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Published On: Sun, May 13th, 2018

Smile though your face is aching

Chris Morvanby Chris Morvan

Everywhere you go these days there are cameras. There’s one on every smartphone and many dumbphones. There’s one on every laptop. There are security cameras recording us doing everyday things, just in case.

The Government Building, where most of us spend so much time hanging around while the wheels of officialdom grind slowly on, is dotted with those that are used to take mugshots.

And still there are professional photographers, out and about, wielding chunky black contraptions with lenses as long as your arm, or taking $20 off you for a ten-second studio sitting in which you look terrible but which will be following you around for ten years because it’s for your passport.

Every time I take a selfie (which really should be declared illegal for everyone but the young and easily amused) there’s this funny looking guy in it. I am told that in real life my face is not all that offensive, so why does the presence of a lens turn me and so many others into a dopey, expressionless zombie?

Oh for the simple, guileless state of childhood, when what you see is what you get and the world hasn’t yet taught us not to count our chickens before they’re hatched. I’ve still got a few of them from school days: strange, sideswept haircut, sweater chosen by my Mum and a facial expression that says “blissfully ignorant”.

Nowadays, as a married man, you might expect my photos to be largely of a happy couple, but such is my wife’s aversion to having her picture taken that documentary evidence would suggest that I am single.

And the presence in her passport of a sad, dejected portrait of what looks like a hopeless refugee demonstrates that she has a point.

For me, the problem goes right back to my first passport, when I was about 17. Having always been concerned about my protruding teeth, I came up with a brilliant plan. I would stick my chin out a bit so the two rows lined up. And so it was that I spent the next 10 years represented by a picture of someone with a jaw like a chimpanzee.

Maybe that accounts for the fact that I have never been much of a smiler; some of us just aren’t. We are genetically predisposed to the enigmatic glance or the rock star’s moody sneer. Elvis Presley didn’t get where he got by grinning inanely. He did it by doing that frozen twitch thing with his cheek.

Marilyn Monroe spent more time looking mysterious and naughty than cackling hysterically. You didn’t know what she was thinking but you could live in hope, although now we know she was probably musing on the length of John F Kennedy’s term of office.

Likewise the enigmatically smirking Mona Lisa, who really looks less like a nobleman’s wife than the woman down the road who is rumored to be having a thing with the plumber.

Personally, I am immediately suspicious of anyone who smiles too readily.

You know the type: eyes constantly on the verge of bursting into flame, followed by a carefree baring of teeth and gums and a look that says, “We’re all children of nature so why not be happy? You miserable so-and-so.”

One of the most beautiful smiles I have ever witnessed was given by an insurance salesman. I was interviewing him rather than seeking his professional services, but he gave me his life insurance spiel as if I were a customer and at the end of it he spread his hands flat on the desk and beamed.

Then a real customer came in and he gave them the same spiel. And at exactly the same place, with exactly the same gesture, he produced the beam.

Now, this guy may well be as honest as the day is long, but his ability to produce a visual display of contented radiance right on cue was enough to persuade me never to put any business his way. Give me a rather grim realist who only smiles when he’s delighted any day.

But I bet the insurance man’s passport pic isn’t a blaze of facial sunshine, because the authorities – any authorities – don’t like that. They don’t mind you wearing your appearance-changing glasses but they don’t want a grin.

Perhaps that is because humor, even the very basic good humor that makes the world go round, seems to be banished at the International School of Charm for Immigration Officers.

“Wipe that smile off your face, Johnson. If you think life is so damn funny, there’s an insurance broker’s just down the road. Go and stretch your lips there.”

So, is it possible for anyone to have a nice photo in their passport? Or do even the blessed, good-looking people like George Clooney and Michelle Obama gawp out of the picture page like they haven’t slept for three days and have just sat on a soggy cushion?