Don’t smile when you say that

Photo by anyjazz65 (CC:attrib 2.0 generic)

In the last few years a new international cultural meme has developed: the belief that photos of people who “look natural with no facial expressions eg smiling, grinning or frowning” deliver better national security than pictures of relaxed, smiling, happy people. At least this must be a meme for those who set the requirements for ID photos, e.g. a driver’s license or passport.

I just had my driver’s license re-photo’d. No, I am not going to post the photo, but you’ll get the idea from a friend’s comment that I look like something from a very grim Madame Tussaud’s exhibit.

Another friend just got his Netherlands passport, and the photo took over 45 minutes of digital re-shooting to get right. “Right” means that his head shape and distance between the ears(!) fit within very strict guidelines.

Granted, that his new passport has a laser-etching on the reverse side of his photo, generated by his mug shot reversed, so that as you hold it up to the light, you see through the paper completely aligned with the photo on the front side. Way cool. But, again: no smiling. Apparently light-heartedness messes with laser beams.

Even Denmark, the country with the highest worldwide score for happiness, states in their consulate site “No smiling and no headgear please!,” although they include that friendly exclamation point.

I know I’m showing my age, but I remember when getting a passport photo was an opportunity to show an interesting face to the world. An opportunity, it seems, that is denied to most people now. OK, maybe with all of our online profiles, etc., we can shed this particular opportunity.

But even in these times, wouldn’t we rather that the first impression we give is of an approachable, happy individual? Doesn’t this precondition any interaction we have with officialdom, at least slightly?

One theory about what is behind this, is that it is due to the spread of face-recognition technology; showing emotion through facial expression “distorts” our machine-readable features.

The dystopian vision that emerges is of airports and major urban centres that are legislated as expression-free zones – no laughing, smiling, and certainly no expressions of sorrow. Just looking “natural with no facial expressions.”

But maybe we could get an emotion-zone set up next to the cigarette smokers.

Update!: Now the photo booths have to warn against public displays of happiness:
id photo booth modern instructions