Smile For the Camera

I recently took a picture of my driver’s license as part of an ill-fated attempt to register myself on airbnb. I wound up canceling the application, but the picture is a testament to my photogenically-challenged status. Granted, the zombies operating the camera at the DMV seem to have an innate ability to snap us at our worst, but in my case the fault isn’t entirely theirs.

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To their credit, they did perfectly capture my sunken-eyed ‘just coming off a three-day crack bender’ face. But while not all my mug shots are quite so striking, it’s a given that, as a subject, I am incapable of taking a good picture. Usually I’m just caught in mid-gesture, with a weird look on my face, like I’m about to say something.

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Even as a kid I was always squinting and grimacing uncomfortably in family photos.

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Some Native Americans held the belief that when you took their picture, you were taking a piece of their soul. I can relate. So I’ve always done my best to try and avoid cameras.

Then Newsweek Magazine came knocking. A few years ago the publication decided to print one of my articles. This was huge. Until that point my writing efforts had been met with little interest – a few columns printed in a local paper and hardly anything more. Now one of the biggest periodicals in the country (with claims of 19 million readers) was going to publish my stuff. Sweet! I did a little dance right there in front of the computer as I read the email.

After changing my underwear I called the editor, who told me they would be running my essay some time in the next four to five weeks, just as soon as they could schedule a photo shoot.

Pictures? Of me?

“We like to include a portrait of the author with the column,” she explained.

Damn. But there was no point in arguing. It was Newsweek, after all.

“And we need to think about props, too. Something that ties in with the piece.”

This was turning uglier by the minute. “The piece” dealt with my conflicted feelings over ethnic diversity, manifested through a new tattoo that called out my Scottish ancestry.

“Do you have a kilt, or maybe some bagpipes?”

“Afraid not,” I answered (while briefly imagining my face superimposed on Fat Bastard’s body). That was the point of the article – that I rarely even acknowledge my heritage, much less make a show of it. And then I caved. “I might be able to get my hands on a Scottish flag, though.” One was stored in a box somewhere, thanks to my late aunt. As the clan matriarch and repository of our amassed history, she was my complete opposite. The woman reveled in the thought that we had descended from proud Celtic stock, all bearing a striking resemblance to Mel Gibson, only taller. Despite being separated by an ocean and several centuries of haphazard cross-breeding, we were still noble moor dwellers and God help the half-wit who didn’t know better or the family member who strayed from the fold. Anyone foolhardy enough to hand her a green hat or four-leaf clover to wear on St. Patrick’s Day might very well draw back a bloody stump.

“That would work. I’m going to pass your name on to our photo editor, who will contact you shortly to set something up.”

Several more phone calls and emails ensue before I’m on my way to meet Fabrizio, the photographer who will be doing the shoot. It was his idea to hold it in a tattoo parlor as a way to further set the mood. He also reassures me that it shouldn’t take more than a few hours to capture what he’s looking for. Christ, it’s just the family badge on my upper arm – I could have snapped a picture of it with the camera on my phone and been done with it. I’m having second thoughts about all of this, especially that flag.

After some discreet inquiries, we are cleared to shoot a few photos around a “tat” in progress. It seems other people want to be in this picture more than I do. So the three of us (did I mention Fabrizio’s assistant?) squeeze into a tiny booth where a young woman is having something etched on her shoulder blade. In order to get everything in the shot, I’m instructed to stand uncomfortably close to her. Fabrizio is also telling me to shift my weight around, try some different emotional looks, do whatever comes “natural.” At that particular moment the most “natural” thing I can think of is to run screaming from the building.

“Let’s try a few with the flag, now.”

Double damn – I was hoping he’d forgotten about it.

Now, this isn’t one of those tiny flags stapled to a wooden stick, like the kind kids wave around at a Fourth of July parade. This is a thing of substance, the size of a beach towel – what soccer hooligans drape themselves in as they’re squaring off with police in the stands at the World Cup finals. And to clarify, it’s not the “official” Scottish flag, a white X (the cross of St. Andrew) on a blue background, but rather what’s known as the Lion Rampant, the banner of the royal monarchy. Bright yellow and red, it has much more visual impact, in a garish sort of way.

Before long I’m draped with it, the assistant throwing it around my neck and carefully arranging the folds of material across my chest. Bunched up the way it is, though, it simply looks like a gaily colored scarf, a really big one. The shot is a test of all my new-found modeling skills, as I try desperately to conjure up a facial expression that conveys something other than ‘Kill Me Now.’ But, of course, things could always be worse.

“What if you took your shirt off and then we go with the flag?”

There’s a momentary silence while everyone in the room considers that scenario.

19 million readers. And me needing a wax.

“I don’t see any reason to drag my nipples into this,” I parry.

Fabrizio accepts defeat with a terse sniff and moves on, having me try several nuanced versions of the classic bicep-flexing “muscleman” pose. I’m pretty sure the tattooist, who looks like he should be rearranging someone’s features with a crowbar on Sons of Anarchy, chuckled audibly at that point. Finally, mercifully, the artist in Fabrizio can sense the energy in the room evaporating, so we head to the lobby for another excruciating session of stilted posing in front of the “samples” rack, sans flag and extras. After two hours of torture, this was deemed the best of the bunch…

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courtesy Fabrizio Costantini

I don’t think Annie Leibovitz has anything to worry about. And yes, I’m still looking for my soul.

Much of this first appeared under the title “Why I’ll Never be America’s Next Top Model.”

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16 thoughts on “Smile For the Camera

  1. Whenever I read an opinion that gets me really upset, I Google the author so I can see what the creep looks like. Usually, I am not disappointed, they look as bad as they sound. Invariably, I then discover that I misread the article and that I agree wholeheartedly with the opinion. It is then that I realize that they didn’t look that bad.

  2. I’m am not very photogenic either. My passport photo makes me look like my soul was sucked out of me just as the picture was snapped. But, to have something I wrote published in Newsweek, I would have done just about anything Fabrizio asked.

  3. When it comes to posing for photos, it was my kids who put me right : stop talking, Mum, and smile. I took their advice and the photos went from twisted face contortionist to almost acceptable. Now my niece is teaching me to use SnapChat … I’m a bit worried about it tho – there’s a 100 yr old imposter in all my selfies! Thanks for the laughs on a dreary late autumn morning down here and congratulations on the Newsweek piece – that really is something.

  4. Wow. Well, at least you have this tale to tell 🙂
    As far as I can tell, I’m not photogenic and all of my friends are. I’ve always thought that it’d be nice to have a real photographer, you know, for that imaginary book jacket… But not Fabrizio.

  5. Congrats on the Newsweek sale! Although I have to admit your description of the accompanying photo shoot made me feel a lot better about the fact that Newsweek has never, ever, been interested in my writing. I guess there’s a price to pay for everything.

  6. I like that photo that went with the article. On the other hand, I’ve resisted photos my whole life — or at least since I hit about twelve. Adding a real photo to my blog was a big step — particularly since there weren’t many to choose from.

    I enjoyed reading this, too. When I lived in Liberia, the concept of photography as soul-stealing was part of the culture there. It’s interesting how widespread that belief is.

  7. So is the Newsweek article published yet? Where can we see it?

    I am in the weird position of being able to take occasionally very good pictures that bear only a passing resemblance to me, and also very bad pictures that bear only a passing resemblance to me. In college my picture in the freshman “facebook” was so bad that my then-boyfriend was unwilling to show it to his friends. In contrast, my first California drivers’ license was actually good. Someone told me I looked “like a movie star” in it. Then I had to get it retaken, I wore the same makeup and everything, and I still looked like a pumpkin. My blog picture, here, is not too bad, but if you blow it up to normal size it’s out of focus.

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