What do passport photos have against me? I mean, okay, so I'm no Cary Grant to look at, but my homely little visage is serviceable enough - useful for being recognised at my favourite coffee shop and for being cooed over by myopic great aunts (the only people in the world who continue to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that I am a 'handsome young man'). But put this same mug on a passport size snap and you instantly have something that will have every self-respecting homeland security guard reaching for his gun, and editors from the National Enquirer clamouring for permission to use it as part of their lead story on 'Signs of Extra-Terrestrial Life'.
This has been true for as far back as I can remember. In college, my black and white passport snap became the subject of much concern at the UNHCR, and some little know African country was almost put under sanctions until someone pointed out that it was just my normal face - not the grim rictus of some fiendish warlord's half-famished victim. In b-school my photograph gained acclaim among ornithologists as depicting (in the shape of my hair) a wonderful example of the nest-building technique of the common Indian crow. My yearbook photograph is an intense exploration of the artistic possibilities of roadkill, as inspired by Paul Klee. The snap of me in my passport regularly gives pause to the most stalwart immigration officials, causing them to blanch in shock and giving the phrase 'undesirable alien' a whole new meaning. When I applied to grad school the photograph I sent in had the media trumpeting the return of the Michelin man, complete with three spare tires under his chin. As for the photograph on my current security ID - let's just say that every time I swipe it, it takes the automated doors an extra three seconds or so to decide to let me in. And even then they're pretty reluctant.
The one good passport-size photograph I ever had taken (my collar was straight, my hair looked combed, my eyes were open, I was ACTUALLY smiling) was one of those instant four piece things (so that I couldn't get copies) of which one snap went into an application for a gym that I never visited, a second was given to my travel agent who then proceeded to lose it and two others got destroyed accidentally when someone didn't bother to check whether there was anything in the envelope before tearing it. I sometimes think the gods are jealously guarding my face from the general public.
What is it about passport size photos that makes them so difficult? To begin with there's the smile. Look, I'm as happy a person as the next guy and am capable of laughing like a madman when the spirit takes me, but I just can't turn it on and off at random. And what self-respecting person is going to go around saying the names of dairy products in public at four o clock in the afternoon? So there I'll be, sitting in the photographer's studio and the person will say "smile" like it's an order, only I'm not feeling like smiling - I'm nervous and on edge and there's very definitely nothing funny about this. Still I try. I put on what I fondly imagine is my sardonic, half amused, half whimsical grin (an exotic expression that is supposed to be marked by the slightest up-tilt of the corner's of my mouth, but usually ends up looking like someone has pinned the sides of my face into a straight line with a couple of drawing pins). The photographers says "Smile" again. I'm miffed. I am smiling, you cretin. Give a man a camera with a phallic looking lens and suddenly he's an art critic. What does he know? Did Mona Lisa have to put up with this sort of thing? By now my lightly amused smile has become a scowl. I feel like snarling. The photographer starts to say something else, then sees the tips of my canines starting to peep from under my lips and decides to let it be. He takes the snap. I come out looking like I'm biting down on a 440 Volt wire, but at least it's over.
Digital cameras have made this even worse. At least in the old days there was hope. The guy took your snap and told you to come back in a couple of days to collect them. You spent the time in between checking out the faces of models in apparel ads, fondly imagining that's what you would look like. You had some vision of carrying the photographs in a special X-ray proof case so women wouldn't see them and go wild. Then you went back and were handed four intimate close-ups of your bathroom mop. This, it seemed, was you. You sighed. Life went on.
Now there's no such hope. Ten seconds after the crime has been done, there it is on the computer screen, staring back at you with an expression that says "it's your face that's done this to me! I'm going to sue!". Worse, there's actually the choice of trying again. Like that's going to help.
Take yesterday. I'm in the license centre getting a new photo ID. The woman at the counter tells me to sit back in the chair and takes a quick snap. Next thing it's up on her computer screen (with all the ten people behind me in line watching) and she's asking me to check it. What am I supposed to say? No, that's not me. There must have been some mistake with the paperwork somewhere. I'm actually Brad Pitt? If I say "yes, that's fine" she's going to look at me like - is THAT what you really want to look like on government records? So you're admitting that that's your actual FACE? Do you know what the penalty for being so gawky is in the state of Pennyslvania? If say "err..no, could we try that again?" I'm practically admitting to being both vain and deluded. I sigh and say, that's fine. She prints my photo ID out, hands it to me. I am now officially a ghoul. I imagine emergency medics checking to see if I'm an organ donor and then taking one look at my face and deciding that it's not worth it.
Once, just once, I'd like to have a passport photograph that didn't look like a cat taking out its frustrations on a badly stuffed sofa. Is that too much to ask?
P.S. On a seperate note, I've never really understood why people are so obsessed with the way their passport size snaps come out. I mean it would be nice to look good in the snap, but I wouldn't put actual effort into it (like combing my hair, for instance - a ritual I undertake on a strictly quarterly basis). I know people who will get a complete facial done just because they need to have a photograph taken. Or will buy a new shirt so that the collar looks freshly starched. This seems a little excessive, to say the least. I mean at the end of the day as long as people can recognise you it doesn't matter how you look, right? I mean they're not going to take a look at my ID in a bar and say "We're sorry, you're the right age, but you're too ugly to drink". They won't, will they?