The Polish wallet photo

One of the very few occasions on which you will see a Krakowian reaching for his wallet is when he’s about to show you a photo of his wife, child, or dog. In fact most Poles seem to treat their wallets as a handy portable family album with a supplementary money-carrying facility. Some Brits carry photos in their wallets, and I know it’s quite popular in the US, but here it seems to be compulsory. Not having photos of your nearest and dearest in your wallet is like walking around with no trousers on—people look at you funny and are inclined to call the police in both cases.

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Cousin Bill was disappointed not to have made the final ten on the “Nation’s Greatest Mullet” show

I’m not at all sure what the purpose of the wallet photo is. Obviously if you’re a heavy drinker it can be a useful way of identifying the woman bearing down on you with a frying pan and murderous intent in her eyes. Equally it can be a useful aide-mémoire for vodka fans when they are sent to pick the kids up from school. Other than that I just don’t get it. I assume we are supposed to believe the wallet-photo carrier spends some moments each day gazing lovingly at the image of their wife, husband, or child. People certainly do this a lot in Polish soap operas, but I’ve never seen it in real life.

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Uncle Fred was beginning to wonder if his lifelong derision of cosmetic dentistry might have been a mistake

Is it a coincidence that in a country where you are required to carry around an identity card with your photo on it that people carry photos of everyone else they know too? Imagine the wife sends you out at midnight to buy food for little Magda’s puppy. If the police stop you there’s photographic evidence of the existence of all these characters right there in your wallet. You have a watertight case. I confess I’m not completely familiar with the evidential standing of the wallet photo in Polish law but I’m guessing it’s right up there with a signed letter from the Pope.

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Popeye had never been the same since that terrible day when his pipe fell in the bacon slicer

I have two theories that explain the popularity of the Polish wallet photo. Theory number one is to do with the Catholic tradition of miraculous images. It’s a kind of associative magic. If I have a photo of my loved one with me, then my loved one is also with me in some kind of vague spiritual way. In the same way a painting of a saint somehow has the holiness of that saint, even if it was painted by a nun-bothering alcoholic with Protestant tendencies. This makes absolutely no sense and I am, therefore, completely in favor of it since very little else of value makes any sense either. It does make me wonder what people did before the invention of photography though.

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Aunt Janice didn’t seem pleased when we asked her to smile

Theory two is slightly more cynical. Okay, it’s a lot more cynical. Photos are a great way of boasting, a failing to which the average Pole is not entirely immune. Have you seen a picture of my incredibly attractive wife / supernaturally cute child / award winning sausage dog? No? Well thank heavens I have one right here in my wallet to show you. I know Polish women are generally ridiculously attractive but I’ve seen some wallet photos that have made me wonder if the carrier hasn’t just taken a pair of scissors to the latest copy of Vogue. Are there some people out there with fake wallet photos? Is the pope a bear-eating catholic in the woods?*

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Grandpa Jack was unenthusiastic about the whole bikini wax concept

Now I’m a married man I’m required under art. 12 para. 14 of the Polish constitution to carry a picture of my wife in my wallet. There are a couple of snapshots from our trip to Barcelona’s nudist beach that I though fit the bill perfectly, but apparently I was wrong.

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Day four of the diet and cousin Phil is not in the best of moods

*I may have got this slightly wrong

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17 thoughts on “The Polish wallet photo

  1. bigos says:

    Well, this one… It doesn’t seem so right.
    Most of my friends don’t carry wallet photos.
    I used to, but now I don’t.
    And I don’t know many people who do that. I think you just live in a creepy enviroment, in which people carry pictures of their friends in case of… I have no freaking idea what ;).
    Nice blog, though. I love your approach to living in Poland, and fresh look into our culture. I think one of you wrote something on that subject in the past – about Poles who, for some reason, need to know what foreigners think of them ;).

  2. Ania says:

    For me the wallet photo album is a way of blatantly sucking up to the nearest and dearest. Picture this – tenth date, I ask for a small image of my beloved to cherish always. He has no choice other than to ask for mine. Any time he pays for anything potential flares will see the image if me.
    (BTW, if, through your many and wide connections, you would be able to secure a signed letter from the Pope for me, my gratitude might be infinite)

  3. island1 says:

    You cunning devil you. I’ll see what I can do about the letter.

  4. island1 says:

    I could be wrong, it does happen.

    Why did you stop carrying photos though, that sounds like an interesting phenomenon.

    Glad you like the blog.

  5. Jacek says:

    Przesada. Nie znam obecnie nikogo, kto by pokazywał zdjęcia swoich bliskich z portfela. Na pewno to byli Polacy – a nie Amerykanie?
    Moja mama kiedyś nosiła czyjeś zdjęcie. Naszego taty? Chyba po to, żeby się o niego modlić.. ;) Ale nikomu nim się nie chwaliła. Zapewne natrafiłeś na lokalny fenomen. Na pewno to nie jest ogólnopolski zwyczaj

  6. island1 says:

    I’ve definitely seen it a lot, and not just in Krakow. Maybe I just attract the kind of people who carry wallet photos.

  7. bigos says:

    That was a photo of my girlfriend, who is not my girlfriend anymore ;).
    And in fact, I’ve never looked at it. It had just been there.
    So now I feel no need to put another pictures in my wallet — as long as they aren’t Władysław Jagiełło’s or Zygmunt III Waza’s ;).

    And if my liking of your blog is to continue — please DO surprise me more by writing things that are strange to you. I LMAO’ed at the “wedding party” note ;). Also, “drinking habits”. I don’t know if you personally wrote it.

  8. Pioro-Boncza says:

    You wrote:

    “Is it a coincidence that in a country where you are required to carry around an identity card with your photo on it …”

    Is there a country that doesn’t have this requirement?

    And for heavens’ sake, next time please ask my permission before you use pictures of my family!

  9. island1 says:

    Yep, the UK – unless you’re a suspicious foreigner (i.e. any foreigner)

  10. Pioro-Boncza says:

    In the UK really? I’m a borderline Libertarian about such things usually, but I would think it would be a lot simpler to just put a face next to the name in your wallet rather than having to install all those cctv cameras everywhere next time some disgruntled mohammed freak attempts to set up the Caliphate of England via high-powered explosives.

  11. Norwegian says:

    Not required in Norway either. I don´t think you have to carry an ID card in most western countries..

  12. Pete says:

    I don’t get it…are these photos supposed to be of Polish people? WTF are these photos?

  13. Pioro-Boncza says:

    Wow I’m really surprised. I know you have to always carry a photo ID in Germany, France, USA, and Canada and also NL i think. So I’m not sure if that is entirely accurate Norwegian.

  14. JD Walker says:

    Yep, these are definitely Polish people. Distilled Polishness, if you will. I know I look like that (#3, to be precisssssssse).

  15. A. says:

    You know I have your picture in my wallet, don’t you?:)

  16. zarazek says:

    My mum used to complain all the time that I didn’t have any photos of my family in my wallet.
    She’s given up now but she probably still thinks that what I’m doing is wrong.

    island1, are you British or American? I thought I’d just ask here cos I don’t feel like doing a research :)

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