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License To Smile

By Mordechai Schmutter

If there’s something that we all have in common, regardless of age, race, or gender, it’s that we don’t like how we look in license photos. I think they take a horrible picture in the first place so that we’ll be embarrassed to get pulled over. We don’t want anyone to see it.

Really? It’s a photo. Of how you look. The rest of us get to see you like this all the time. The only one who only sees it on a license photo is you.

And it’s even worse now that New Jersey no longer allows smiling on licenses.

This is true. This is just what New Jersey needs. Another reason for people to avoid us on the street. Everyone, on their license photo, has to look like a gangster.

Apparently it’s because some exaggerated facial expressions mess with facial-recognition software. Up until about a year ago, this wasn’t a problem, but apparently, technology is getting worse. At least here in New Jersey.

So no smiling. But frowning is okay. This is because, I guess, people can’t frown as wide as they can smile, at least without practice. You can smile from ear to ear, but you can’t frown from shoulder to shoulder.

This isn’t a huge deal. I always thought it was silly to smile for a license photo anyway. Why would you be smiling on a license? When are licenses used? They’re used when the cop pulls you over, and he goes, “License and registration, please.” And then you give him your license, and root around in your glove compartment for 20 minutes looking for your registration. (“Who put all these gloves in here?”) But he never pulls you over for a good thing. So you want a picture of yourself smiling and taunting the guy? He’s going to think, “How dare he? I’m going to wipe that smile off his face!”

So my advice is to take some kind of picture in which you look sorry. Very sorry and apologetic. Maybe even holding a bouquet of flowers or something.

Unfortunately, it’s very hard to convey “sorry” in one single image. I’m doing this in front of a mirror right now, as we speak. It would be a lot easier if I were a puppy or something.

But smiling is a reflex. We have a minhag nowadays to smile in pictures. We’re always told by professional photographers that we should be saying “cheese” or something, because when you say cheese, you look like you’re smiling, because pictures don’t have sound. Or thought balloons. I guess there are ways to say cheese without looking like you’re smiling. (“Cheese.” “Cheese.”) But a lot of people smile just at the thought of cheese. Cheese is awesome.

But in the old days, it didn’t occur to anyone to smile in pictures. You look at these old black-and-white pictures, and everyone’s all serious. Even at your grandfather’s bar mitzvah. No one’s smiling.

Lighten up! You’re getting your picture taken!

It’s like every day that a picture was taken was at a funeral.

“This is how many of us are left. Everyone glare at the camera.”

Is that the expression they want on our license? Funereal somberness?

It happens to be that in those days, people liked what they called “tightly controlled mouths,” and smiles were thought to be the way of peasants and children. That’s what they told themselves. Our recent improvements in dental care also probably had something to do with it.

One reason they didn’t smile is that cameras took forever. Just the film exposure often took 15 minutes or more. Can you hold a smile for 15 minutes? They didn’t like cheese that much. Especially before refrigeration. The slightest movement by the subject any time during those 15 minutes would result in a blurred image. (And now we’re back to that technologically, apparently. At least in New Jersey.) So they kind of just stood there like a deer in the headlights of a really slow car while the cameraman fiddled around under that sheet doing who knows what. Probably sketching their picture with a pen. He only had that one color, which is why they were all black and white.

So back then, people were told to hold a pose that they could comfortably keep for long periods . And, as we know, one popular pose that people can hold for long periods is “glaring.”

I also read somewhere that in the old days, they didn’t say “cheese.” They said “prunes.” The thought of prunes does not make you smile. Even if you like prunes.

But nowadays, we smile for pictures. Why? Do we want to remember being happy, whether we actually were or not?

“Hey, remember that day? At the DMV? Good times.”

We’re smiling in most pictures, which is why we want to smile on our licenses. But it’s not really that we smile for pictures as much as it’s that we mainly take pictures when we’re happy or having fun. Or we have a coupon at the photo studio.

But the DMV knows better. That is why they make you wait on line for most of the day, dealing with various employees who are no happier to be there than you are, and then, all the way at the end, they snap your picture. “This is what you look like when you’re stressed.” That way, when the cop pulls you over and you’re stressed, he can go, “Oh, yeah. He does match the picture.”

But they don’t actually say that they want you to look stressed. While waiting in the third line of the day to get my picture taken, I noticed a sign that said, “When posing for your photo, please use a neutral expression as demonstrated above.” And above that were four pictures of people who looked like they were unsure what to make of the new law.

Anyway, they also made me take my glasses off for the picture, which I think is silly, because I wear glasses when I drive, and every time the cop sees me, I’ll be wearing them. But apparently, it’s all about the facial-recognition software.

So I took my first picture, and I didn’t like it. I’d tried to look sorry, but one eye was way more open than the other, and my eyebrows were at two different heights. It looked horrible. Boy, was I sorry. So I asked if I could take a second picture.

Is this how I look when I’m sorry? No wonder my wife won’t drop it.

So I took a second picture, and I didn’t like that one either. But by then, there was a line building behind me of people who were frankly surprised that there was a line, despite this being the third line of the day. So I asked her to show me my two pictures side by side, so I could choose one, and she said, “I had to erase the first when I took the second.” Like this is something I should have known. Like it happens to all cameras. And not just ones from the 1800s that the New Jersey DMV is using where you have to stand in one place for a long time and you’re not allowed to smile.

So now I’m stuck with the second picture, in which I look like I just woke up. I guess that’s my neutral pose—looking like I just woke up.

Anyway, I apologize for all the points in this article at which I made you embarrass yourself in front of everyone else in the room—by making you say cheese over and over without smiling, hold a smile for 15 minutes, and try to frown shoulder to shoulder. Everyone around you got to enjoy it. Just hope they didn’t take a picture. v

Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of four books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to

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Posted by on March 20, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.