Yesterday I conducted a random, admittedly somewhat anal check to make sure that I knew where our passports were. I flipped mine open and looked at the passport photo and shook my head. Between the fact that I wasn’t permitted to wear my glasses and the fact that the photo taker instructed me not to smile, the passport photo doesn’t look much like me–in my humble opinion, at least. The same is true of my Ohio driver’s license photo, where the employee at the deputy registrar’s location told me sternly that no smiling was permitted.
The U.S. State Department has published a series of rules and answers to FAQs that apply to passport photos, including several that address smiles. The answer to the FAQ “What pose should I be in for my photo?” is: “Face the camera with your head centered in the frame and not tilted with a neutral expression or natural smile.” And in response to the question “Can I smile in my passport photo?” the State Department advises: “Yes, but it must be a natural, unexaggerated smile. Both your eyes must be open.”
So, what’s a “natural, unexaggerated smile,” which is not a phrase I’m familiar with? The sample photos on the State Department webpage show people with no more than a hint of a smile–and no exposed teeth. Far from looking “natural,” they look like the kind of forced expressions you might see from somebody who really doesn’t want to get their picture taken but knows they have to, anyway. The passport photos you see therefore don’t exactly show people who look very happy about the fact that they are taking a trip overseas.
Why the encouragement of deadpan expressions? Since the whole point of identification documents is to allow the government to identify you, facial expressions that can interfere with identification–either by an immigration officer or a scanning computer–are frowned upon. (Pun intended.) Toothy grins that cause crinkles in your eyes and changes to other facial features fall squarely into that category. (In the case of driver’s license photos, one website advises: “It is best to simply wear a friendly expression, the same one you would be wearing if you were pulled over.” Yikes! That advice, if faithfully followed, is sure to wipe any happy expression from your face.)
The upshot is that passport and driver’s license photos show a deadpan America that is inconsistent with daily reality. If you saw such expressions on the faces of everyone you encountered, you’d question whether the general population has been replaced by pod people–but at least the computers would be happy.