There comes a point when you have to give in and get your passport photograph taken.
I realised in January that my passport was due to expire on 16th December 2010. All year I’ve been hoping that by some miracle, I would wake up one morning feeling exceptionally photogenic. Cleaning my teeth, I’d look in the mirror, be delighted by what I saw and think “Yes, today’s the day!”
By25th November, it hasn’t happened, so I throw vanity to the winds and head for the photo booth in Tesco’s.
“You’re not allowed to smile any more,” says the lady ahead of me in the queue.
I look aghast. Is this another government cut? All fun has been cancelled?
“They’ll reject it if you smile. Your photo. At the Passport Office. Or if you wear glasses.”
I remove my glasses and try to think serious thoughts. While I’m waiting for my turn, I brush my hair to undo the damage caused by the hat necessitated by cold weather. I lean forward, squinting at my reflection in the photo booth’s tiny mirror. I’m not optimistic about the outcome.
My previous passport photo was a triumph at the first attempt. It was taken on a sunny day, in a summery frock, not long after I’d met my future husband. I was flashing a big, sunny smile.
“You look all loved up!” commented a friend when he saw it. It took years off me – and ensured that every immigration officer checking my new passport ever since would greet me with a broad, friendly smile.
These days you get three attempts at getting a decent photo-booth photo, for no extra charge. God bless the inventor of digital photography that makes this possible, I think, fidgeting on the tiny, rotating stool. If the design brief for the stool was to make people feel ill at ease, the designer did a very good job. It’s hard not to look shifty when the seat beneath you is on the move.
I follow the instructions on the screen, twiddling the stool till my head is under the line on the window and my face within the white oval. (Is anyone’s face really oval-shaped? And what dwarf raised the seat quite so high before I came in?) I gaze sternly at the camera and try to not to blink as it flashes. The fact that I managed not to blink is the only good thing about my first photo. Sighing, I hit the green button for a second shot.
A moment later, I’ve turned into twins. I’ve been cloned. Two shots of me pop up on the screen side by side, like a spot-the-difference puzzle.
“Try again? This is your last attempt,” the machine taunts me.
I’m distracted by the realisation that my face is extremely assymetrical. How come I’ve never noticed this before?
The machine beeps impatiently, thinking I’ve nodded off.
I decide not to risk it and press the “Finish” button.
As I loiter outside the booth, waiting for the printed verdict, I wonder why they’ve banned smiling. Surely anyone who scowls at an immigration officer is asking for trouble? It goes against all instincts not to smile. Even the most innocent of travellers must feel the tiniest bit nervous when presenting their passport. We’re asking the official to judge us. How can we be not expected to give a little nervous grin? So why not let us smile for the camera in the first place? It will certainly make the passport officer’s job a little easier (not to mention more pleasant), as we’ll be a closer match to our photo. After all, the face is not a fingerprint: it’s expressive, it has character, it has moods. Banning the smile is like forbidding us to feel.
But the die is cast. Several days later, I hand my passport application, photo and cheque to the Post Office counter clerk to be weighed and stamped before posting.
“Want to send it recorded delivery?”
“Not really,” I reply. “It expires in a few days anyway. I’m not bothered.”
“I would if I were you,” he advises. “It might well go astray in the Christmas post.”
Now there’s a vote of confidence in one’s employer. It’s almost enough to make me want to leave the country – except I’d have to show my passport.