Wednesday, 8 June 2011


So sure as this beard’s grey,
What will you adventure...?
William Shakespeare (The Winter’s Tale, Act II, Scene III)

IN 1978, I had a passport photograph taken in a shop in the Bermudiana Arcade in Hamilton, Bermuda. The proprietor sat me in front of a screen, took a photograph with a large camera on a tripod, and then took another picture after telling me not to move. My photographs would be ready in a week’s time.

I recall collecting four prints (and he gave me the two negatives), which would have to be trimmed down by somebody in the passport section of the British Embassy in Washington DC. The head, neck, and uppermost shoulders were the correct size, but the photographer had set his sights on my waist and everything above.

Happens I had a beard at the time. Not the first I had grown. I have had a moustache since I was in my late teens, and once I reached my twenties, I would grow a beard from time to time, depending on the weather. A cooler time of year would be more encouraging.

In 1978, when I was renewing my British passport whilst in Bermuda, I was anticipating a trip, my first, to the Rocky Mountains. I would have been 28 years old. My hair and beard were reddish brown, quite a bit darker than my hair was in a 1968 passport (taken in Gillingham, Kent). A passport in the late 1980s showed me with thinning, greying hair.

My current passport, issued here in Northumberland about two years ago, is that of a white-haired individual, with a white moustache. The same picture appears on my bus pass. When I was in the booth, having my photograph taken by a digital camera, my glasses seemed to reflect the light. I took them off, and so I am not exactly myself, as I always wear my glasses when I am out and about. I look squinty.

I spent a few years on the other side of a camera in the same shop in which I had posed for my passport picture back in 1978. It would have been the late 1990s. “Kit ‘n’ Caboodle” sold newspapers, cigarettes, junk food and soft drinks, and ghastly small toys at Christmas. One could have photocopies made. I never figured out how to work the enormous Xerox machine, and tried to be busy whenever a customer appeared wanting copies. As I recall, most of these customers were expatriate workers copying documents to submit to the Bermuda Government to enable them to retain their jobs another year or so. There were also a few poets who wanted no end of copies of their latest oeuvres. Expectant mothers would turn up wanting copies of their ultrasound scans, and would point out the important bits. The ultrasound foetus, one’s first passport picture.

At Kit ‘n’ Caboodle, I was mainly employed as their passport photographer. One would hold a Polaroid camera, and aim a beam of light at the client seated in front of a light-absorbing screen, and a tiny red dot of light could be seen on the client’s forehead. One learned where to aim the beam of light for the particular type of passport photograph. Different countries had different requirements. The United States passport needed one ear showing, so taken from slightly to one side (I forget which). The United States also requires passport photographs of even the smallest infants, with eyes wide open. This could take an hour and could reduce me to near-insanity. One had to stand leaning over the wee bairn, holding the camera out, but being extra-careful not to drop it (which could kill the kid!)

Our black customers nearly always hated their passport photographs, usually saying: “This is too dark. I look like a Jamaican.”

One woman with rather droopy breasts pushed them up from underneath and asked me to ensure they were in the finished picture. I explained that an acceptable passport photograph showed the top of the shoulders, neck and head. No breasts (neither pert, nor pendulous).

We also had an ID photograph service, creating personal identification cards that were, clearly, not legal. $18 would buy you a laminated card the size of a bus pass with your name, address and age alongside a photograph. The client would write the details onto the card. Nothing was witnessed. The client could create his own identity.

One day a young, light-skinned lad came into Kit ‘n’ Caboodle and asked for one of our ID cards. The boy looked, perhaps, 15 years of age. I dare say he wanted an ID to buy cigarettes and liquor, requiring him to be 21. This kid’s picture added nothing to his smooth face. Before I could glue the photograph onto the card on which the boy had written his inaccurate details, and then laminate it, he grabbed the photo, whipped out a black felt-tip pen, and scribbled a beard and moustache on the immature face. “You can laminate it now.”

The boy had it in his mind that if he presented a photograph of himself with a beard, even if he did not actually have one on his face, he would still be able to buy his smokes and Black Seal rum. He did not seem to have a notion that his hastily drawn beard was clearly just that, scribbled onto a picture. Oscar Wilde wrote: “Naïveté is like the bloom of a delicate, exotic flower. You touch it but once and it is destroyed forever.” One did not have the heart to spoil the boy’s day. I gave him two dollars change from his twenty-dollar note.

I have two personal activities that are, I dare say, hobbies. I research genealogy, which involves many, many hours following up leads back many centuries. I have around two thousand individuals in my “family tree”, all considerably detailed. Each relative has documented evidence attached to his or her file: addresses, dates, connections, photographs.

I also have a Nikon digital camera, and I spend time taking dozens of pictures that I tinker with on my computer, and that usually are deleted as the one or two satisfying snapshots stand out. If a picture is too dark, I can change the lighting with a few clicks. Nothing Jamaican about my photography.

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