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. Isn’t that sad, though? That we need to show off who we wish to be instead of being comfortable with who we are? I for one wouldn’t like it, to be honest.

  2. Thank you so much, Kalpana! I will be sure to hop over to your blog soon.

    Please, no veterans here. Don’t make me feel old 😉

  3. 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.

  4. Thank you Medha 🙂 That self operated machine sounds like a hoot! Must try it out one day 😉 Will drop by to see your blog soon.

  5. 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.

  6. I suppose that’s true. Then again, perfection is an impractical goal. Just being happy wouldn’t hurt, I guess.

  7. I think the perfect picture is one which shows your confidence in embracing one’s flaws.

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

    Have a new SC now.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. Wow, you’re right. We probably look very different from our social media pictures. Wondering if that’s a good thing or not!

  14. Oh I remember mine from back then. Such a hilarious story that one too 😀 Must put it down soon.

    Thanks so much for the compliment. 🙂

  15. 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!

  16. 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

  17. 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.

  18. Wow Rajshree, I’m so honoured by that. I’ve always wanted to tell stories in the simple things. Glad it came across.

  19. Thank you for such a lovely comment. Interesting that you bring that up about being judged for the way we look. Perhaps it’s ingrained by society. The media also had a role to play in it I guess.

  20. I think you’re right. That’s actually true of my voice too.I hate how I sound over the microphone, for example, but people say I sound fine.

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  22. 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!

  23. 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!!😊

  24. Right? Fair and Lovely still rule the shop shelves and the idea of fairness seems to be the accepted form of beauty. Sigh.

  25. I love the fact that a photographer could relate to the other side of this post. What a lovely, detailed and thoughtful comment.

    I suppose you’re right. If removing a photographic blemish can highlight something more important in the rest of the photograph, it makes sense. But I doubt that was the case in this specific situation. It was more of a default response, I presume. Natural blemishes should remain.

  26. You hit the nail on the head. We’re fine the way we are. Why tweak and airbrush our imperfections away? It’s what makes us the way we are. I’m mostly behind the camera too but that’s for different reasons.

  27. I so agree Charlene! Beauty cannot be captured by a photo. What, after all, is a photograph? Just a physical idea of what you look like. Beauty is so much more.

  28. 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!! 🙂

  29. 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. 🙂

  30. 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!

  31. Yeah, I always wondered why we all look terrible in pp pics. Yet to see one which looks pleasant .

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  33. You are probably right. Even back then when it was just black and white photographs, pictures weren’t perfect. This just shows that some basic things never change even with the advent of technology. 👍

  34. This post really got me thinking!…That theres a story waiting to be told in the smallest of things that happens in our lives!…Its so beautiful how we can turn something as normal as taking a passport size photo into an entertaining and informative and mostly thought provoking content that Ms.Shailaja had just highlighted…Wonderful read…kept me intrigued till the end!:)

  35. This was really great read! I can definitely relate to you on looking terrible in your passport photos, but I’m so glad that you choose not to hide your blemishes. You are beautiful, and you don’t need anyone to tell you otherwise.

  36. I was always flippant towards my passport size photograph, as if it mocks at me for being too beautiful. What we fail to understand is that the story it tells, which you clearly inhibited in your writing. Whenever someone tends to ask for my passport photograph, it becomes a predicament for me, like i don’t want to be on that glossy little paper. And somehow i’m afraid of being judged, not of my ugliness, but, my ‘lesser beauty’. Great understanding. Also visit sakshink.wordpress.com for my writing, i hope to be guided by you on this path.

  37. Great story. It’s sad just how focused we are on photos, as if people can’t see for themselves 🙂 But I do think we find our pictures worse than they actually are.

  38. Sorry to write this as a reply to a comment. I am new to this and I can’t seem to find where you can right your own personal comment on the article.. could anyone help please!? :/

  39. Amazing piece of writing here. The concept of beauty is so strongly engraved in the society that nobody stops to think that it can be questioned and ruled out.

  40. I’ve had acne since i was about 26, now I’m left with acne scars. I used to cover it up with makeup or at least attempted to but that never worked, so I’ve embraced all my blemishes acne scars and moles and all. I agree with you, it’s not that poor boy’s fault I’m sure all the ladies must ask him to fix this or remove that. I believe the perfect picture is what seems perfect to you. you know as the saying goes “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. so it all depends on your point of view. Great article, I really enjoyed reading it and look forward to reading more.

  41. that was a beautiful way expressing how a piece of paper can capture images of us, mostly for a life time.I really liked the way of your writing.

  42. You write really well! I like your account on how the photographer tried to cover up the faults in your picture..
    It’s really very interesting when you stop and focus on the little things in life that you would generally take for granted, such as clicking a simple passport photograph.
    Thanks for sharing…I enjoyed reading this post very much :))

  43. That’s funny… I do a lot of photography in the studio, and often wonder what the balance is between developing a photo and creating a fake image. By developing – you can change the contrast, color balance, and lighting of an image to really make it stand out. Some people do want blemishes removed… but I’ve always thought that feeds the idea that we should attain the image we create. Somehow, if the blemish is temporary, or distracting, or the light caught it and made it stand out, then removing it means attention can be given to the rest of the image. But for many of the natural blemishes, I feel they are the story, what adds the real character and beauty.

    So interesting to here a perspective from the other side of the camera!

  44. Hehe yeah insta and fb profile photos are way too much diiferent from the real one

  45. It’s so true! I always think about this. Should a photograph portray us as our real selves, or this airbrushed version?

    Also, why is it that we always smile for photos? There’s such an inauthenticity to this.

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  47. I loved this! to me its sad when people want things changed or removed from a photograph. It changes the whole picture to me that doesn’t make it “real”. to me real is beautiful real is original. its the main part of having a picture taken in my opinion. now me I would rather be behind the camera instead of being the subject but that’s just me.

  48. Thank you for writing this–it is so true. You made me laugh out loud at my desk–great story!

  49. This was great! I am not at all loved by the camera myself, so I felt sorry for the position you and the SC were put in over a photo. I do love taking pictures, but think that most people’s beauty is truly not shown in a picture because it is on the inside of a person.

  50. I don’t remove anything unless I’m asked. Removing a blemish could be take offensively.

  51. Ha ha , I know what you mean. If our passport photos were used for character reviews, we’d none of us get jobs or married 😉

    Thank you. I am so thrilled! Cannot wait to see it up there soon.

  52. Passport photos are the worst! I look like a criminal every time especially as I can’t wear my glasses or smile! I told them once it doesn’t look like me at all because well, no glasses! :S

    Great post Shy! I can see why it’s been chosen 🙂

  53. I hate when photo developer does that.Despite multiple moles and dark circles, I like it to keep it that way. So true, the ones in DL and PAN card are just the opposite.They are genius in making people look ugly. Good post to smile on.

  54. Oh gosh my passport photographs have almost always been a disaster… Wondering why I have never met any SC 😆!!!!!

  55. Oh dear! I have to renew my passport soon and you scare me with this story 😀 As for crying, use my shoulder. I know the pain 😉

  56. I know what you mean about entertaining. I look positively anemic in some of the younger ones. Now I just pray that the cheeks magically flatten but of course that never happens 😉

  57. I have passport photos from different times in the last 8 yrs. Some good, some bad. But I find that they are quite entertaining by showing how I looked at different times. I remember when and why I took those pictures. It’s like stories of applying for visas with photo specs or for general use. Since most are a collection of 4-8 photo packs, the old left over ones make me go, “Wow! I was so thin!” 🙂

  58. After years and years of experimenting I have finally found one photographer who does a passport picture for me that’s not absolutely horrible. Now that you mention it, I’m not sure he’s not airbrushing it. No matter – I’m good with the airbrushing – as long as I don’t look like a dracula.

  59. Reading this reminds me of my photo that was taken at Passport office last month. I was carrying my blemish free, smiling passport size photograph but the personnel there chose to discard it and clicked my photo with their own lens. Before I knew to adjust my facial bones and wipe off the sweat, the damage was already done. If passport size photos are bad, then such spontaneous photos are the heights of the worst condition possible. My passport for next 10 years houses that one. I need a shoulder to cry upon.

  60. Coming from you that means a lot <3 It's my personal story of depression and bipolar disorder so it's a bit of a struggle to get it all down coherently. Sigh. Anyway, its time will come. Thanks, hon 🙂

  61. All things worth doing well take time. Glad to hear you are trying to work on a book…..your words are beautiful. Best to you as you write 🙂

  62. I had my Passport picture taken a few weeks ago. I looked like a criminal, but did not want to go through an ordeal of taking another picture. My passport is scarred for life. 😛

  63. He he quite possible. It’s not so much about fair/dark though. I find that the general effect is quite unsettling, by itself 🙂

  64. Passport photograph are the hardest. I don’t know why. It is as if they use a special lense that make even the fairest look scary.

  65. He he, it would take a lot more than a studio chap to make me smile for a passport photo 😉 Thanks for reading Anand. How have you been? 🙂

  66. I sigh when I think of the next generation that not only has to worry about skin problems but all the associated issues that come with photoshopped images of perfect bodies. We’ve been through it and with enough support we stay afloat by our own convictions.

    Thanks for reading, Melony 🙂

  67. As a kid, I hated to get my picture clicked and more so at a studio. Look here, chin down, little up and those instructions seemed to be so out of the way. I loved the message that you got here. Filters were a thing of the past. Have you seen the Oppo phone ad? A phone that clicks selfies so well that your face glows. Imagine where are we headed. Physical appearance is a picture in many ways and most people want to get that right.

  68. Having been exposed to the same torture quite recently, I can totally relate with this post. I had a bad hair day, and the photograph was needed quite urgently to fill an exam form. You can only imagine what happened next!
    I totally agree with the Facebook profile photo thing. After all, our friends and followers identify us with that photo only, no? 😀

  69. Laughed through your post. Those Snap-chaps are awesome, aren’t they? This guy didn’t succeed in making you smile, but he made you write this funny post, which made your readers smile 😀 Thanks for sharing.

  70. I couldn’t agree more! There is definitely no perfect passport picture, but even moreso the suggestion that blemish free is beauty. I’ve struggled my whole life with seborrhea and as I got older, acne that has left me scarred and constantly concerned about first impressions. Great story, and I loved how you framed it!

  71. Thank you so much for reading 😀

    Yes, my daughter has the knack of grounding me every single day. I could write a book about it. Probably will 😉

  72. Kids have a way of breaking the spell no-matter it is of magic or a train of thoughts and your daughter did it quite like my daughter does.
    Though it is the first time I heard of a photographer taking the pains to remove any blemishes before confirming if you wanted it or not. It certainly has to do with the repeated requests he seems to have been catering to.
    Wonderfully narrated 🙂

  73. Oh god yes! The aadhar ones are hideous and have you got your Voter ID yet? Those look grotesque! 😀

    Wish we all could look past the idea of skin-based beauty. Sigh, one day.

  74. Passport photos are divine when you compare them with the Aadhar ones! My Aadhar photo makes me look closer to our ape ancestery! Beauty is but skin deep but how few actually acknowledge it and even fewer accept it. Enjoyed this 🙂

  75. I know, right? Then again, that would probably confuse immigration chaps a lot more. It’s bad enough trying to figure out if the convict in the photograph is the one traveling; imagine if they had to deal with photo-shopped models 😉

  76. Like they say, none of us actually look as bad as we do in passport photoes or as good as we do in Facebook DPs. Sigh, I’ve always wished they’d use my FB pics rather than the passport ones for official purposes! I look like a toad in my school ID and registration cards!

  77. Love your voice in this <3 My mother always said (paraphrasing Erma Bombeck, I believe) that if any of us actually looked like our passport photos, we probably weren't fit to travel 😛

  78. That photo will make you change your mind 😉 I know what you mean. It’s almost as if there are no imperfect pictures anymore. I am guilty of it too. Only picking the ones where you can’t see my double chin or my lopsided smile. It’s one reason I deleted my profile picture on FB today. That and other reasons. I completely agree that acid attack survivors are worth respecting and emulating. Completely.

  79. Hehe.. I can totally envision this encounter.. including the look on your face when he spoke about “cleaning up” the pic :D. I’m sure it wasn’t all that scary ;)..

  80. Hilarious, to begin with! I mean, goblin’s grin! Really, yours? Shut up, now! You have an amazing smile -I have seen it!
    But seriously, today everyone wants a perfect picture to show to the world; a perfect picture that expertly masks the imperfections that only we know of. I confess I am guilty of doing it at times. Although, what am I going to gain from it? What will anybody gain from it? We all need to work on our self esteem, you know? Or, have a look at the pictures of those acid attack victims who bravely show their very real, scarred-for-life faces to the world; those, where their courage and acceptance of themselves can be seen through and through!

  81. Good question. I’d have to ask him. Then again, if I go back there I think he may quit, considering the ordeal I put him through.

    Yes, why do the powers that be dislike smiles on passport photos?!

  82. I wonder, does SC remove wrinkles too? If so, I want his number, haha.

    The dreaded passport photo. I smile, I love to smile and yet the powers that be want a somber, emotionless photo. It almost makes me laugh to think about how ridiculous we must all look trying to be somber.

  83. I completely agree. When I was not blogging, it appeared as if every little incident became fodder for a blog post. All it means is that the stories all around us- they are always there, waiting to be told. Thanks for reading and the lovely comment, Sampada <3

  84. I was reminded of the story ‘ With the photographer’ in school.. Its amusing how every scene being played in our lives has a story waiting to be told. Good line of thought Shailaja!

  85. Wow, that was fast! Yes there isn’t. I just marvel at how every single passport photo makes me look like a wanted criminal! Those and the ones taken at the RTO /DMV 😉

    I was mostly amused but a bit saddened by the fact that he must have been asked so often to ‘clean up’ the images that it’s now become a reflex action.

  86. There is never a perfect passport photograph. Period. And that’s all there is to it.
    Somehow, it miraculously emphasises everything that we think is wrong with our faces. Sort of like a caricature of our worst fears.
    Or maybe it’s just for people who aren’t photogenic. like me 🙂
    Interesting little story, Shailaja.

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