Anyone who has ever pointed a camera at me will know this; I am officially camera shy. Unofficially, it runs a lot deeper than that. At its worst, it’s pretty much a phobia. I know I’m not alone with this; bumping into an old friend at a party, I discovered that she had it even worse than I did. And of course, for everyone else she became the game of the evening, people trying to ambush her with cameras to snap her unawares. It might sound like extreme vanity, but it boils down to the opposite – feeling hideously self-conscious, having internalised the message somewhere along the line that you’ve been judged on your looks and have been found wanting. For my friend this was a one-off, cruel remark about her chin when she was still at school. Similarly, I faced teasing about my appearance at school (being the only kid in hand-me-downs at a school full of rich kids didn’t help) and later such delights as being told “God, you’re ugly” across a crowded bar by a drunk punter trying to score points in front of his friends.
This isn’t the same as day-to-day body image. How we feel about ourselves and the way we look can shift on a day t0 day, even hour to hour basis. While I was never going to be mistaken for a supermodel at any point, I scrub up relatively okay. If I’m making an effort, I can look in the mirror and feel relatively pleased with what I see. In a world which seems to have come down on the side of poker-straight blonde hair, I’m an insanely curly brunette. While I could spend an hour a day messing around with hair straighteners, I figure that a) there’s other things I’d rather do with the time, b) the more people who revolt against the fashion diktats the better and c) actually, I kinda like being curly. My curls are part of me. Curls aren’t just a hairstyle, they’re an attitude. Unruly curls are one thing in real life though, quite another in a photograph.
Photographs capture what should be a moment and make it eternal. Generally, that’s for the good; the unposed, candid wedding snap taken by a friend that captures the way you looked at each other. The infamous kiss outside a Paris restaurant, a moment etched into black and white forever. But it can also mean the moment that your eyes were halfway closed, the moment your mouth was hanging open, the moment you let your shoulders slump, your belly hang out, the unfortunate angle that your nose was caught at, that weird way your chin is sticking out… If you weren’t feeling completely secure about the way you looked to start off with, there’s nothing like a dreadful photograph to truly cement that negativity.
It seems as if photographs shouldn’t matter to writers; this is supposedly the one profession which you can undertake from the privacy of your own room. Tea-stained PJs are almost a prerequisite in this line of work. Why would pictures come into it? But there’s the small matter of the request by my agent to have a picture for the website, there’s the blog convention that there should be a picture of you somewhere on your site. There’s the professional gathering in which participants are requested to pose for a picture, or worse, endure a photographer snapping away all day “just for some pictures for the website.” At some point in your career, you will be asked for publicity pictures of some description. If you’re like me, it’s unlikely that you’ll have a back catalogue to choose from. If you’re like me, you’ll have just the one photo that has to do everything from professional publicity to online dating profile. Even I can see that that’s probably not a good thing.
I’m allegedly in recovery. I took Vivienne McMaster’s self-portraiture e-course You Are Your Own Muse (see also Be Your Own Beloved ) a couple of years ago. It helped. For anyone struggling with hating having their photo taken, I’d definitely recommend it (next session starts 1st Nov.) It got me from a state of panic at the thought of a photograph, to experimenting with self-portraits, even at times allowing someone else to point the camera at me. Her website contains tips on getting better pictures of yourself and a lot about body image and accepting yourself. But still, I don’t exactly enjoy being photographed and I find it difficult to get results which I can live with, never mind pictures that I love. So I signed up to her current course, How to Rock a Selfie Photo Shoot, which has the aim of equipping participants to take their own shots, whether for professional purposes, or for dating profiles. Or for any other reason that you’d want to rock a Selfie photo shoot for, I guess.
In all honesty, I’m finding it hard to get started. Pictures are emerging on the Flickr group – women of all ages, shapes and sizes, some confident and luminous, some shy and hesitant, some playful and quirky. So far all I’ve managed is one shot of my hand, writing in my journal on the train. The light has been dreadful, the weather has been dreadful, my hair has been dreadful… Or, I’m not wearing make up, or there are too many people around, or I don’t have time. There’s a lot of excuses. I think the truth is that I have to be feeling pretty confident before I can face doing it, and recently I’ve been tired and stressed. Each time you press the shutter there’s the hope that this time you’ll get it right, this will be the picture which captures the real you, how you see yourself – perhaps even how you’d like to see yourself. And generally, the result is a disappointment. My only tip is that to get one decent photo, you have to take lots. Lots and lots and lots. And give yourself permission to immediately delete any that you don’t like. Thank god for digital cameras, is all I can say.
I’m away for the weekend with a bunch of wild women down in the depths of Cornwall. I’m so in need of this break right now, I’m salivating while I type. Usually I return from these retreats inspired, energised and radiant. So I’ll be taking my camera and hoping for a let-up in the rain. And I’m challenging myself; by the end of the course I want to have taken a picture to share on my blog. If you’re a fellow photo-phobe, make yourself known and maybe we can do this together. I’m guessing that this is more of a woman thing than a man thing, but who knows?