitally and printed directly onto the passport page were first used in Japanese passports in November 1992. Although these developments represent progress and are undoubtedly innovative, are they actually improvements? The photographic booth negative is smaller and thus records less detail than that of the photographic studio it usurped and the lighting is not individually set by a photographer according to the tint of each face. It might be expected that colour photographs would be more representative but the quality of the colour can be doubtful and the contrast effect of black and white is reduced. The digital photograph cannot be removed from the page and can be easily transmitted from the computer data bank to anywhere in the world, but the pixelation—the breaking up of the photograph into dots—reduces its definition and accuracy. (112-113)

"It seems," Lloyd concludes, "that in this search for technical progress the purpose of a passport photograph—to look like its bearer—has been lost. And yet one might wonder if ever it did look like its bearer." (113) The technological problems, which have dogged attempts to incorporate a perfect image of a individual on to a state document suggest that there will never be a pure equivalence between body and photo.


Lloyd's comment suggests the inevitable slippage between photo and body, and the inability to definitively render someone's likeness in a unity of photograph and name. But because of this discrepancy between passport and individual, it is paradoxically the body which takes secondary position. "Passports," Salter writes, "provide a way for immigration and customs officials to abridge their examination at the national frontier; examination of the document replaces the examination of the individual and his belongings." (6) The passport does more than just allow or deny passage between countries; it also renders the individual into a semantic unit. The passport is not only taken as a stable signifier of its referent (the traveler), but also allows the referent to drop out (almost) altogether—it is the passport, not the traveler, who is examined. As Linda Haverty Rugg writes, "There is an alarming loss of authority implicit in the creation and widespread distribution of an image that is then taken as positive proof of identity for the body itself. This is the actual effect of the passport photograph, which takes over the body's authority by forcing the body to conform to it. If, in crossing a border, you do not resemble your passport, it is not the photograph that will be punished." (43)



Sebald in transit


All of W. G. Sebald's works involve figures dislocated from their country from origin, and the subsequent estrangement of identity in a foreign environment is a major theme from Vertigo, his first major prose work, to Austerlitz, his final book. In nearly every case, these journeys are motivated by some form of calamity: either personal sickness or malaise, or national crisis. The people in Sebald's works are the victims of modernity: displaced, marginalized, and hunted by the vast systems of control and violence which dominate the twentieth century (the Holocaust, which features prominently in these works, is the most visible form of this violence, but it is not the only manifestation of it). Travel, in such a landscape, is hardly ever recreational, but an attempt to escape something in one's home country or situation. Home, in turn, appears as a sort of open wound, or ground zero of some atomic blast which has rendered the land uninhabitable. Exile and mobility have become a necessity.


For Sebald, whose travelogues are intertwined with his meditations on the relationship between photography and writing (and which include photographs and other images embedded in the text itself), the passport would seem to take on a peculiarly iconic significance; the passport is not only a document comprised of both photography and text (in the form of the bearer's name and data) which allows for international movement, but also occupies the nexus between individual identity and bureaucratic power.


But despite this focus on the role of photography and the focus on travel, actual passports are scarce in Sebald's oeuvre; in only one scene does Sebald feature a passport prominently, in a rare comic scene in Vertigo. Traveling in Italy, Sebald's narrator goes to leave his hotel in Limone one morning only to find that his passport has been mislaid. After the desk clerk summons the proprietor's wife and son, the search for the passport quickly escalates into a calamity, as more and more figures are drawn into the fruitless search: "Luciana had turned away and, shaking her head and running her fingers through the curls in her hair, kept saying strano, strano, as if the disappearance of the passport, which could no longer be doubted, were the most extraordinary thing that had happened in all her life" (99). Finally the proprietor himself is summoned, who sets about a systematic cataloging of the guests' passports:

he concluded from this operation that while my passport was indeed not among them, there was, in its stead so to speak, one which belonged to a certain Herr Doll, who, if he remembered correctly, had left yesterday and must inadvertently have been given in my passport—I still hear him calling out inavvertitamente, striking his forehand with the flat of his hand in despair at such negligence—and that this Herr Doll had simply pocketed my passport without checking whether it was really his own. Germans, declared the padrone, concluding his account of these incredible occurrences, were always in far too much of a hurry. (100)

Despite its comic tone, this scene goes to the heart of Sebald's focus on subjects dislocated from their countries of origin, since the passport figures strongly for a major theme in Sebald's work, wherein dislocated travelers are subject to the photographs that name them, not the reverse. From the outset of Vertigo, we've been led to distrust photography and images, which for Sebald serve not to substantiate experience but to efface it. R elating the biography of Henri Marie Beyle (later known by his pseudonym, Stendhal) in the first section of the book, the narrator describes Beyle's memories of the campaign, including an image of the town Ivrea at sunset: "Beyle writes that for years he lived in the conviction that he could remember every detail of that ride, and particularly the town of Ivrea, which he beheld for the first time from some three-quarters of a mile away, in light that was already fading. There it lay, to the right, where the valley gradually opens onto the plain…" (7). Thus, all the greater is the shock for Beyle when he later finds an engraving entitled Prospetto d'Ivrea and is forced to admit that his memory is of the engraving, not the town. "This being so," the narration continues, "Beyle's advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one's travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them" (8). As a key to the images in Vertigo (and the other books), Beyle's comments suggest that, more often than not, the images serve to supplant, not enhance, the narratives they mirror. Throughout Sebald's novels, images (and specifically photographs) serve not to bring us closer to their referents, but to remind us of an irrevocable distance from those referents.


This problem re-occurs in Sebald's last novel, Austerlitz, in which the protagonist, Jacques Austerlitz, discovers late in life that he's been repressing memories of his childhood in Czechoslovakia, his escape from Prague on the kindertransport, and his parents' subsequent internment and execution in the camps. After a lengthy search, he is finally reunited with his former housekeeper in Prague, Vera, who ultimately gives him a photograph of himself as a child. But, contrary to expectations (both ours and Austerlitz 's), the image does not produce recognition: "I did recognize the unusual hairline running at a slant over the forehead, but otherwise all memory was extinguished in my by an overwhelming sense of the long years that had passed. I have studied the photography many times since….I examined every detail under a magnifying glass without once finding the slightest clue" (184). Sebald frustrates the traditional mechanism by which one recognizes one's "self" in a photographic "self-portrait"; even the kind of uncanny self-recognition we traditionally associate with our photographic images is denied to Austerlitz, because of the extreme rupture of identity and memory under modernity (specifically, the Holocaust). Austerlitz sees not himself but, implicitly, the violence done to him by a homicidal state, and it is this bureaucratic violence that this scene (and perhaps the photographic self-portrait as well) ultimately comes to signify.


It is in the context of these scenes that the passport sequence in Vertigo acquires meaning, as a scene in which an individual's identity is displaced by his or her photograph, the signified disappearing beneath the signifier. In Sebald's work documents are always more real than actual experience, and individuals are always at the mercy of what René Magritte called "the treachery of images."


After his passport is lost, the narrator of Vertigo enters into a state of limbo, in which he is severely dislocated and treated accordingly with suspicion. He is given a provisional document by the local police which explains the situation, but since it lacks a photograph, it fails to suffice. Checking into a hotel in Milan, where he has traveled to get a new passport, he tries in vain to explain the reason he does not have a passport, first to the proprietress and then to her husband: "When I told my story all over again," he tells us, "it no longer sounded plausible, even to me" (110). The manner in which the hotel-keepers view him, "half in pity and half in contempt," suggests the way in which his status has become imperiled—he is, for the moment, a non-person, without a passport and not to be trusted. Once at the German consulate in Milan, the situation is resolved without great difficulty, though the narrator remarks that "it took a long while until my identity had been established" (113), a curiously passive construction, as if he, too, is no longer sure.


Upon receiving this passport, however, the narrator quickly passes through two different emotional states: exaltation and disorientation. "Emerging from the consulate building with this newly issued proof of my freedom to come and go as I pleased," he tells us, "I decided to take a stroll around the streets of Milan for an hour or so before traveling on" (114-115), again suggesting the way in which the passport allows not just international travel but even the most elementary and pedestrian travel. The passport represents not just the right to traverse international borders, but all forms of freedom of movement—upon first losing the passport, after all, he has been constantly reminded of it, and so his passport must be recovered prior to any subsequent freedom. Once he is once again underneath the aegis of the passport, however, he experiences an unusual and extreme sense of dislocation:

all of a sudden [I] no longer had any knowledge of where I was. Despite a great effort to account for the last few days and how I had come to be in this place, I was unable even to determine whether I was in the land of the living or already in another place. Nor did this lapse of memory improve in the slightest after I climbed to the topmost gallery of the cathedral and from there, beset by recurring fits of vertigo, gazed out upon the dusky, hazy panorama of a city now altogether alien to me. Where the word " Milan " ought to have appeared in my mind there was nothing but a painful, inane reflex. A menacing reflection of the darkness spreading within me loomed up in the west where an immense bank of cloud covered half the sky and cast its shadow on the seemingly endless sea of houses. (115-116)

Suddenly unaware of his surroundings or whether or not he is even still alive, the narrator experiences an extreme loss of self. The passport, in Sebald's novel, is of a dual nature: while it allows freedom of movement, it also brings its own uneasiness, as one is now figured once again under the sign of bureaucracy and control.


Returning to Verona, the narrator checks in the Golden Dove Hotel, where he is not asked for his passport, and so he enters his name, he tells us, as "Philipp Fallmerayer, historian of Landeck, Tyrol." (117) Fallmerayer, a nineteenth century philologist and anthropologist, is most well-known for a now-discredited theory that the ancient Greeks descended from Slavic and Albanian roots—a theory used by the Third Reich to justify its aggression toward modern-day Greece while simultaneously celebrating ancient Greek culture. To the extent that Fallmerayer's name nowadays is associated with the way a racist state constructs and manipulates identity and ethnicity for ideological purposes, Sebald's use of the name here reminds us of the extent to which we are all subject to state-dominated games of identity, whatever the name on our passport is.


If the passport functions, on the one hand, as an essential means of mobility and of securing one's identity, and, on the other hand, as the means by which one is inscribed into a state system of control, then it is both necessary and dangerous. To not have a passport is to be less than fully human, a non-entity, since in a global world one must be under the aegis of a sovereign state. But to have a passport, paradoxically, does not suddenly liberate you; it simply re-inscribes you into a control society of surveillance and micro-power. So the two contradictory emotions which accompany the narrator's new passport—liberation and panic—are in fact the basic properties inherent to the passport.



Documenting Sebald


Much has been made about the status of the narrator in Sebald's works, and whether he is meant to be W. G. Sebald himself or a fictional construct. This question is most present in Vertigo, since, while none of the narrators in any of the books are ever named, the passport sequence in Vertigo contains two images which would seem to attest directly to his identity—the provisional document explaining his situation and the new passport, both of which feature Sebald's name and signature, the latter also containing his photograph. These extra-textual documents would seem to verify that the unnamed narrator is indeed Sebald, yet both are marred in curious and distinctive ways.


In the provisional document, which does not include a photograph, a black line effaces the word "Winfred" almost entirely, leaving only the first initial "W." additionally, on the image of passport, a broad black swath cuts vertically through the face in the photograph. So while it is clear that both documents refer to Winfred Sebald, the alterations would seem to challenge any stable identification between the narrator, the writer, and the passport. The passport images complicate any attempt to make a stable equation between Sebald the individual and the narrator of the work. They do not deny Sebald's presence behind the narrator's "I"—if that was the goal, it would have been easy enough to reproduce some random passport or forego the image altogether. But as the only doctored images in the book, identity here is clearly problematized.


What is significant is the way the altered images call into question the status of the passport as "documentation," as a true and authentic piece of evidence which attests to objective fact. As many critics have noted, this challenge to documentation runs through Sebald's work. While Sebald's books bear the feel and traces of documentation, he explicitly refuses this. Mark M. Anderson notes how "Sebald took specific exception to films like Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, whose faux-documentary style—the grainy black-and-white photography, the hand-held camera—lures viewers into thinking they are watching the Holocaust unfold before their very eyes. Sebald's much humbler approach presents a scrapbook-like assemblage of images, newspaper clippings, quotations, and personal narrations from which he (and the reader with him) attempts to make sense of the past." (110) Noam M. Elcott, in his study of the layout of Sebald's texts, quotes Erwin Panofsky's discussion of the propaganda films of the Third Reich: "I believe—and please do not repeat this—that there is no such thing as an authentic 'documentary film' and that our so called documentaries are also propaganda films except, thank goodness, usually for a better cause and, alas, rarely as well made." (209-210) Elcott argues that the layout of Sebald's texts, with their ambiguous relationship between text and image, destabilizes the indexical capacity of photography: "more than text or image alone, their rapport in layout dictates the ambivalent position of photography in Sebald's oeuvre." (205)


Obviously, Sebald's strategy is not a disavowal of documentary techniques. Rather, as Bianca Theisen notes, while traditional documentary focuses on narrative unity and ideological telos, Sebald uses its tactics to instead focus on rupture.

For Sebald, the dark history of oppression has left a deep trace in our physical and psychological make-up that can only index a reality silenced by the micro-mechanisms of power all too often legitimized by reason and knowledge. Using recourse to genres and media invested in the indexical and bordering on the documentary or factual…Sebald follows such traces. Distancing himself from a brand of postmodernism that "crosses the border" and "closes the gap" between the fictional and the factual, Sebald records disembodied voices from the Underground: "Mind the gap." (175)

The importance that critics of Sebald place on formal and aesthetic strategies highlight the degree to which it is the act of writing, of assembling a text, that gives the individual some measure of resistance to the dominating forms of modernity. One cannot escape the pressure exerted by the passport; what one can do, however, is problematize the ways in which that document is read, and how it is connected to one's identity. But as Sebald suggests, this is done at the level of writing.


It is the "defaced" passport and provisional document which can act as a metonym for Sebald's whole project, since the act of defacing the passport marks, I would argue, a move from state-mandated identity to some other form of subjectivity, and correspondingly, to move from supposedly objective documentary to aesthetic construction. By leaving only the first initial "W" in the provisional document, the image suggests Sebald's use of initials for his professional name, his identity as the writer "W. G. Sebald" as opposed to his identity as a citizen. The images put a stress, then, not on a verifiable identity, but on their status as images, and as images which have been wrenched from their original context and placed in a highly conscious literary production.


"There are many forms of writing," Sebald wrote a month before his death, "only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship." (Sebald, 2005: 205) Sebald's aesthetic strategy is to move the documents in his work out of the realm of feigned objectivity and into an aesthetics of rupture and formlessness, seeking to engage those subjects marginalized by modernity. As Mark M. Anderson writes, Sebald's "image-strewn fictions do not preserve the past, they hold it suspended between the being and nonbeing, reality fragments that must always be interpreted, interrogated, reread." (119) The defacing of these identification documents gesture towards the vertiginous but necessary space in which identity is unmoored and no longer determined by the state.


For all the seeming similarity between the man Winfred Sebald and author W. G. Sebald, the passport documents mark the difference between the two. If the passport's function is to efface the individual, and render him/her into a stable, semantic unit, then Sebald in turns does violence to this semantic unit under the sign of the state, blotting it out and rendering it null and void. This willful effacement of identity doubles the initial effacement of the passport, recuperating Sebald, not as a bureaucratic subject, but as a writer.





Anderson, Mark M. "The Edge of Darkness: W. G. Sebald." October 106 (2003): 102-121.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Paris of the Second Empire of Baudelaire". Harry Zohn, trans. Selected Writings, Vol. 4. Cambridge: Harvard Belknap Press, 2003.

Elcott, Noam M. "Tattered Snapshots and Castaway Tongues: An Essay at Layout and Translation with W. G. Sebald." The Germanic (2004): 203-223

Fussell, Paul. Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Lloyd, Martin. The Passport: The History of Man's Most Travelled Document. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 2003.

Rugg, Linda Haverty. Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Salter, Mark B. Rights of Passage: The Passport in International Relations. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003.

Sebald, W. G. Vertigo. Michael Hulse, trans. New York: New Directions, 1997.

---. Austerlitz. Anthea Bell, trans. New York: Random House, 2001.

---. Campo Santo. Anthea Bell, trans. New York: Random House, 2005.

Theisen, Bianca. "Prose of the World: W. G. Sebald's Literary Travels." The Germanic Review (2004): 163-179.


Colin Dickey is a writer living in Los Angeles.  He is the editor (with Nicole Antebi and Robby Herbst) of Failure! Experiments in Aesthetic and Social Practices.  His work has appeared in In-Between, The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, TriQuarterly, The Santa Monica Review, and is forthcoming in The Edinburgh Companion to Virginia Woolf and the Arts.



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