May 26, 2018
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Where your smile is no umbrella

By Kent Ward

The article in the morning newspaper reported that the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles has banned smiling by clients having their pictures taken for driver’s licenses. Not that there has ever been much to smile about in any motor vehicle department branch office known to mankind, mind you.

A DMV spokeswoman said that clients facing the camera are instructed to adopt a “neutral” facial expression in the interest of secure driver’s licenses and foolproof identification cards. No more saying “cheese” when the photographer is about to take your picture, she cautioned. At the Virginia DMV, even Mona Lisa would have been ordered to lose her perfect smile.

“A smile is the chosen vehicle for all ambiguities,” Herman Melville wrote, and Virginia apparently feels that the old coot may have been on to something. The department spokeswoman explained that the no-smile edict will help the agency develop a facial recognition system that could compare customers’ photographs over time to prevent fraud and identity theft. “The technology works better when the images are similar,” the lady explained.

When everyone’s official government identification picture resembles the dour visage of Silent Cal Coolidge on a bad hair day things apparently will go smoother, government-controlwise.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney never much of a smiley face, would be the perfect poster boy for the Virginia no-grin campaign, it seems to me. On the other hand, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her permanently pasted-on smile should be thankful she is not a resident of Virginia trying to renew her driver’s license. Facing a camera, normally the politician’s best friend, the poor woman could never get her countenance sufficiently unstuck to meet the new DMV criteria, I’m thinking.

Nor would the gregarious Willy Loman, smiling protagonist of playwright Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” be happy were he to do business with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Old Willy, ace pitchman, was a chap “way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine,” you will recall, and his smile stood him well over the years. But when the populace started not smiling back, well, that was an earthquake of devastating proportions.

Virginia’s prohibition on smiling before a DMV camera does not specify if it is proper for customers to smile while just hanging around awaiting their chance to get their picture taken. But I suspect that is a no-no also, as a smile — like the swine flu — can be a highly contagious thing in a crowded public facility, and who needs that?

On the same day the paper reported that smiles will no longer be tolerated in the Virginia DMV my United States of America passport card arrived from the Department of State. The mug staring back at me from the plastic card, although unsmiling, could never pass Virginia’s straight-face test.

Unless I miss my guess, the first time I hand the card to some by-the-book U.S. Customs agent in an attempt to get back into the country from a trip to nearby Canada I stand an excellent chance of being slapped in leg irons and carted off to the domestic equivalent of the Guantanamo Bay detention center for losers.

There I am, mouth agape and head tilted, looking like I had just witnessed a drive-by shooting, the sinister image fairly shouting to Customs, “Detain for questioning as potential shoe-bomber.” If Virginia, in the interest of security, can order a person to put on his neutral face for his driver’s license picture, shouldn’t Maine insist that its residents at least appear to be housebroken when sitting for their official United States of America passport card?

Granted, passport photos conceived via Polaroid camera in the back shop of the local post office can never be mistaken for portrait studio-quality works of art. And I realize there has never yet been a passport photo that doesn’t make its owner look as forlorn as a death row convict being led to the gallows. But, still …

I’d demand a do-over, but at 60 bucks a pop the frugal side of my brain says that would make me appear even dumber than I look. No mean feat, that.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at

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