I went in to get my driver’s license renewed. Part of that ended up getting my name entered correctly into the system; convolutions on my name seem to follow me everywhere! And of course, there’s always the ordeal of smiling for the photograph. This involves a story in two parts.

No one looks good in their identification photos, or at least that’s the impression I get from hearing people’s comments. They complain that the picture “doesn’t look like” them. Sometimes people feel compelled to pull out their new license or employer ID tag or school ID card and show it to me, which leads me to shake my head sympathetically and say something blandly supportive, like, “Yeah, what can you do!”

Truth be told, I can’t really recognise people from their ID pictures. I don’t even think that the pictures look necessarily lousy, aside from obvious annoyances like having a “bad hair day”, crooked clothing, or less-than-steller compositional framing. True, identification photos always have that flat, full-front angle that removes distinctive profiles, and the artificial lighting saps the natural color from most everyone’s skin tones. I’m sure those are some of the reasons why people don’t like their ID photos.

But one part that I’m missing is the, “it doesn’t look like me”. I don’t know what gestalt of features most people use to identify each other. Oh, I know intellectually it involves the face, the whole hair-eyes-nose-mouth-chin-ears business. But the features I use to identify people, their voice and gait and overall body shape and side profile and hair style and frequently-worn clothing, are not represented well (if at all) in still photographs. I can match up isolated facial parts and say, “That’s the same nose shape in both of those pictures” — this is how I can identify a few politicians, such as Richard M. Nixon. I just can’t draw the same connections other people do between radically different photographs of the same person with different hairstyles or at different ages, and cannot readily pick out a specific individual in group shots.

Being able to match a single feature doesn’t help me; in fact, it actually gets me into “trouble”. People will be showing me photographs of someone with whom I am not extremely familiar. “Oh, he looks like Harrison Ford!” I exclaim, pulling a rare and tenuous facial identification link between the photograph I’m being shown, and one of the very few actors whom I can identify some of the time. This of course prompts immediate denials from everyone, because their friend in the photograph “looks nothing at all” like Harrison Ford. I made that connection because their friend’s eyes had the same crinkles around the cheeks that Ford’s do (or, did through his 30’s and 40’s, which are the limits of my identification span for the actor). Then in the next photo I mistake their friend’s father for him, because they share that one similarity of feature at the same age. Nevermind that the friend is 43 in the first photo, and was 21 in this second photo of him and his dad. I can’t tell that the 21 year old and the 43 year old are the same person — there are too many surface changes, and I don’t get that mysterious personal je ne sais quoi that distinguishes one person’s face throughout their life.

Once I am very familiar with a group of people from having been around them a long time, I can use a sort of mental flow-chart to sort out who’s who, such as in a departmental group photo. But even then, I am distinguishing between knowns, playing an elaborate mental game of “Matching” because I know the names from mental column A have a one-to-one correspondence with the bodies in illustration set B. When looking at a group photo of professors from a previous decade, I had to rely on projecting probable changes in hairlines, and looked for small structural irregularities to make what few guesses I could.

Unfortunately, some people mistake “being able to distinguish between knowns within a set” with “being able to recognise between a set of knowns and a set of unknowns”. It’s been suggested to me that I could learn my students’ names more quickly by studying their pictures from the school’s ID database. Well, I can pick out maybe two or three live bodies sitting in the room when comparing them to the school ID photos on the class seating chart, but that’s only because they are physical outliers from the mean — there are two dark-skinned students, one of whom is quite small and one of whom is very large, and I can pick out one Hispanic girl from several because she has a mole near her eyebrows (or maybe she’s an South Asian girl with a bindi; I would have to investigate more closely).

As for the rest of the students, they are as yet well, not quite indistinguishable but definitely un-distinguished, a monoculture of white middle-class teens. (Sometimes I can’t even easily distinguish males from females if they have shoulder-length hair and are wearing baggy hoodies.) It takes being around a person for a few weeks to build up my own gestalt of distinguishing characteristics, and then after doing that I have to make that mental link between the name (which I have learned independently from reading it days before) with that mental “flavor” the person creates in my memory. Even so, because I have to consciously identify people (instead of quickly and unconsciously recognising them), I’m not good at automatically naming someone, especially if there are other things filling my working memory buffer, like trying to follow and understand one voice among many, or mentally recording a sequence of events.

Even given that seating chart, I’m still using process of elimination to figure out who’s who in the classroom; having those named photos doesn’t do me any good when I’m watching hundreds of students swarm through the hallways, because I cannot recognise (much less find) which ones are “my” students. It’s not that I don’t get to know my students as individual people; I learn their personal interests and educational needs and names rather well. It’s just the lifelong difficulty in hooking up those mental databases with their faces! Unfortunately, I’ve yet to come up with a quick, polite, and reassuring way of explaining that, “I know who ‘you’ are as an individual, I just don’t easily recognise that this body in front of me is that same ‘you’.” In the vernacular, “recognising” someone automatically means know that a face is familiar, and which personal dataset goes with that face. People understand not always remembering the name, but they don’t understand the disparity between knowing the person and knowing the face.

When I get my own ID photo taken, I don’t really worry about how good the photo looks, or if it “looks like me”. Instead, my goal is to get a photo that appears somewhat friendly or happy-looking to others, rather than one that resembles a police “mug shot”.

Thanks to the good advice of some coworkers, I’d gone to a license station when it wasn’t crowded. It was in fact, so un-crowded that there was only one person ahead of me in the first queue. (Being a state bureaucratic office, there were of course separate queues for every conceivable step, including a basic vision test, paying the fee, filling out the written exam, and getting the photograph taken.) This meant that by my final stop, the photographer was getting bored and chatty, and was more inclined to be helpful since there wasn’t a pileup of impatient people bookending me.

“Oh, you weren’t smiling in that picture, do you want to take it again?” she asked, pointing to her monitor where the image was displayed.

“I felt like I was smiling …” I offered, remembering the well-rehearsed steps I had carefully taken. As a child I had stood before the bathroom mirror, playing games with the person on the other side as I matched up the expressive effects seen on the silent girl, with my self-conscious proprioception. To “smile for the camera” I needed to widen lips, contract cheeks to the point of crinkling the corners of the eyes, look at the camera lens. I’d long since given up on trying to make a “big smile” for portraits, as the artificial grin ended up lopsided and generally showing off more gumline than teeth. I assured her that the photo looked fine. After all, my hair wasn’t out of place, and I didn’t have that surly stare found in the “Wanted by FBI” posters.

I’ve always had trouble smiling for pictures. There were several years of early school photographs where I had a serious expression, which invariable made my mother annoyed at me because I wasn’t producing the sorts of cute pictures she wanted for showing off to people. Then no sooner did I figure out how to do the “smile for the camera” response, when I entered the preteen “ugly duckling” stage, and past that was the orthodonture stage where smiling was awkward if not sometimes painful. Some of us are just not naturally photogenic. I feel like I’m smiling; my face is relaxed, eyes are bright, cheeks are rounded. But apparently the smile is subtle, or there’s some other bit of posture missing.

It’s not just that the “big smile” is missing from photographs, it’s also that people don’t always recognise when I am smiling naturally, or am feeling happy. Usually it’s obvious when I’m happy; I’m animated and grin and laugh. But sometimes my moods are entirely mistaken; I can be contentedly concentrating on something I’m doing, and people think I’m mad or upset. These misinterpretations by others have produced confusion, and sometimes frustrated discussions between myself and my family, or myself and my husband.

Maybe it’s the intensity of the focus that gives them that impression, or maybe I’m lacking some kind of nonverbal communication, or am giving off different cues. I don’t know. Certainly I lack the awareness of just what it is that I am doing differently, be it not-doing or doing-instead. Even when watching videos of myself, the differences are not apparent to me. Of course, I remember what I’m feeling or doing when I watch those videos, so I can’t really observe myself with full objectivity. Plus, even if I lacked those memories, there’s no guarantee that I would interpret myself the same as others do. Interestingly, I have read similar comments by autistics who have also had their moods misinterpreted, or who have also had difficulty producing the “appropriate” face upon that familiar command, “Smile!”


  1. Suzanne said,

    26 April 2008 at 8:27

    Driver’s license, passport photos, and student photos are usually the only photos we have that are taken as a closeup of our face and totally out of context. The closest equivalent would be unexpectedly catching sight of oneself in a mirror — and that would be a mirror image. We rarely ever see our own faces as they are seen by other people. For those of us with prosopagnosia and/or other visual perceptual difficulties, is it any wonder that some of us have problems recognising other people’s faces?

  2. shiva said,

    18 October 2007 at 0:49

    “But sometimes my moods are entirely mistaken; I can be contentedly concentrating on something I’m doing, and people think I’m mad or upset. These misinterpretations by others have produced confusion, and sometimes frustrated discussions between myself and my family, or myself and my husband.

    Maybe it’s the intensity of the focus that gives them that impression, or maybe I’m lacking some kind of nonverbal communication, or am giving off different cues. I don’t know. Certainly I lack the awareness of just what it is that I am doing differently, be it not-doing or doing-instead.”

    This is also totally true of me… I remember one particular incident on a holiday in Spain when i was sitting down for a moment, looking at the beautiful landscape, and just really relishing the heat and dryness of the weather (cold and humidity really mess with my sensory issues, so hot, dry weather is heaven for me… yeah, it’s kind of ironic that i live in England), feeling a bit tired, but utterly</I. contented and full of happiness. A neurotypical friend who i was with looked at me and said “You look really pissed off, Steve”… i was too shocked by her saying that to be able to respond – i think it was one of my first really serious intimations that i really was, at a fundamental level, something mentally different from nearly all other people. Certainly it broke that moment of happiness utterly (and even made me feel “guilty” for making other people think i was unhappy when i was happy)…

    It is actually now illegal to smile in UK passport photographs. Many people are outraged at that – i’m actually kind of thankful for it, since it actually physically hurts me to try to smile (I think the muscles that most NTs use for smiling might have actually atrophied in me, simply because i rarely if ever smile). I also only seem to be able to make one side of my mouth at a time go up when i try to smile, not both…

  3. Casdok said,

    14 October 2007 at 10:10

    Very interesting!

  4. qw88nb88 said,

    14 October 2007 at 5:12

    I sure did have problems with faceblindness as a child, although neither I nor anyone else knew that I was. When I was a child, our family only had one car that my dad drove to work, so pretty much the only places I ever went were home and school. In some ways it’s hard to say whether my very circumscribed childhood world was due to the faceblindness or due to limitations imposed by my parents.

    I didn’t accompany my mother on shopping trips very often, bit there wasn’t a big problem with losing her at the grocery because I would recognise her clothes (groceries back then were not the enormous supermarkets they are nowadays).

    When I was a child my father grew a mustache while my mom and I visited Grandma. After we returned, every time he turned his face towards me, I thought, “Who is that person?” It took me a week before I got used to it and automatically registered the face as my father.

    At school, I learned to identify my teacher, but I never had more than one or two friends. I had no idea that the children in my grade school classes were mostly the same pupils that had been in my classes from previous years. Moreover, I could not list their names nor even recall how many of them were girls or boys, when pressed upon to do so by my mother. Few things inspired terror like being handed a stack of graded assignments and told to hand them out to the other students in the class.

    It would be hard to say how much of my general anxiety was just due to the faceblindness, and how much was due to other difficulties, like the auditory processing disorder and speech impairment, the disorganised morass of ADHD, the clumsiness, or being the target of bullying and later sexual harassment. I spent much of my childhood like a small boat adrift in an endless sea of confusion and disconnectedness.

    More here:

  5. Ms. Clark said,

    14 October 2007 at 3:27

    The latest “Scientific American MIND” has an article about prosopagnosia. It starts off making the point that 2 to 3 percent of people have it (that’s amazing). I haven’t read it all the way through yet, but it had a photo of a young woman with her hair down, wearing glasses and in street clothes, and another of the same woman after a bath in a bathrobe with her hair in a towel, no glasses. The camera-person looking up from the point of view of a child. The caption said something like, “children with faceblindness fear losing their parents in a crowd and not being able to spot them again.”

    That sounds totally scary. If you don’t mind my asking, did you have problems like that as a kid? Do you think kids with faceblindness are more likely to be anxious all the time?

    I was an anxious child, but I could depend on recognizing people, more or less.

  6. mcewen said,

    14 October 2007 at 2:39

    Very interesting. I’m good at faces but hopeless with names.

    off topic – so feel free to delete –
    Many life times ago I shared a house with three other students, a Welsh woman, a French Canadian Asian and an American called Stacy I had never met anyone called Stacy before. She was the first American I came to know really well. She was also very pretty.

    We needed to have mug shots for our student ID’s. She took the day off lectures and went into town to have hers done professionally. After it was sealed onto the card she showed it to us. She looked just like Princess Grace [Grace Kelly] with her hair swept up, several tonnes of make-up, a kitten smile and a soft angora cream polo neck. It cost her a fortune [the photograph] and we were all students.

    Of course we all just fell about laughing.

    Stacy came from Normal, Illinois.

%d bloggers like this: