Portrait practice

About a year and a half ago–partly at my urging–Sam bought himself a fancy camera. Since then, he’s become an enthusiastic amateur photographer, carrying his camera everywhere and setting up little experiments in his apartment to test lenses and exposures and light. I knew he had an eye–he can make even a cell phone picture look good–but with the right equipment, he’s really blossomed. His photos are just lovely.

One of Sam’s talents has turned out to be portraits. Well, not just portraits–photos of people in their natural environment. He has an uncanny way of capturing the exact essence of a person in a moment, particularly in candid shots. His photo albums are full of snaps of our friends, frozen mid-word or mid-laugh or mid-thought, faces at once luminous and utterly familiar. In crowded party rooms, he can zero in and catch someone as they’re perfectly still, or snap the shutter just as they look openly into the camera. He’s adept at catching each person’s characteristic photo-smiles, and their broader unguarded smiles, their playful glares and silly eyebrows and deeply pensive gazes. He’s even managed to take portrait-quality photos of our friends’ dogs and cats.

Whenever Sam takes a big batch of photos, he enlists my help as editor. I scroll through hundreds of photos and identify the ones I like best. This has, unexpectedly, forced me to practice something that’s long made me squirm: looking at photos of myself.

I know I’m not the only person who hates being photographed. And I do hate it, enough that I’ve developed a photo-smile that instantly gives me away. To an untrained observer, it looks like an ordinary posed smile; but to anyone who really knows me, it’s a gritted-teeth grin, a “do I really have to?” face. It’s a reflex now, a little lift of the cheeks and a flash of the teeth. I guess, in a way, that gritted smile is how I insulate myself from trying to look good in photos, and–to my mind–invariably failing. If I’m not really smiling, then it’s easy to dismiss the photos when I don’t like how they look. Oh, I was just being silly. Oh, there’s the face again. When, really, there’s something nastier at play.

I just don’t like any photo of me. Period. I don’t like my crooked nose, or my spotty teeth, or my double chin, or my thinning hair. I don’t like how my face always looks slightly unfeminine–to me, at least. I don’t like how my head sometimes cocks unconsciously to one side. I don’t like how I slouch. In the mirror, when I’m in motion, it’s become easier to look at myself as a blur of individual features, to glance and move, glance and move; but a picture is static. I can sit and pick and hate for hours, if I want to. Everything I dislike about my appearance is on immobile display.

It’s always frustrated me, that I’m willing to overlook the oddities and irregularities in my friends’ and loved ones’ photos, but I can’t show myself the same kindness. To me, my friends are beautiful, photogenic creatures, who radiate their individual person-ness to the camera. But I’m a lump. I’m not worthy. My photos are always bad. In a photo with other people, I’ll be convinced that I’m the one who’s ruined the shot.

When Sam started his photography kick, he didn’t post photos of me online. He knew I hated it. Every time we came across a photo of me in an editing session, I’d grumble and huff and he’d say, “Okay, I won’t put it up.” It became the default–photos of me just didn’t make it into the final album. Because I hated them all.

But he didn’t stop taking photos of me. They kept coming. I kept having to look at them, to confront myself in every set. And eventually I got tired of hearing myself fuss over every photo. The whole “but I’m not cute!” routine is something I never tolerate in my friends–so why should I be forcing my boyfriend to tolerate it in me? So I started trying, at least trying, to look at the photos objectively. I made it my goal to pick photos that, even if I hated, other people might like. I looked for photos where my face was open, honest, smiling or serious, not mugging or making photo-face or subtly trying to ruin the shot.

And slowly, something’s shifted a little. I’ve gotten more objective. Instead of a mass of unpleasant features, I’m starting to see my face. I’m starting to be okay with other people seeing photos of me in a pirate costume, or me holding a kitten, or me hiking up a hill. I’m starting to see myself in the context of my friends–as ordinary people, with real-person faces.

And, over time, my photo-smile has been making fewer and fewer appearances. It still pops up, when I’m tired or sweaty or messy-haired or otherwise seriously opposed to having my photo taken. Sometimes I have to tamp it down, and sometimes I forget. But lately I’ve seen more of my actual smile. I’m actually trying to look good for the camera. I’m taking the risk.

I still don’t like photos of myself. I don’t know if I ever will. But I’m starting to see why he likes them. Why he keeps turning the camera on me, even when I respond with a shot-spoiling glare or even the dreaded photo-smile. I’ve started to accept that this person, who is markedly talented at taking photos of faces, wants to take photos of my face. And show them to me. And share them with our friends.

It takes practice. But I’m working on it.

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