Keep your face straight: passport grins pass into history

The Guardian 9/12/2005
by Mark Lawson


From today, Britons must reveal less in photobooth snaps - for security reasons

It sounds like something from an Orwell novel: British citizens who hope to be allowed to leave the country are no longer allowed to smile. But this new seriousness really did come into effect at midnight: forthwith, if you want to get out, then keep your mouth shut.

In fiction, this interdiction on grinning would result from some tyrannical ban on happiness.

In fact, it's a practical matter: the new biometric recognition scanners purchased to improve security at border controls are only able, due to some idiosyncracy of their digital instructions, to recognise straight faces.

So, from this morning, potential travellers must produce in the curtained booth or photographer's shop what the official form calls "a neutral expression with your mouth closed".
Because some people's eyes close when they produce what you might call a serious smile, you are also required to show your whites.

If the arrival of this rule itself tempts anyone to leave the country, they should not go to the United States, where the earlier introduction of this sombre equipment means that passport holders have already been staring straight ahead for more than a year.

As airports around the world are forced to show their teeth against terrorism, embracing "international anti-fraud standards", travellers will soon be unable to show their own at most immigration controls.

The irony of these little rectangular snaps being changed by terrorism, though, is that some of the most haunting images of the attacks on travellers in the last four years come from passport photographs.

When newspapers or books print galleries of the homicidal hijackers from 9/11, the men all stare straight from the page with a uniform margin of neutral background around their hair and ears: one of them even has a telltale flash of curtain behind him. The same is true of many of the 7/7 and alleged 21/7 terrorists in Britain.

At an earlier time when assassination rather than terrorism was what nations most feared, one of the best remembered images of JFK's presumed killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was also the one he used to show to border guards.

The most famous image of the German spy Mata Hari is also the one she carried next to her breast.

Crucial clues in the American atom spy case in 1949 were six sets of passport snaps used by the conspirators on documents.

While the introduction of face recognition technology may improve international security, the denial of the right to smile means that our passports (and, in time, ID cards) will now paradoxically reveal less of our identity than before.

As shown by the invention of the poker face by gamblers, it's the twitches of the lips and cheeks that really give us away, for good or ill.

Richard Nixon's ill-timed, ill-fitting grin - coinciding, for example, with police attacks on students - captured his essential character, just as Kelly Holmes's goggle-eyed, open-mouthed joy on taking a second gold symbolises the incredulous vindication of athletic effort.

The most powerful screen actors - Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman, for example - are often associated with signature displays of amusement: a terrifying rictus, a face-wide smile and an impish, dimpled twist of the lips.

Conspiracy theorists, though, may note that the government that has put our laughing gear into storage is led by a politician whose perma-smile has become a political handicap, identified with insincerity.

Perhaps it isn't a software problem with the scanners at all but part of a wider New Labour drive towards public gravity.

The poignancy of today's enforced solemnity is that, somewhere at a government office in Britain late on Friday afternoon, someone will have become the last Brit to be allowed to show their teeth around the world.

Whatever the reasons - technological innovation, security or Labour conspiracy - the death of the toothy passport grin now takes its place alongside other moments of cultural transition in the history of the UK: the end of peacetime conscription in 1960; AA patrolmen ceasing to salute their customers in 1961 and, due to become law in December this year, the removal of the terms "bachelor" and "spinster" from wedding certificates.

Contributed by Tim