Matthew Yee seemed to know from the moment he enrolled in WR150 “Family Snaps and Stories” that he wanted to write on photographs from his family archive. In our class students learned to analyze family portraits and understand the private and public uses of the snapshot. In the final research essay students had a choice to write on a topic that included personal exhibits. Matthew was keen to understand how his grandparent’s photographs related to Chinese Exclusion Era history in the United States. “From Mug Shots to Masterpieces: Identities Revealed Through Immigration Portraits of the Chinese Exclusion Era” contributes to a vibrant scholarly conversation about government identification photography, race, and culture in the U.S. between 1882 and 1965.

For instructors who may wish to teach this essay, the research and argument model a number of WR150 elements. It begins with a two-paragraph introduction: the first presents the general topic of Chinese immigration to the U.S. and the second the thesis that immigrant families found ways to resist and foil the discriminatory effects of government-issued identity cards. Subsequent body paragraphs draw on current research about U.S. identification photography that typically accompanied immigrant documents. Several of Matthew’s sources locate exhibits that both “mark” the Chinese immigrant as foreign yet also reflect the sitter’s native origins. Matthew’s stakes flag the power and value of a seemingly ordinary artifact, such as his grandfather’s citizenship file photo, and connect such exhibits to a larger immigration narrative. The essay also models clear signposting of relevant figures and responsible citation of all sources, including Matthew’s family pictures. The argument strikes a critical balance between interpreting government photos with the eyes of suspicion and fear of the “foreigner” and reinterpreting them as “masterpieces” of family unity and ultimately American belonging.

WR 150: Writing, Research, & Inquiry