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[Don’t] Say Cheese July 5, 2007

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Ramblings, Up and Away.

Traveling can be exciting, but it can be a chore, too. For me, travel lost a little bit more of its luster recently: while renewing my passport, I learned that I am now discouraged — if not prohibited — from having a picture in which I am smiling.

At least, that’s what the lady taking my ID photo reminded me. While there doesn’t seem to be any indication that this is an official requirement from on high, I suppose these people have taken (and re-taken) enough photos to know what’s what. It wouldn’t surprise me if this were indeed the case, however: while applying for the required papers over the summer, the checklist for the Shchengen visa explicitly stated that the required photo must feature “a neutral expression.” Meanwhile, in the process of applying for a Swiss visa, I asked whether there were similar restrictions on the accompanying photo. To this, the bemused consular officer informed me their government was strict with respect to the pictures on their national ID cards, but not when it came to visa applications (as of yet).

Is there some global movement towards non-smiling photos in accompanying official documents? That would be sad. Certainly, there is a case to be made that such rules prevent people from trying to be “cute” with their pictures, more so given that official documents require one to look, well, official. As such, smiling of the excessive variety can come across as a sign of whimsy and disrespect wholly inappropriate to the said picture’s purpose. But on the other hand, pictures of record should at the very least present the person in question in the best possible light, which in most instances involves even the simplest of smiles. That is important, too.

Why fear the smile? Is there some presumption that immigration officials will be unduly charmed to let a person through the border because of a smiling photo? Are smiles insulting? Does a blanket ban on smiling photos keep those looking at them from having to make a judgment as to whether the smile is genuine or mocking, from discerning if it is an attempt to come across as pleasant or merely a disguised sarcastic sneer? Is it easier to distinguish between harmless traveler and incipient terrorist by having people maintain “a neutral expression?” But then — horror of horrors — what happens if a person’s “neutral expression” really just happens to be a smiling one?

It’s not the smile that governments and officials of the world should discourage but exactly the opposite. After being reminded not to flash a smile for my photo I immediately adopted a more serious expression. “Hey, you don’t need to look sad,” was the photographer’s reaction after I literally wiped the smile off my face. The irony, however, is that I wasn’t trying to: I just happen to have a default expression that tends to be stern and severe. I presume I’m not the only one, either, and can’t help but pity the persons that have to look at that photo…and the many more like it.



1. zvyka - July 13, 2007

What about face-recognition programs?

Is it possible that if they want to use a computer program to match someone’s picture to something else (say, security camera footage) it would be easier for the computer to recognize their face if they are not smiling in its picture on file (from their passport)?

2. Brian L. Belen - July 13, 2007

There’s a thought.

Personally, I think this is part of some global conspiracy to make travel as unpleasant as possible. =p

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