I’m scowling in the picture. My twin sister and I are five and it’s Halloween. She is dressed up as a Hawaiian girl and I am stuck with the ugly yellow gypsy costume. She is standing with her hands spread out jazzercise style, her smile bright and her enthusiasm barely contained. My hair is tucked under a scarf, my lips are smeared with bright lipstick and my hands are in fists at my sides. My emotion is pretty clear in the picture. I’m pissed.
What is unclear is whether I’m upset about the dress I had to wear or the fact my picture was being taken. I suspect the latter.
In high school, only the yearbook editor was able to snap a pic of me as I shrank away from groups whenever someone inevitably decided to photo document the moment. An argument can be made I didn’t even attend college, as there are so few pictures in existence. In my early thirties, the advent of the camera phone became my personal hell. I obsessively de-tagged pictures of myself on Facebook sure I looked horrible and was saving the universe from the mar upon its beauty. When, a few years back, I had to have a head shot taken for work, I was so distraught I drank a beer beforehand. Trust me - it didn’t help the photo results.
Ironically, it was a photographer who hinted at the bigger picture. I was out on the town when a man I knew started up conversation by asking why I didn’t like having my picture taken. He had surmised this earlier in the evening when I put my hand up to shield my face from the camera he pointed my way.
I said, “Probably because growing up I rarely had my picture taken and it just isn’t anything I am used to, blah, blah, blah.” He batted away my excuse and proceeded to tell me the reason most people don’t like their pictures being taken is because they don’t love and accept themselves. Whoa, I thought, is he hitting on me?
Mind you, this was a first meeting and we were in a bar. I didn’t pose for a photo after he dropped that nugget, but it did get me thinking.
Is this why I shudder at the thought of taking pictures? And what does it mean anyway, to love yourself?
Fortunately, for me I met my nephew and quickly found out. The nephew to which I am referring is my twin sister's son and when she and her husband first brought him home, I fell in love. Hard.
I never understood the need to ceaselessly photograph until he came along. Suddenly, I had a camera at the ready at all times. I would snap photos of him and then moon over them at home on my computer later.
I loved his every gurgle, but I have to admit, as he grew, I was as much dismayed to discover parts of me in him. The proud looks on our faces when we accomplish something and think the world is watching – he learning how to snap a tree twig in half, me finishing strong after a three mile run. We have the same laugh when we’re over-tired – a sort of hyper hyena laugh and we both bounce up and down or shake our legs to get the energy out. We’re also both bossy and have advice for everyone.
The other day, while playing tennis with his parents, after I hit a ball into the net, my nephew, now four, stopped the game to tell me I had to hold my racket higher and then I’d be more successful getting it over the net.
As he’s gotten older, he’s less willing to be the subject of my photos. Recently, when I pulled out my camera at his house, he insisted on being able to take pictures with it. So I carefully placed the camera strap around his neck and showed him how to hold the camera. Then I put his little index finger on the shutter release and demonstrated how to press it down until he heard a click.
“Okay,” I asked, “What do you want to take a picture of?”
“I want to take one of you, Tia Alicia,” he said.
I didn’t hesitate. I struck a pose. He snapped away and examined the results in the viewfinder. I steered him to other objects.
“What about Dog and Rabbit?” I ventured and then arranged his stuffed animals in still life fashion on the couch. He snapped them. We walked around the house looking for things to photograph until his mother told us dinner was ready.
Later that night at home, I hooked up my camera to my computer and downloaded the photos. Most of them were blurry or random studies of dining room table legs and soccer shoes. But then there was one, of me.
In the picture, I was looking into the camera and smiling. My face looked like it normally did – I wasn’t wearing make-up, I hadn’t done my hair. Still, I didn’t have my usual hurry up and take it look or tight-lipped grin. My smile was wide. My eyes sparkled. For the first time, looking at the photo he snapped of me, I saw myself through love’s eyes, and I found I liked the results.
My nephew’s photography has helped me finally like my picture. All those personality traits of mine I thought were bad habits or neuroses, he showed up with at birth: his earnestness, his inner will, his urge to please and connect and even his instinct to withhold – all so human, all so lovely, and all a part of me. They look good on him and as a result, I’ve discovered they don’t look so bad on me.
I hate to admit it, but it seems the photographer was right. It’s difficult to stop and look at yourself – whether in the lens of a camera or a picture -- with compassion and love, until you know how to look at another with them. Loving yourself, it turns out, is wonderfully and hopelessly tied to loving another.
Today, I like my pictures, no matter what face I’m making. And when the camera is pointed at me, I turn towards it, I think of my nephew and I smile.