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An artist is turning boring passport photos into bizarre portraits

On the left, a passport photo of a young redheaded woman. On the right, a full-length photo of the woman balancing glasses of wine on her arms.
Max Siedentopf
  • Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There was a time when passport photos had more personality. In the early 1900s, artistic portraits showing the traveler in any number of poses were acceptable forms of ID. This includes photos of the the bearer nonchalantly reading a newspaper or even strumming a guitar.

All this changed with the dawn of facial recognition technology in the 1960s. Suddenly, travelers had to submit expressionless, zombie-like mugshots as official credentials. Until 2004, US travelers were even explicitly instructed not to smile so as not to trip biometric recognition software. State agencies have since relaxed the moratorium on grinning but still require a neutral expression on official IDs.

Max Siedentopf

This bureaucratic convention piqued visual artist Max Siedentopf, who is perhaps best known for an installation that involves playing a recording of the 1980’s pop anthem Africa in the middle of the Namib desert for eternity.  (“Toto Forever,” eventually broke down after a few days)  Following a similar absurdist instinct, Siedentopf has created a new series designed to inject personality back into those bland passport portraits. In Passport Photos, the London-based artist created over 40 humorous scenarios by showing what happens beyond the crop marks of the standard passport photo. The series is published on Siedentopf’s website and Instagram account.

Max Siedentopf3
Max Siedentopf

His antics include showing a man taped to a plain white wall, a young woman balancing eight glasses of red wine on her outstretched limbs, and another young woman flashing pieces of toast inside her trench coat. Each model kept a neutral expression in compliance with passport photo requirements.

Max Siedentopf

The gag occurred to Siedentopf while renewing his own passport. “While sitting in front of the camera and keeping a straight face I was wondering how something so dull could be ‘tricked’ and get some more excitement into the whole process of passport photography,” he tells Quartz.

Max Siedentopf


While security holograms add an interesting layer deadpan IDs, Siedentopf suggests that perhaps the practice of using the traditional paper booklets is up for a rethink. “I think passport checks could be sped up a ton if we would instead use technologies like Face ID instead of ancient passport photo scanners,” he explains.

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