Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer: Chris Vespoli Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer: Chris Vespoli
By Chris Vespoli

No one is exactly happy with their driver license photo. That’s because the average New York State DMV employee has little regard for such rudimentary photographic principles as proper exposure, composition, and subject placement (If they did, struggling actors would be saving thousands of dollars on headshots). The victims of these pictorial hatchet jobs often recoil in horror at the sight of some perceived physical flaw — unruly hair, a skin blemish, or even a touch of resting bitch face — unfairly exacerbated by the office’s dingy lighting and the unflattering angle of the camera. However, my particular issue with my driver license photo is of a very different nature than these common complaints.

It’s not that I feel my photo is an inferior representation of me; it’s that I feel my photo is not me at all. No, the young man in the photo appears to be another person altogether: a smiley, puffy-faced, beer-bloated, helmet-headed, fresh-out-of-college 24-year-old whose vision — judging by his lack of eyeglasses — has not yet begun to deteriorate (though it would seem he’d benefit from a pair, if only to better see just what the fuck is going on with his hair). It’s definitely not the worst photo in the world — not by a long shot — but when compared to the person I am now (a soul-crushed, bespectacled 30-year-old married man), the difference is certainly jarring.

Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer: Chris Vespoli

Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer: Chris Vespoli

The photo below was taken in August 2008, when I went to the DMV office to renew my ID. The people there offered to refresh my old photo, which was still a shot of me at age 16, when I first got my license. For some reason I thought my appearance then, at 24, would be a marked improvement over how I looked as a brooding, ear-ringed, spikey-haired teenager.

Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer: Chris Vespoli

Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer: Chris Vespoli

Clearly, I was wrong.

My license photo has caused me a considerable amount of embarrassment over the years in just about every situation in which proving my age or identity is a requirement. From wary bank tellers to doubtful dive bar bouncers, people in positions of power routinely question the authenticity of my ID. After an uncomfortably long and disbelieving stare, I’m routinely treated to the same, accusatory chorus of, “wow, this looks nothing like you.” I always attempt to laugh it off (“Ha, yeah, I used to have a lot more hair.” … “Haha, oh, I’ve lost a lot of weight since then.”), but I don’t think my accusers are ever fully convinced that my ID is legit. When I’m reluctantly let into the bar, or allowed to make a withdrawal at the bank, I can’t help but feel like I’ve pulled one over on the man.

When I used my license to apply for a U.S. passport, the woman at the post office warned me that the discrepancy in my photos might arouse the suspicions of the federal government, threatening my chances of being allowed to travel in and out of the country. Winding up on a no-fly list because I was too fat in my ID photo is a shame spiral I don’t think I’d ever be able to recover from.

I thought I was finally rid of the problem when I moved to Los Angeles for a year, and had to forfeit my New York license. But when I moved back to the Empire State, the DMV simply reissued me my old document, with the same photo. It’s like the episode of The Twilight Zone where Telly Savalas tries over and over to get rid of an evil doll, but it keeps coming back.

That doll eventually killed him.

But unlike ancient curses, driver licenses expire, and mine is set to do so in May, on my 31st birthday. In lieu of gifts, parties, and well wishes on Facebook, all I want is a photo that doesn’t accentuate my double chin.

56 Responses to Awkward New York: My Driver License Photo is an Abomination

  1. Kimberley Dow says:

    This article is very interesting.

  2. DC is Evil says:

    He kinda looks like a white Al Sharpton, back when Al actually paid his taxes.

  3. florinder says:

    Such inaccurate blogging about the DMV…SMH.

  4. Philip J Tramdack says:

    I just renewed out here in New Castle PA (rural western PA.) The center was empty at 11 AM, the lady was capable and upbeat, she took several pictures and asked me to select the one I wanted. The problem is not with the pictures, the problem is I am a bloated, 66 year old wineskin whose mental picture of himself is of a 46 year old matinee idol.

  5. jerry arnold says:

    laughing now…thx…I was brooding about how 3 bills spent $165, leaving me with $15…I needed a laugh

  6. Val69 says:

    I lost 185 lbs since my photo was taken. My hair is now long and blond, while it was short and dark. People have argued with me that it isn’t me.

  7. Houmid says:

    Anyone who expects a portait studio quality photo from the DMV has, at best, a tenuous hold on reality.

  8. William Gilstrap says:

    That anyone would take this seriously! SERIOUSLY?! Learn to laugh. You’ll love it.

  9. WestFargo Dave says:

    Slow fucking news day…

  10. Artisticfame says:

    My NYS drivers license looks as if I am in a coffin ,Mr.Vespoli at
    least your photo looks as if you were alive at the time that little
    disturbed DMV worker snapped it ,what punishment,and we take it as we are so happy
    to get the hell out of there .when finally we get to the photographer’s area.

  11. wiseoldindian says:

    I stopped reading when you started getting profane.

  12. marcthepig says:

    When did New Yorkers become a bunch of whiney little biotches?

  13. Frank Lee says:

    Another pissed off New Yorker. So what else is new? You’d be pissed too if you had to live there.

  14. Falls Ed says:

    For the DMV to keep using an old picture…..kinda defeats the purpose of a photo-ID.

  15. BobinVirginia says:

    Should have looked in the mirror before you went to the DMV dude. Not their fault you needed a haircut and had a bad hair day.

  16. Brian C. says:

    they took 3 pics of me, cause the lady was a perfectionist I suppose.

  17. Luxomni says:

    His dad told him to get a haircut. Should have listened.

  18. buzzardsgottaeattoo says:

    Self-loathing metrosexual, yes. Journalist, hell no.

  19. aminuts says:

    cute article. I can relate. Glad I’m not the only photo-phobe.

  20. anonymousktvz says:

    i think this is just the authors roundabout way of saying “i’m better looking than i used to be, yay”

  21. X-Files Trust No One says:

    Dude, grow a tatch, and a goatie, get some tan, and look bored, ditch the smile.

  22. Greg says:


  23. Guest says:

    I work @ the Dmv in Arkansas; Move to Arkansas we take Great pics

  24. El_Tigre says:

    Like the guy who took my photo said, “Just wait until the next one. You’ll LOVE this one.”

  25. Lou50 says:

    Like they say at the DMV if you want a better photo bring a better looking face! This guy sounds like a teenager going to jail.

  26. SJay says:

    So like you said, all your troubles will be over when it expires in 6 months. Next time wear a decent looking shirt man!

  27. Dale Jeriscico says:

    Talky Tina, and she’s going to kill you if you don’t just get a new one and buy the doll.

  28. Benjamin Randall says:

    Dude just go to the DMV and change your photo. It’s 17.50.

  29. truth_betold says:

    At 5’4” a bad photo is the least of your problems.

  30. fit4ufor3rd says:

    the doll’s name was , Tina.

  31. Brian Scott Ward says:

    Stop whining and go get a new picture taken.

  32. disgusted57 says:

    Actually, your looks haven’t improved…… I’d say it’s a toss up.

  33. Henry Bukowski says:

    Might not be news but it is well written and gave me a laugh. Well done man.

  34. GOPcongress says:

    When I was in the military from 1976 to 2001, I was allowed to use my original (California) driver’s license the entire time I was in the military. My dilapidated paper license, with my 70’s long hair and glasses, didn’t look anything like my dour face with the grizzled attributes and balding (now shaved) head. I had never been stopped for a violation, though, so had never officially had to use it for any reason until I retired from the military.

  35. Jake1966 says:

    The picture on my CitiCreditCard is over 20 years and doesn’t look anything like I look today. A credit card is optional, and I can see a pic not required to be updated. I’m amazed drivers license photos aren’t updated in every state every 4 years – at least.

  36. markwork67 says:

    HA – just go to the DMV. Get there early because the lines are long and move slow. for $21 and a full day of sitting, you can get you picture changed too !

  37. SupposeItsNot says:

    B.S. Go to the DMV and they will take a new photo. Renew online and not. Do get off your ass and make the effort.

    Though I don’t doubt that New York is even more screwed up than blogs reveal it is.

  38. Idea: Instagram filters for license photos.

    Good post, cuz!

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