(Image ©Ines Barwig)
“Sometimes you get a flash of what you look like to other people.”
― Zadie Smith, On Beauty
One of my responsibilities at my day job is to coordinate photo shoots for employee portraits. I’ve done this three times now, and it always requires warmly coaxing reluctant coworkers into saying yes, and chatting with them while the flashbulbs fire off in their face. Because, as the photographer told me the first time, “I need someone there to hold their hand. To keep them calm and smiling. Otherwise, a bunch of them will get all self-conscious and fussy. Sometimes it really feels like taking kids to the dentist.”
Indeed, even getting them to show up can be a challenge. A fair number of people flat-out refuse; most but not all of them women, who cut me off mid-sentence and insist, “No photos! I hate being photographed.”
Last week, just after I’d heard this for the umpteenth time, my cell phone rang. It was a reporter who is doing a television piece about Painting On Scars.
“Emily, my team and I just came up with a new idea for our story. We’d like to film you having your picture taken in a photo shoot to show how self-confident you are in front of a camera!”
I couldn’t hold back my laughter.
And then I thought, what is self-confidence in front of a camera?
My experience watching others has shown me that there are unspoken, commonly held beliefs that dictate so much behavior during photo shoots.
For one thing, we tend to believe that selfies are empowering, but that it’s embarrassing to be photographed by someone else. Which goes to show that it’s not about being photographed but relinquishing control over the photograph. Most of us have an idealized view of ourselves that includes seeing our own faces at a particular angle, but we hate it if someone captures us from an angle that deviates too much from our ideal. (This has been proven by clinical trials.)
We tend to prefer smiling photos of others but closed-mouth photos of ourselves. Showing teeth often strikes us as warm and welcoming on someone else, but the fear of looking too uninhibited results in many of us appearing overly serious in our portraits.
We tend to loudly list every physical feature we don’t like about ourselves, believing it signifies modesty. Even though it often comes off as fishing for compliments.
So we tend to reject direct compliments, again believing it to be a sign of modesty. Even though John Cleese famously told Stephen Fry:
“You genuinely think you’re being polite and modest, don’t you?”
“Well, you know …”
“Don’t you see that when someone hears their compliments contradicted they naturally assume that you must think them a fool? Suppose you went up to a pianist after a recital and told him how much you had enjoyed his performance and he replied, ‘Rubbish, I was awful!’ You would go away thinking you were a poor judge of musicianship and that he thought you an idiot.”
“Yes, but I can’t agree with someone if they praise me, that would sound so cocky. And anyway, suppose I do think I was awful?” (Which most of the time performers do think of themselves, of course.)
“It’s so simple. You just say thank you. You just thank them. How hard is that?”
You must think me the completest kind of arse to have needed to be told how to take a compliment, but it was an important lesson that I (clearly) never forgot. So bound up with not wanting to look smug and pleased with ourselves are we that we forget how mortifying it is to have compliments thrown back in one’s face.
Indeed, the photographers I’ve worked with remember subjects in terms of their agreeableness versus their fussiness. I bore this in mind as I prepared for my own photo shoot.
How much preparation was required? Recovering from surgery and combating unanticipated complications, I wasn’t feeling that I looked my best. I won’t reveal what about my looks were particularly displeasing to me because there is no right way to hate your body. Many in the Body Image movement have argued that it’s fair, not rude, to voice our insecurities. In fact, isn’t it good to let others know that they are not alone in their struggle for self-acceptance? But these insecurities do not exist in a vacuum. They exist in a hierarchy, and this hierarchy dictates that if I’m ashamed of gray hair, someone with more gray hair should be more ashamed. If I’m upset about having noticeable scars, someone with more noticeable scars should be more upset. And so on. Body-bashing upholds the hierarchy
And ignoring the effects one’s own body-bashing has on others is, no matter how you look at it, self-involved.
So instead of spending time and energy on whatever might disrupt my ideal self-image, I thought about what makes a photo shoot enjoyable.
A kind, charismatic photographer.
People who make you laugh.
Someone who truly loves you saying something particularly nice about their favorite photo.
Hearing from the photographer, “Thanks for being so easy-going! That was really fun.”
For two years, a friend would never let me or anyone take his picture. It was on very rare occasions—group photos, flirty hugs with a close friend—that he wouldn’t turn away or cover his face. Whatever hang-ups he had about physical imperfection, he carried himself in a manner that attracted both sexes from miles around. He visited me in college once and we noticed four of my fellow students check him out during his first hour on campus.
On another visit, I snapped his picture and declared, “Hey, you didn’t cover your face this time!”
“Yeah, I’ve stopped doing that.”
“ ’Cuz I found it’s really annoying when other people do that when I want to take their picture.”
I smiled. “Ya think?”