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.
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.
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.