How Not to Hate Being Photographed

Sometimes, seeing an unflattering photograph of yourself can hit you like a punch. We’ve all had this experience, when our comfortable self-image is shattered by a photograph that looks nothing like what we expect. You can get over it.
Publish date:
December 21, 2011
twitter, self esteem, body politics, chris brown, photographs, dole whip, jenny johnson

Earlier this month, I applied for a passport.

I last had a passport in the early 90s, when I went on a school trip to Europe, but I had no recollection of the application process, much less the photo that was taken for it. This is strange to me, as I have a vivid memory for photographs, even unremarkable ones -- I can recall my first driver’s license photo, and I can recall random individual holiday snapshots and everything that I thought was wrong with my appearance in them.

But I couldn’t remember getting my picture taken for my first passport, though obviously it must have happened.

I applied at my local post office, since it was the one nearby option that could also take the necessary tiny photograph to complete my application materials. Oh, the passport website tells you that you can edit and supply your own photo these days, what with digital cameras being ubiquitous, but the rules were so complex and stringent that it seemed easier just to have my local postal employee do it.

The dude who processed my application is a guy I’ve been chatting with at the post office for 10 years. When the moment of truth came, he asked if I wanted to take off my glasses.

“No, I wear them all the time.”

“It’s just a problem if there’s a glare on them,” he said.

“I’ll tilt my head down a bit,” I said. The fact is I feel sort of denuded without my glasses on. I walked over to stand in front of the blank photo backdrop, which rolled down from the ceiling like a window shade.

“Do you, uh, want to put on some lipstick or something?”

“I’m wearing lipstick, ass.”

(I should mention I live in Massachusetts, where exchanges like this, rude anywhere else, are extremely common and weirdly good-natured.)

“I only ask because I once took a photo of a lady who didn’t have any makeup on, and when I showed her the picture, she cried.”

Sometimes, seeing an unflatting photograph of yourself can hit you like a punch. We’ve all had this experience, when our comfortable self-image is shattered by a photograph that looks nothing like what we expect, or hope, and when the apparent Truth of a photograph that we can hold and mourn over takes precedence over the perceived reality inside our heads.

Of course the photograph must be right, and we must be wrong; the photo is right there, and everyone can see it! Our self-perception is internal, and truly known only to ourselves.

Except, of course, that photo is not all of you. It is a tiny moment of you in an exclusively visual format. The fact of the matter is that this is not what people see when they look at you -- it is a piece of what they see, but they also see your smile, your personality, your constantly-in-motion reality.

Photos are one-dimensional, unmoving and flat, and we are living, trembling, multidimensional flesh. A single photograph can’t hope to capture all of this, nor can it hope to capture the inner light that makes you, you.

Yeah, you’ve probably heard that before. It’s the kind of thing you can know intellectually but not quite get into regular practice. You’re a special snowflake! A mere camera could never emcompass the magnitude of your presence! It really is true, though.

I was professionally photographed for a feature article in the Boston Globe a couple years ago, and what I learned from the experience is that modeling is hard. Seriously, I will never make fun of a model again, as the level of coordination required is extraordinary, and I had the good fortune to be working with a wonderfully patient photographer who often shot everyday non-model people.

The hope is to catch the subject in a moment of truthful abandon, and yet sometimes an arm needs to be moved a skitch down, or a head needs tilting up, or could you face the light a little more? Remember where the light is. All of this while attempting to look natural and authentically embodied in the moment.

Such minute physical multitasking is surprisingly difficult, as it requires a profound level of self-consciousness while also demanding that you look not self-conscious at all, as though you just happened to be perfectly positioned and remembering where the light is when this photographer wandered by and found you.

Professional photographers know how to get the shots they need; they know how to deal with a subject, how to get them to move, and where that damnable light needs to go. Your family, taking random snapshots during the holidays? Not so much.

As a result, we are likely to associate these pictures with the gut-punch described above -- every picture taken carries the chance of shattering our comfortable (or not so comfortable) self-perception.

For years as a teenager and an early-20s psuedo-adult, I looked at vacation photos and holiday pictures with a sense of dread, flipping through them as quickly as possible, as though by not really looking I could avoid seeing anything that would devastate me.

During this time I was wearing giant oversized blouses and long skirts, thinking I could lose my body in them and obfuscate my actual size and shape, but then in the pictures I was stunned by my apparent bigness -- not even my fatness, exactly, but my simple oversized-ness, as though I had been grown with some kind of special radioactive fertilizer. I was tall, I was wide, and my voluminous clothing exaggerated the effect to the point that I seemed monstruous to myself.

Today, as a self-accepting fatty, I enjoy playing with that effect; however at the time it was soul-destroying. When I did find a truly unflattering picture I stared and stared, as at the proverbial car crash, thrilled and horrified by this twisted, inhuman reproduction of myself.

Is that what I really look like, all of the time? No. But there was a sick satisfaction in seeing all my internal self-loathing documented on the surface, in an image I could hold and torture myself with. I was right to hate my body, you see. The picture proved it!

I got over that. Obviously. These days I rarely shrink from a camera as though it is a loaded gun, and I can look at even not-great photographs of myself without letting it ruin my day. Here are three simple tips for doing the same.

1. Get photographed a LOT, in all sorts of situations.

Anyone who watches America’s Next Top Model knows that on professional shoots, a photographer will take hundreds and hundreds of photos just to get one good shot. This is an idea familiar even to amateur photographers taking pictures of non-human subjects; one of the first things I learned as a dilletante DSLR owner was to keep my camera set on continuous mode at all times, and to take several pictures in rapid succession instead of just one, trusting that the one image would come out exactly the way I expected. One picture is never enough.

The more often you face a camera, you lessen the likelihood that even the presence of a camera in the vicinity will strike a cold chill of terror into your very soul. Think of this like any other fear; sometimes facing it head-on can help you to realize that terrible, horrible things are not going to happen, and the camera will not destroy you. Take ridiculous pictures of yourself if need be, in bathroom mirrors or by holding your phone at roughly a 45-degree angle from your head. Whatever.

2. Look at all those photographs of yourself.

Think of this as aversion therapy if you must, but the more photographs you look at, the better you will be able to see that each picture is but an atom of your full presence and appearance -- several pictures of the same person can make that person look radically different from moment to moment, and the sum total of seeing them all can give you a better idea of what to expect of photographs of yourself.

For several years there I was a bit of a fatshion blogger, which necessitated my taking full-length pictures of myself on practically a daily basis. The purpose of the pictures was to document and share my outfits, but the hidden impact of looking at a few pictures of myself every day -- at least one of which was always truly bad -- was that I developed a general idea of what I tend to look like in pictures, even knowing that isn’t quite what I look like in real life. Even the “bad” pictures became no big deal.

Which brings me to a broader point: If someone takes a picture of you in mid-sneeze, you might be embarrassed by your expression, but you wouldn’t believe that you look that way all the time. You know you just happened to be sneezing.

Try practicing the same forgiveness with photos that are less obviously interrupted; looking less than perfect in one picture doesn’t mean that’s how you look all the time any more than a picture of you sneezing does.


This is the number one thing. Doing steps 1 and 2 can help with relaxing in front of a camera, as familiarity breeds a certain level of comfort. So often I see photographs of people who are obviously terrified of the camera, and it results in their pictures having a totally unnatural deer-in-the-headlights effect, and nothing says AWESOME PICTURE DUDE like a face frozen in a stiff grimace of photographic dread.

But if you're used to the camera, and if you have developed an awareness of what you look like in pictures such that you're not worried about how this will turn out, you can let the fear go. Take a deep breath, and remember that cameras don’t have bullets in them, only film. Or a tiny electronic sensor. SEMANTICS.

Also? You look fine. Really. No, I don’t care that you’re breaking out or you’re bloated or your hair is chemically destroyed or you’ve got a microscopic stain on your shirt. You look fine. Go easy on yourself.

The people who love you most don't see all the imperfections you do; they want pictures of you, imperfect or no, because they can't always have you around. This is especially true of far-flung family and friends. Photographs are not simply an indictment of your appearance; they are memory triggers, sometimes ones that become unexpectedly sacred in time.

Why do we react to photographs as we do? Why are we so wounded by an unattractive image? Alternatively, why are we so bolstered by a picture that we actually like? Can we stop doing this?

Photos are not truth, and cameras are not magic. Cameras are, ultimately, inadequate little mechanisms that produce images every bit as open to individual interpretation as the perception of yourself you carry around inside your head is; both of these images have unstable relationships with objective reality, and neither can be thoroughly, fully trusted as absolute fact.

Back at the post office, my postal buddy showed me the developed image, TSKing to see he was right about the lipstick.

“Now see? You look really pale in this. It’s not the best picture of you.”

“I honestly don’t care.”

“Really? Everyone cares.”

“Not me. It’s just one picture. There's not a camera yet built that can capture the full force of my awesomeness in just one picture.”

“Thank god for that.”