I used to suss out the situation in advance: if anybody appeared with a camera (not many in those days), I quietly disappeared or stood upwind of it. If I couldn’t get out of it then I found someone to stand behind. However I’m short (5’4”, or 1.61m) so tended to get pushed to the front. So then I’d grab a child, a pet, a box, a wardrobe... to stick in front of me or on my lap, and if at all possible sit down. The last resort was to wear a heavy overcoat or anorak, and act anonymous. I found it all nerve-wracking. By the time I met John, who was forever trying to photograph or video me, I revealed my true paranoia, and sometimes behaved quite poisonously towards him if he approached me with a camera, which hurt and puzzled him.
And now I look sadly at the few pictures he managed to get and realise sickeningly that I didn’t look all that bad. That I wasted the self-centred years of youth agonising about how I would be seen in the future, whether people would look at my young plump pictures and gasp with horror or laugh in derision. Instead, I should have asked myself how it would be if by then I was still plump. Of course I would have recoiled in shock and disbelief at the prospect of an overweight middle age, but someone should have said to me –
“Caroline, if you are refusing to be photographed now because you can’t bear the thought in the distant future of seeing fat photos of yourself, you are for one effectively air-brushing yourself out of your own history, and for another, what if instead of fat and twenty, you’re now fat and fifty? Instead of being able to say ‘didn’t I at least look young?’ you wouldn’t be saying anything at all ...because there would be nothing to look at.”
I would probably have replied “But I’m not refusing to be photographed ever again – it’s just that I don’t want to be photographed NOW. When I lose this weight I’ll pose for as many photos as you like.”
Except that I didn’t. I thought I would lose it, I thought it wouldn’t be a problem – this overweight was merely temporary. And I’m by no means unusual – I could name dozens of women I know personally who have reacted in exactly the same way, and young women now who are saying precisely the same thing. I drifted on, vaguely promising future photographs which never materialised, and so many opportunities were lost.
Xmas 2000, my sister in the middle showing a rare smile, my niece on the right, newly in love and radiantly happy, and the roast beef on the left is me (the clenched fist betraying the self-consciousness I felt). My mother loved the picture of her three girls, and wanted to use it as a Christmas card the following year, which horrified me beyond words. She noted my upset and didn’t mention it again.
I’m sorry I ducked out of informal family portraits through my own selfishness and that I annoyed people on a regular basis for no good reason. I didn’t realise the most important principle here, and that is this – that as you get older, your figure becomes less important and your face is what people really see. Yes, your young face was plump... you had double chins... BUT it was smooth, unlined…. young. Don’t risk there being no record of your youth, however plain and fat you think you are.
It was a relief when I became interested in photography and was able to be the one who did the photographing, and I could hide behind the lens instead of feeling that I was its victim. As time went by I learned about the subject and got interested in candid portraiture.
Imperceptibly, as I assimilated the principles of what makes a good non-studio portrait, I began to realise that overweight was simply another element to factor into the decision-making process when planning it, along with poor skin, large noses, poor teeth and so on. Leaving Photoshop aside, the camera can’t make you thin or repair the imperfections on your face, but there are ways of posing and dressing which will make the picture interesting and people looking at it will admire the image and remark on the overall effect, rather than on the individual aspects of your face. And that, my friends, is a bloody good compromise. It’s there for the record, vanity and posterity have been taken care of, and everybody is (reasonably) happy.
So here’s what I’ve noticed over and over again when subjects see their photographs –
When you look at pictures of yourself and you wrinkle up your nose and say “Oh that’s a terrible picture, that’s not ME!” – you need to consider whether it is your vanity speaking. Yes it is you, and sorry, it’s just that you’re probably a bit less gorgeous than you thought you were… (and also be aware that you normally see the mirror image of yourself, and in a photograph everything is “the wrong way round” and therefore a bit less familiar). If we were to capture your image looking windswept and interesting, your double chin smoothed out and a sparkle in your eye – you would say “Yes, that’s definitely me, I like that”. Yes it’s you, but it could either have been a lucky shot or the photographer knew what she/he was doing. The fact is they’re both you.
And here’s another fact, whether you believe it now, when you’re young, or not: people don’t notice you as much as you think they do. If they’re thinking “that’s a terrible picture”, what it really means is that it’s badly taken, not that you look fat. So it’s up to you to ensure that a few basic rules are applied, and that the resulting image is the one you consider to be “the real you”. I’d like to comment in the next post on how to achieve this.
from Lonicera's non-digital archive
Pictures of Valencia and Chiva, Spain