That perfect photograph

“Madam, I’ve removed all the marks on the photograph.”

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Beaming, he smiled up at me, in all his 20-something eagerness, conscious of having done the best possible thing for a client.

Rummaging through my handbag for change, I stopped and looked him in the eye, then glanced over at the computer screen which displayed my bulging cheeks and a look that could kill antelopes in the wild.

***

An hour earlier

‘The bank is sending someone over for signatures on that document.’ V’s voice registered through the fog of things to do on my mental checklist and I nodded, while trying to figure out if I’d already added sugar to the tea.

‘They’ll need a passport photograph.’

‘Ugh, no. Please. Can’t they just use some profile picture of mine from Facebook? I’ve got 83 there, last time I checked. I’m sure that will be just fine.’

That’s what I wanted to say. Instead, I groaned, rolled my eyes and grabbed my keys. I simply detest getting my passport picture taken. But sometimes, we have to do things we dislike if we are to grow. Whoever said that was certainly never content in life.

***

Finding a studio open at 5 in the evening was proving rather difficult and after riding around for 20 minutes I chanced upon a tiny shop on a crowded street corner. Dodging cars on one side and irate shopkeepers on another, I parked the scooter and removed my helmet. One glance at the mirror made me grimace. Great! Now I’d have to go in for a facial just to get the grime off my face.

Walking into the shop, I quickly asked the chap behind the counter how long it would take to get my photo clicked and printed.

‘Five minutes, madam.’

When I raised an eyebrow he hastily amended it with, ‘Sorry, ten minutes?’

Heading into the back room I began to brush my hair. While in the middle of dabbing extra powder on the tip of my earlobe, studio chap walked in, caught sight of me and hurriedly excused himself. I finished up, patted a few errant strands into place and called out to him.

Pointing to a rickety chair in the centre of a floodlit space, he said I could sit there.  I immediately glanced at the mirror, framing a smile which looked as hideous as a goblin’s grin. Alarmed, studio chap (who shall henceforth be known as SC), asked me if I was all right.

Rearranging my face, I stared blankly ahead. SC coughed and asked if I could look into the camera. Shifting my gaze, I peered into the lens and felt the back of my eyelids flutter unnecessarily. Dammit! This wasn’t supposed to happen!

‘Madam, relax, please. Photo won’t look good.’

As tempting as it was to point out that nobody looks good in their passport photograph, I merely nodded. Asking me to smile, he snapped a picture.

Looking at the playback, SC winced visibly, ‘One more time, madam. Too much teeth.’ The grammarian in me wanted to say ‘too many teeth’ but I doubt that would have gone down well with him.

After what seemed like eternity the photo was finally clicked.

SC promised, ‘Five minutes madam. Will print the photos.’

As he busied himself behind his system, tweaking the dimensions of the photograph, my eyes strayed over the various photos displayed on the walls of the  studio. Everyone and their uncle seemed to have visited this place. There were bigwigs from the film industry as well as normal families with their entire brood in tow. One wondered how most of them fit into that square inch of space where I’d just been.

Sighing, I turned to pay for the photographs.

***

“Madam, I’ve removed all the marks on the photograph.”

‘What?’

‘Your face, madam. I removed all the black marks. The photo looks clean now.’

Staring back at me from the screen was my own face, but minus the five moles on the right side. I’ve been fairly lucky in the acne department and rarely get any unless the heat is severe; that and the minimal freckles on my forehead were wiped clean as well.

For a few seconds I continued to stare and wondered what to say. SC guy suddenly got nervous, ‘Madam, is it for visa interview? I’ll put the marks back.’ Because as you know, a visa photograph shouldn’t lie.

I pondered at broaching the subject with the chap. Of telling him that it didn’t matter and that I was fine with my blemishes. Of saying I have larger black marks that covered both my forearms and the nape of my neck, thanks to a skin condition. Of affirming that I was comfortable with my skin, moles and all.

And then I realised: he wasn’t to blame. He was merely doing what he’d probably been asked to do before by other female clients:

‘Please remove the blisters on my face.’

‘Can you change the exposure of the photograph?’

‘Can you make me look fairer?’

And I couldn’t bring myself to reason out any of these things with a man who was barely more than a boy. It wasn’t his fault.

It was a culture that was primarily focused on blemish-free skin and believed implicitly in the idea that fair is more beautiful. How could I hold him accountable?

So I didn’t. I merely told him it didn’t matter and to print the photographs.

What really is the perfect photograph? It seems difficult to answer that in the age of selfies, Instagram filters and smartphone cameras that make us look way better than what the mirror shows us every morning.

Perhaps there is no answer.

In any event, I showed my daughter the picture and asked her what she thought. Her reaction reassured me that there will never be a perfect passport photograph.

She peered at it and asked, ‘Amma, why do you look so scary?’

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154 thoughts on “That perfect photograph

  1. I always find it interesting to see from another’s perspective. Most people in the world seem to ignore that there are always two sides to a story, so I applaud for taking that step.

  2. Shailaja, you have not only managed to write a good blog but perhaps touched the nerve of everyone who has had himself/herself photographed and get introspecting. It is funny when you are being dictated by the SC to make faces according to his expertise of taking the photos and then wondering whether it is the really you. I have a hilarious experience with the self operated machines which deliver the photograph in few seconds. I needed a photograph for railway pass and I had to take one on this type of machine.Never knew of ‘Selfies’ when I took this one and it turned out to be the most disastrous roof top selfie image I had taken of myself.:-)

    Well, while I do look forward to your posts, I would like you to take a peek at my amateur effort in writing and blogposts on “Idealogue”,where I share my ideas and hope to have a dialogue, at http://www.itsmedha.wordpress.com.

  3. Hahahhahah…loved it..
    Had my on SC till he decided to put my eyebrows in the ‘black mark’ category.

    Have a new SC now.

  4. Hi,
    Enjoyed reading your post. Loved the way you gave details.
    I am new in blogging arena and would need loads of suggestions from likes of you who are pro in constructing beauty with words. Would you mind reading my posts on http://www.world4womencom.WordPress.com
    I too have written a similar post titled :Photoshop-ultimate transformation.

    Best Regards,
    Kalpana.

  5. I’m about the same age as your “studio guy” so I can understand what he did and he must’ve thought that clearing off all the moles was the most natural thing to do..because this the age of FLAWLESS BEAUTY! It’s hypothetical to be honest but very real at the moment. Everyone want things that they don’t have. It’s crazy extremely disturbing. But its real.

  6. On the topic of make up and creating the ‘perfect picture, most people disagree with it, but I support it. We can all predict the imperfections underneath our flaws, but with makeup and editing, we can show off the people we wish to be, no matter how far off we are.

  7. The hastags that follow the filtered pictures are way more humorous. They are like a white lie. #wokeuplikethis or #natural #unfiltered.
    But then its just as sad as it is ironical.

  8. Isn’t it crazy what we have become!? If everyone could accept themselves as they were, maybe they could also accept all of the differences around them!!
    You turned a somewhat awkward situation into a very entertaining and useful piece of work!

  9. Wow. That ending slapped me in the face. That was a beautiful story. You brought me to tears in a way I hope to do to others. Check out some of my work. I could use some feedback.

    – Unpopular

  10. Great post! Passport photos will never look good, I was in the middle of blinking when the guy took mine :) I think photos that show all our blemishes are better than clean pictures, they show more of us.

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  12. It was a nice topic you wrote about! :) And I think you are right. The studio chap removed the marks out of habit. I also grew up in a culture that everyone is supposed to look nice on photos, and I think despite me trying to reduce such influence on myself, I still have it sometimes. But maybe all cultures have a bit of it too. I remembered during my teenager years, one popular thing for us was to photoshop or edit the photos perfectly before publishing on social media. There were many funny stories around it, that some people looked too much different from their Facebook profile and some others feel being lied to. Suppose it is still happening nowadays there, I am not sure anymore. Anyway, thanks for sharing!

  13. Hey shailjah that was indeed a very different topic..u wrote on…yet it was amaizing…..ur words spoke out the truth i never find my pictures perfect inspite of all the instagram filters anyways godd work…keep them coming!!😊

  14. Amazing! Spot on with the RTO thing. Voter ID card photos make your face like aliens from M Night Shyamalan’s movies. Though heard it for the first time that studio guys modify photos right away without being told to – I guess it doesn’t happen to males.
    One thing – not sure if someone else told you about this but the left frame of shares (FB, G+, Twitter, Pintrest etc) is blocking a tiny part of your blog (the first character only). May be you want to change that.

    Great post… keep writing!! :)

  15. I’ve always loved reading about photographs. I find this post cute and relevant. When I visited my children in UAE few months ago, I was invited by an institute for a consultancy job. I wasn’t really looking for a job. I was there to check on my children, but a month after, I got bored doing the same thing almost every day. So there, I accepted the offer and started working on the employment requirements. Visa change means photographs. As I have a signature smile each time there’s clicking, I was confident that I’ll look good in my photo. However, when the photographer, a charming Indian man at his late 50’s started clicking, he respectfully told me to face the mirror and practice looking at the cam without smiling. Believe me, it took us almost twenty clicks before he finally decided that the shot will be OK for a Visa. Thanks God, men of excellent patience still exist. :)

  16. Haha!
    Too many teeth;)
    The agony of getting a photo clicked at a studio so well explained. I shudder to think what girls who go for matrimonial photos undergo. Those pictures need to be so ‘perfect’ that they don’t resemble the girl at all!
    Excellent post! :) totally deserving the feature:) congrats!

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