Journalist’s passport photo rejected because of her afro: technical error or prejudicial standard?

Journalist Lília de Souza
Journalist Lília de Souza

Note from BW of Brazil: Well this is kinda weird. The issue of hair textures which in turn often become discussions of “good hair” and “bad hair” in Brazil is a very popular topic here on the blog. As afro textured hair has always been viewed negatively in Brazilian society, a rise in black consciousness and development of black pride has led to many Afro-Brazilian men and women appreciating their natural hair and daring to disregard the prejudicial nature of aesthetic standards of beauty. One could say that the following story could be just a case being blown out of proportion, but at the same time, one must ask, if the woman’s hair would have been completely straight, would this have even happened? Check out the story and judge for yourself. Here is how the incident was reported by Globo news. 

Bahian journalist impeded from taking passport photo with an afro
by Carina Bacelar

The Bahian journalist Lilia de Souza, 34, had a routine obligation scheduled for Tuesday: renewing her passport that would expire in August. Even after waiting 7 hours in the unit of the Polícia Federal (PF or Federal Police) of Salvador Shopping in Bahia’s capital city, the time to take the picture for the document was not a relief, but a “huge embarrassment”: agents of the PF asked Lilia asked if she could tie down her “black power” (afro) hair style since the image system did not accept the generated image, because of the shape of her hair.

“They said: ‘the problem is your hair.’ I thought it was strange to hear this, but I didn’t consider not doing the passport. I was upset, but said ‘if there’s no other way, okay.’ Then I took a rubber band to tie down my hair. I have a very strong relationship with my black identity. I like my hair and in that photo, I was terrible,” she says coming to tears outside the department.

Here is Lília de Souza’s own account of the ordeal originally posted on the Blogueiras Negras blog.

PF system didn’t accept my cabelo black (afro) for my passport photo

by Lília de Souza

I want to report the huge embarrassment that I went through yesterday at the Polícia Federal (Federal Police), in the SAC of the Salvador Shopping (Mall), renewing my passport. I arrived at 9am, took a number, and was only called at almost at 4pm. So far, so good. The reason for my embarrassment I was not expecting.

When I was finally called at the time to take the photo for the passport, the system didn’t accept in any way my photo. Then the police told me that the problem was my hair. My hair is in black power (afro) and the system didn’t accept the image. I was very embarrassed. I still insisted on taking the picture with my hair picked out, tried a few times and the system didn’t allow it. I had to tie my hair down with one of those rubber bands they got and gave me.

Tired after a day in line, I left devastated. And, I assume, helpless I cried outside of the SAC. Outraged, I returned to the site after a few minutes to protest. The coordinator wasn’t there. I spoke with two police officers who said to me that it always happened to people with hair like mine (it didn’t happen to me the first time I did the passport, but it’s quite true that in fact at the time my hair was not in an afro as it is today).

The police said I should not feel that way and it had nothing to do with racism. One of them, however, revealed that the system really is problematic, including being complicated at times of taking pictures of very black people, when it’s necessary to lighten the image a bit.

I noticed that all of them, including the black cop who talked to me had their hair extremely escovados (over use of the Brazilian Keratine Hair Treatment). I already sent an email to the Ombudsman of the Federal Police. I hope they change this system. I’m still a little confused, I don’t know what I should do, if I should go to court to report that I went through all of this embarrassment. But here I’m reporting it so that all my acquaintances know of the incident. And if they can take the denouncement forward, I’ll be grateful. Thank you.

PS: I would like to emphasize that I am not accusing the three police officers who tended to me at the SAC of being racist. As I said, the police officer who tended to me, even tried, couldn’t help. And then told me what the problem was: my hair was not accepted by the system. I am reporting that there is something wrong in the system for not having accepted my hair the way that it is. Just to be clear.

Note from BW of Brazil: Lilia’s story was soon covered by major media outlets such as Globo and the A Tarde newspaper. Below is a continuation of the initial report by Globo. 

Lilia also shared her story on the Globo TV program "Encontro com Fátima Bernardes"
Lilia also shared her story on the Globo TV program “Encontro com Fátima Bernardes”

Lilia discards any racist treatment by local officials. She says she talked with two police officers who said there were recurrent episodes like this. The situation caused the journalist sadness that would last until the day after it happened, when she wrote what she calls an “outburst” on Facebook, reporting the whole matter. Her story has been shared 484 times on the network until the publication of this report.

“We that see what the standard is…a standard that devalues ​​a certain format. If you are not part of the standard, the system simply rejects (you). These things may not be intentional, but everything, at the root, has a standard that devalues ​​the aesthetic that is not within the conventional.”

Lilia says that from the time she posted the story on Facebook, she has received support from sympathetic people, including social movements fighting racism and lawyers. She is still studying whether to file a lawsuit because of the episode and says she has already suffered racist manifestations “in the little things.”

“Some people don’t like it and (some) like my hair. I hear all sorts of comments. It’s a thing that blacks go through. Who is the black that opens his mouth in Brazil to say that he never suffered prejudice? We suffer prejudice in the little things in everyday life. It’s cultural.”

Commissioner Thiago Sena, Head of the Social Communication sector of the Superintendence of the Federal Police in Bahia stated that the issue is purely technical. According to the Sena, hair of larger proportions ends up diminishing face that is photographed, and this was the reason that the system was prevented the photo is Lilia’s case. He adds that this was the first case with these details recorded by the PF in Bahia.

“The problem was technological. It’s not that you can’t take a photo with “black power” hair, of course you can. We agree with her that this is unacceptable. The case has been passed on to our headquarters in Brasilia, to know what steps can be taken.”

Edson França, president of the União de Negros Pela Igualdade (UNEGRO or Union of Backs for Equality) believes this was an isolated incident:

“I am one of those people who believe that there were major advances in fighting discrimination. There was a discriminatory standard, this is an isolated incident. It was a very unusual situation, although we still have problems of racism in the country.”

The Coletivo Pretas Candangas (Candangas Black Women’s Collective), of the capital city Brasília believes that there was evidence of prejudice.

“In fact, there is a discriminatory factor. If she had straight hair, (it) would probably have been accepted,” says Uila Cardoso, one of the members of the collective.

Source: Blogueiras Negras, Globo

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. This is not surprising at all at all. Few months ago my wife and myself were reentering the US through Miami Airport. We were in the line for US citizens and were almost to the front when some guy asked us to step out so we could use some new system they had in place. Basically you were supposed to look into an eyepiece scan your passport and bingo walk right through. It did not work for us people of color LOL. So after several attempts we has to go the old fashioned, rejoin the line way. I guess the moral of the story for this software is, “We all look alike.”

  2. this just happened to me, i’m new to this passport photo rule thing, but what they showed me looked correct, though my fro went out of the top of the photo, i guess 1 ich. and few weeks later, i had gotten a letter stating that the photo was not up to standards, and i’m really confused, by this because, why would this be a problem, when you can clearly see my face and features. they need to get a new photo, and MORE information from me.

    i’ll take another photo, but i sure as fire will not cut it, i’ll pad it down, and then after the photo i’ll puff it back out.

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