The story behind the picture: whatever you do don’t say cheese…

On our last visit to Paris, I needed a new Paris Navigo Carte Nominative Transport pass, which allows unlimited city-wide travel on train or bus for a fixed amount, so I headed to a metro station near our apartment I knew had a Photomaton. A Photomaton is, essentially, one of those photo booths into which you put some money, it takes your photo, develops it, and gives you four passport-quality headshots. Many of the various transit passes require photos so you will find a Photomaton at most metro stops.

The irony in this story is that I am famous for not wanting to have my photo taken because often I will look like an axe murderer who just had a prostate exam and is considering inflicting extreme harm on the doctor. As I was leaving the apartment to undertake this task my partner Michael said, “why don’t you try smiling this time.” I internally rolled my eyes and set out for the closest metro stop. I found a Photomaton, fed it the required amount of money and waited for the countdown before the photo was taken. Somewhere between trois and deux I decided “what the heck” and at un I committed to smiling. If I looked like a doofus, I could always take another photo looking glum. I stepped out of the booth and waited about three minutes for it to develop the photos and spit out a square of four passport-sized photos. Surprisingly, my grin wasn’t too cheesy, and so I proceeded to the ticket office to procure my pass.

I stepped up to the window and asked in my rudimentary French for a monthly pass. “Bonjour. Puis-je avoir un pass Navigo d’un mois s’il vous plaît? “The man behind the glass window motioned for me to push my photo through the opening under the window. He shrugged and said, “Un photo.” I panicked and felt inadequate because I had not anticipated needing to rehearse how to say in French “yes, I know but I just bought the photos over there in that Photomaton and I don’t happen to be carrying a pair of scissors.” Instead, I nervously smiled and moved my index finger back and forth against my middle finger in what I assumed must be the international pantomimed symbol for “would you be so kind as to cut one of the photos off.” He looked at me and rolled his eyes, let out a sigh opened a drawer and clipped off a photo, threw the scissors back into the drawer and with a haughty flourish pushed the three remaining photos back to me through the opening in the window.

He proceeded to get all the supplies for putting together the pass when he let out an audible gasp, rolled his eyes again, pushed the photo back at me and said “Cette photo n’est pas possible.” Not possible?! How is this photo not possible? “Porquoi?” I asked.  He smiled, used his index finger to air-draw an x over his smile, then relaxed his face into an expressionless stare. “No smile?” I asked in English. “Oui” he said in French and clapped his hands. Why the hell can’t you smile for your Navigo photo? I wanted the guy to explain the reasoning for this requirement but stopped short of protesting or asking why. Back to the Photomaton I went.

Having been the victim of passive aggression by a French metro worker I had no trouble not smiling for the second portrait. I mustered up my best “you really pissed me off and I am not amused” look and waited for the photo to develop. After three minutes what appeared to be four mugshots minus the prisoner number on the bottom popped out. I waved them at the metro worker behind the glass and stormed out of the metro entrance, up the stairs and onto the street where I walked three blocks back to the apartment, up five flights of stairs and into the kitchen to find the pair of scissors I had seen among the utensils. Michael sensed my frustration and asked what happened. “Smile, you said,” I replied. “Well, I smiled, and I had to take a second photo not smiling to use for the Navigo pass.”

He asked why I came back to cut the photo. “Don’t ask,” I shot back and told him I’d be back shortly. On my purposeful walk back to the metro stop I asked Siri “why can’t you smile for your transport photo in France ? ” Turns out it has to do with biometrics and how smiling is considered an unnatural and distorted expression and a totally neutral expression is easiest for identification purposes. The unnatural expression explanation suddenly made sense since the French are consistently recognized as one of the most pessimistic peoples on earth. But, I was shocked to learn that the no-smile requirement applied to passport photos for countries across the globe, including the United States since 2004. Having always glowered in my photos it was just never an issue that was going to present itself. No Walgreen’s employee ever had to tell me to wipe that smile off my face when I went to get my passport photos.

I walked back down into the metro and went over to the window where the same metro employee motioned for me to slide the photo through the opening. He looked at it and said “Oui, c’est parfait!” It was apparently perfect. He affixed the photo, assembled the pass, charged my credit card, and slid everything back to me through the slot. “Merci, monsiueur,” he said with a big smile. I looked back at him, totally expressionless, took my Navigo, mumbled a cursory au revoir and set out to catch the next metro to make sure it worked. It opened the barrier and allowed me to pass. As I sat on the metro and rode it to the next stop, I reflected on the whole ridiculous experience and smiled to myself. “Okay,” I thought. “Back to my axe-murderer days it is.”

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