The Great Passport Photo Fail of 2017


We’ve all been around technology long enough now to know that even as it can improve our daily lives, it can also add untold headaches. Such is the lesson to keep in mind as I recount my journey this past summer to produce a photograph worthy—by the standards of the US Government—of representing me in my new passport.

The journey was complicated from the outset by my desire as a marginally vain human to produce–by the standards set by me— a photograph worthy of representing me in my passport. My standards conflict with those of the US Government, apparently, at every turn. I’m not asking for much: I want to look sober, for example. I want to look like I slept the previous night. I want to seem as if I showered recently. I want to appear my age or younger. My expectations are reasonable. Really, don’t we just want our passport photo to not be mistaken for a mug shot?

These were the goals I had in mind at the start of what would become a season-long ordeal. I went to the State Department website in June in search of guidance for renewing my passport—my current one would expire in November, at which time I would be mid-trip in Asia. This is when I learned that in the time since I last renewed my passport 10 years ago, we have gained the authority to take our own passport photos.

This got me excited for a couple of reasons. One, the passport photo industry is a racket. Somewhere between $10 and $14 at CVS or some random copy shop gets you a couple of two-inch by two-inch photos of yourself, never at your most flattering. The margins must be crazy in that business. I sort of feel like I should go into that business for myself.

Two, I could now be in control of my image on the document that lasts longer than any other. I got out the good camera and started staging. I put on some light makeup. I put on some bright lipstick. Then I went to find my fella, who took some photos of me against a white wall in our apartment. Midway through, I decided I could do better myself and took some selfie versions.

They turned out, well, subpar, not much better really than what I could have gotten from the CVS “photographer.” They did, however, culminate in this weird series:

I printed one out using glossy paper on my $70 printer anyway, already convincing myself to be resigned to good enough, and that’s how I learned that $70 printers do not an acceptable passport photo make.

Disheartened, I set the whole project aside for a couple weeks.

But the sands of time keep marching, or whatever, and my big Asia trip was looming. I made my fella do a second photo shoot, and I was pretty happy with the results.

What I did next ALMOST WORKED. So much so that I hope some readers might try it themselves, and let me know if it works for them. I created a new image in Photoshop with a white background and 4×6 dimensions. Then I sized my chosen passport photo to two inches by two inches and copied it twice onto the new Photoshop image. I saved the image to a flash drive and took it to Target, where you can print out a single 4×6 photograph for a mere $0.29. Here’s that situation:

Now is a good time to mention that both the State Department and Walmart provide tools for getting your passport photo exactly right, with the head appearing between 1 and 1 3/8 inches tall on a two-inch tall photo. Neither of them work very well, and I ended up more or less eyeballing it, with some assistance from the rulers in Photoshop.

I got the photo home from Target and carefully, so carefully, cut the two photos out of the 4×6 printout. I affixed one to my renewal application and sent it off to the government.*

A few weeks later, my old passport and application for a new one came back to me accompanied by a letter stating that my photo was not acceptable, but not telling me why.

Fine. I went to a copy shop and paid $12 for two sad photos of myself:

(This one, inexplicably, was my fella’s favorite.)

By this time, my trip was too imminent to send the application back in via mail, so I made an appointment for expedited processing at the passport office in Manhattan. After standing in line there for half an hour, the passport photos I paid the copy shop for were also rejected, and I finally found out why—just like in the photos we produced at home and printed at Target, my bangs fell too far down on my face, apparently obscuring enough of my eyes to disqualify the photos.

The agents processing our applications—I dealt with two of them—were the nicest, most encouraging, most patient members of a bureaucratic monolith I’ve ever encountered. One of them gave me a nearby address and sent me running out to get new photos taken.

I exited the building and while waiting at the corner for the light to change, a woman popped out of a parked van and asked if I needed a passport photo. I said yes, but how much? Ten dollars, she said, and I jumped into the van, which felt very much like engaging in a drug deal or a kidnapping. I sat for the photo, brushed my bangs far to the side of my forehead, and said go.

I had neither showered that morning nor put makeup on. The photo I exited the van with could have been a mug shot, but it got me my passport. Because you aren’t supposed to post passport stuff online, I won’t be including the final photo here, but suffice to say it’s the worst of the bunch. There is no moral to this story, except that procrastinating can be the best course of action, from time to time, and that it can be damn near impossible to fully control your image.

And also, if you’ve got any good passport photo tips or stories of your own, I’d love to know about them in the comments.

*I’m choosing to leave out of this narrative the fact that I sent the application off twice, having forgotten to include a check for $160 with the first one.



Sarah is the founder and editor of Flung, the author of Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors, and a widely published travel and culture writer. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.

2 Replies to "The Great Passport Photo Fail of 2017"

  • comment-avatar
    Rijn February 13, 2018 (5:48 am)

    Oh, I feel your pain, Sarah! Love this tale, and understand it all too well. A decade ago I was heading to Iceland when my flat got burgled, and my passport stolen. I had to replace it quickly, but luckily still had two of the four passport photos (my stolen passport was brand new and had only been issued a month prior). The photos had been deemed appropriate only weeks before, so no problem, right? Ah, no. The employee stared at it, handed it back, and said I was ‘too pale.’ I needed a lot of persuasion, immense control not to grab her shirtfront, and a deeply growled ‘I am a redhead, it’s the middle of winter, and I’ve just been burgled: I AM PALE. Where’s my god damned passport?’ It took her supervisor, the patience of a saint, and far too long, but I got my passport, and made it to Iceland. I’m due to renew my passport soon – also for Iceland – and will now, thanks to your advice, make sure my fringe is out of my eyes. Thanks for the tip, and the story!

    • comment-avatar
      Flung February 13, 2018 (7:58 am)

      Oof! I agree there wasn’t a ton of rhyme or reason to the whole thing. The Pollyanna take is that it’s now 10 whole years until I have to go through it again!

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