Please Don’t Take My Picture
I have a thing about having my picture taken. It’s not quite a Sean Penn level of loathing, where the fists fly as soon as an unwelcome shutter closes, but it’s close enough to be discomforting for others who don’t get what all the fuss is about. It started in my late teens, a period where my self-confidence was at an all-time low, and there was little about myself that made me happy in the presence of others. This is isn’t to say I was shy or reserved — I was quite the opposite, in fact — but the personality I had acquired at that age had very little to do with what I felt was the “real” me, and more with what I thought people expected me to be. Unfortunately, these assumptions were so far from the truth — more shoebox shorthand than genuine understanding — that I quickly came to loathe living up to expectations. I felt something like an actor on somebody else’s stage; a performer expected to realize some mystery director’s vision, and who despised the character he was expected to perform (like Leslie Howard in Gone With the Wind).
So I began to rebel, and the pictures were one of the first things I decided to excise.
I believe the deepest desire of any human being is that we want to be seen. Not for who we appear to be – a face in a photograph – but for who we really are. The thing about photographs, is that there is often a valley of understanding between the photographer and his subject. Expert photographers, and there are very few, may occasionally come close to bridging this gap, but it is very rare that a picture captures the one thousand words that define a man. People are complex, and one photograph from one moment in time is never going to be an accurate indicator of who they are, or were, as a person. Perhaps a collection of photographs, compiled over the entire course of a person’s life might come close, but there will always be tiny shadings of character that the lighting or lens fails to detect. For example, does a high school picture, taken of me wearing the top half of a tuxedo and smiling sweetly into a soft filter, reflect the fact that later that evening I would be moonlighting as an off-the-books bouncer at red-light strip club? What about the one taken at a graduation party, where I’m smiling into the camera, arms around two friends who would shortly be wrestling with a pistol because one called the other’s girlfriend a slut? Where is the real me in either of these shots? Behind those eyes, or somewhere else, somewhere between the mechanical snap of the shutter and the liquid birth of the image?
That’s the trouble with photographic subjectivity. A photographer approaches his subject with certain preconceptions and expectations that are not always be accurate, and almost never lasting. A lover may see only the beauty in a subject who perceives himself as monstrously ugly, or an outsider may see friendliness in the face of a cold-hearted stranger. Metaphorically speaking, a tiger is always beautiful as long as the distance is right, the windows are up, and doors remain locked.
It is this distance between observer and subject that I became increasingly sensitive to. People I barely knew would ask for pictures as if I had made some particularly indelible impression upon on their lives. I certainly don’t perceive myself as being anyone remotely memorable, so each one of these requests seemed to arrive with a certain insincerity that I came to distrust, and eventually dislike. “Why do you want my picture?” I would ask, and if they couldn’t provided a better answer than, “Uh, because…,” I would beg off and step away from the shot. My truest friends accepted my eccentricity almost without question, and when they did ask I always offered a respectful and reasonable, if not always understandable, explanation. Others, however, were not so keen to buy the explanation. Over time, I became a little more proactive; making myself scarce as soon as the cameras came out, or politely asking the photographer to exclude me from the shot with a “I have a thing about having my picture taken.”
And it was here that I began to notice a curious thing about a photographers: there are quite a few who really don’t like to be told what not to shoot. For every one who said, “Sure, no problem,” there were at least five who would either take a picture on the sly, letting me know later that they had done so, or who would ignore the request outright, snapping the shutter in my face as if to say, “Too bad, sucker. Got you anyway.” To them, it was inconceivable that I didn’t want to be a part of their version of collective memory, and they were genuinely pissed that I had the nerve to suggest otherwise. Over time, I began to see such actions as a blatant disregard for my wishes, and I started to get angry. I would ask a little more firmly — be a little more of a dick — and if the recipient seemed to be a little slow on the uptake, announce that if my wishes were ignored, I was going to start taking film and/or cameras. Of course, these threats were met with the same responses as my earlier politeness: a defiant gleam would enter their eyes, the camera would come up, and the shutters would issue that click that sounded more and more like a mechanical “Fuck you.”
So, for a while, there was a bit of… tension, but eventually my family and friends came to understand my feelings, and the number of pictures tapered off. In the years since, there are only a handful of pictures that I’ve allowed to be taken: those at my wedding, special shots for key family events, and a handful taken amongst close friends that I trust to keep the images private. By avoiding having my image define my personality, I have had to work harder to let my actions and my voice fill in the blanks. I am more conscious of the lasting impression of both, and I apply an honesty to them that I could never place on film. I guess you could say I want my memory to be something personal to the people I’ve known; I want them to remember the real me, rather than the face in the crowd.
So, if you see me ducking out of the frame, or hiding behind the potted plant, please don’t hold it against me (or chase me with the camera). Know that I’m working on making a genuine impression, not a photographic one. I promise you, the backstory is much more interesting than the cover page.