Among the many best-selling books by Erma Bombeck, the American humorist and newspaper columnist who died in 1996, is one titled, “When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home.” This collection of essays, about the highs and lows of independent travel, will be a familiar subject to anyone who’s been there, done that. But it’s the title that really tickles my funny bone, and that I often think of when crossing foreign borders.
Invariably, I’m jetlagged, rumpled after a long overnight flight and disoriented as I wheel my carry-on luggage through customs and immigration at some foreign airport. Uniformed officials who seem trained to look unfriendly are loudly stamping passports, conversing in an only vaguely familiar — or totally unfamiliar — language. When my turn comes up, the immigration officer opens my passport and does a double take. That look needs no translation. The thought balloon clearly says, “Is that really YOU?”
I lived overseas as a young child and have had itchy feet practically since I learned to walk, so I have a collection of cancelled passports charting my life’s journeys. They are also irrefutable evidence of how awful it is possible to look in a passport photo. Over the years I have gone from wide-eyed child, to awkward teenager, and evolved gradually into a self-assured adult. I seem to have given up barrettes and other methods of trying to tame my curly hair. But the one thing these pictures have in common is that they do not look like anyone I would have ever wanted to resemble.
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Under current rules, passports come up for renewal every 10 years. Not surprisingly I approach these anniversaries – if you can call them that – with a sense of hope and doom: Hope that this time I will finally crack the code for having a decent (if not absolutely glamorous) passport photo; and doom because deep in my heart I just know that the past is prologue.
Still, with my passport expiration date rapidly approaching, I thought I had finally come up with a way to beat the odds. After a recent haircut, and with my curls professionally arranged in what might be called a state of stylish disarray, I went directly to the nearest Walgreens and plunked down $11.99 to have my passport photo taken (this price covers two prints). Digital photography prices seem to have declined since the last time I had my passport photo taken, with no decrease in the quality of the picture. That is to say, the photo was as bad as ever.
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Resigned to travel for the next decade with this image, I signed on to the State Department website to complete the rest of the passport renewal process. Only then did I discover an alternative to the usual passport photo: I could have used a selfie.
“While we recommend you use a professional passport photo service to ensure your photo meets all the requirements, you may take the photo yourself,” the website says. Though it indicates that “Hand-held self portraits are not acceptable,” there is nothing there that would preclude my using a digital camera or even the Camera+ app on my iPhone or iPad, set up on a tripod or secure surface, to take my own passport photo. In fact, the State Department website, which I think of as a source of help for emergencies overseas, and information about travel alerts and warnings, includes a “Photographer’s Guide,” with some really swell, consumer-friendly tips for lighting and camera position when taking your own passport photo.
This was a bit more effort than I wanted to devote to the task this time. But it’s certainly something to consider 10 years from now when my newly-issued passport expires. Between now and then I can get plenty of practice.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide, now available in the third edition.