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Government outlaws Photoshopped passport pics

But baulks at debate on representative art

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Since the UK Passport Service started to go digital last year, some applicants have run into a little Rise of the Machines-related trouble. Maybe your skin's the wrong colour (which takes you back, but they don't mean it in the old sense), or your baby's too shiny, or for some reason won't look straight at the camera.

People who look like people as far as other people are concerned do not always look like what the UKPS photo digitisation system thinks people ought to look like. Hence, the photo is rejected and the applicant is encouraged to try to look more like the UKPS' concept of what they should look like. It seemed clear to us when the new photo guidelines were announced that the sensible thing to do would be to snap yourself digitally and then give yourself a quick Photoshopping, adding or subtracting tan as necessary, matting yourself up a tad and knocking your teeth out, should the raw image exhibit an excess of Jenny Agutter (only a machine could conceive of such an "excess" being possible, surely).

Obviously we didn't mention this at the time because if it came to the Home Office's attention that it was poised on the brink of a nightmare philosophical argument about art, images and representation, it would put a stop to it right away. Which it now has. According to Home Office Minister Andy Burnham guidance was updated in December to advise "customers" that "the digital enhancement of photographs was not recommended." Actually the guidance was updated in the old news announcement, which hardly anybody's going to read now, but seems not to be present in the standard guidance that most people will consult. Joined up government in action.

No matter, because it's a bit of a cop-out anyway. Given that UKPS remains happy about receiving pictures taken by digital cameras and produced by digital printers (1200dpi or better recommended), we really need a better definition of what it means by digital enhancement. If the enhancements are part of the camera's standard processes, then is that OK? Shouldn't whatever it is that UKPS' systems are doing to the picture count as digital enhancement, and if so, why is it OK for them but not for you? Is it just a case of you not being supposed to make yourself look prettier (e.g. spot removal)? Would it be OK to make yourself uglier (digital degradation)?

The announcement has, as you see, merely postponed the Home Office's long overdue debate on the nature and purpose of representative art. Perhaps someone should ask Culture, Media and Sport instead. ®

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