I love portraits of people.
I love taking them.
I love looking at them.
I can’t remember where I read it, but one time I saw a quote from a photographer who said that you have to fall in love a little with each person you ever photograph.
This, as odd as it seems, is not completely impossible.
Sure, it’s easy to look at a young pretty girl and “fall in love” for a brief moment while I snap photos of them. Attractive people are easy, one would think. And the supposed challenge(s) are people who aren’t traditionally attractive; Overweight, over skinny, older, zitty, bad hair, blotchy skin, etc. etc.
Then there’s the question of sexual preference. I’m a straight, mostly white male (I have Puerto Rican blood, but I’m about as hispanic as Taco Bell).
When I’m photographing men, of all ages, types, sizes and looks, I have to ask myself how I would approach a portrait based on what it would be like to be the person who loves, truly loves, that guy.
That’s how I approach women, too.
Give me any person, any size, color, age, and my mind goes to work immediately on how to fall in love for a brief minute. Sometimes our corporate headshots are between 50 and 100 in a day. That’s a lot of falling in love!
One of my favorite compliments of all time was bumping into an old work colleague from my first job in Chicago. I worked as a graphic designer for two years at an office of 300 or so people. I met my wife Tina at this job.
The woman we ran into is an older woman. I was with Tina that day. We chatted and caught up for a brief few minutes. At one point in the conversation, the woman said to me, “One thing that always stuck out about you was that you treated everyone, especially all the women in the office, equally.”
Over the Moon!
That comment put me over the moon. There was a large population of women in the office. In my department, there were about 40 women and two or three men.
In the company, women of all types were everywhere. And I like to think I was friendly with everyone, especially since I haven’t worked in house in 15 years, but I’m there as a freelancer several times a year. I have no enemies that I know of.
These personality traits aren’t accidental. I got it from my dad. Growing up, he was constantly talking to everybody in public. He treated no one differently. Not to their faces, that I could tell. Whether it was friends or acquaintances at church or in a work place, the waitresses at a restaurant we went to after church or the women who worked behind the counter at Krispie Kreme, he was always the same jovial personality …
Not to bring this story to a negative head space, but this contrasts to say, my dad’s brother. I haven’t spent much time with him, but when I have, he has been vocally antagonistic to people he’s met. One time in Amsterdam, he gave a guy an earful for asking for change.
My dad didn’t give money to every person who asked (although he always did his best to help out), but he was never rude or treated them as less than human.
It’s that golden rule mentality. It’s that, “If someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt” mentality. It’s that, “… whatever you do to the least of these …”
I often think about how grateful I am for the experiences I had growing up. The discipline and the advantages of a family who did their best to project goodness into the world. My parents taught me not to lie. Instead, just tell the truth. They taught me to try really hard not to let my temper get the best of me. They taught me to work hard. To not accept good enough. They formed the basis for my entrepreneurial spirit, and showed me that I could do anything if I set my mind to it.
Where I’ve landed in my career and in my life is a huge reflection on from where I came.
The challenge, though, is to convince all these people to be either in love with their photos, in love with themselves, or — in the very least — okay with the image that they see of them.
And that dear reader, is the Sisyphean tragedy.
When we work with any number of people and their negative perception of their own portraits, holding their hand through the trauma of seeing their likeness on screen is difficult.
Just because I fell in love with someone, doesn’t mean they’re okay with themselves.
When we do a sitting with someone in a corporate head shot shoot, I take between 6 and 10 photos with a person. And then they review the images right there at a computer that the images show up on. On some shoots, people will say, “You’re the pro, you choose,” and walk away. But most times, people will review them with us.
The verity of responses we get ranges from:
“Oh wow, I look better than I thought I would.”
“Oh great. These are so nice. I love your lighting.”
“When did I get so old?”
“God, I hate myself in photos.”
“Uh, I hate them. All of them.”
“Do you Photoshop?”
I know I can’t please everyone. But I would love a magic response or set of responses for these different people with negative feedback. The problem, though, is larger than a two minute psychological persuasion.
This isn’t the right response, but often I want to say, “You’ll never be as young as you are today.” Or: “I think you look amazing. Let me tell you what I like about this image.”
But we live in a “I gotta look young culture.”
It’s no mystery. Look at all the botox and plastic surgery. Look at all we do as humans to appear younger: we color our hair. We shave. We pluck. We wax. We shave, pluck and wax in places that no one sees except our lovers.
We fixate on youth. Youthful = positive. Haggard = negative.
The majority of people didn’t get an upbringing like mine to appreciate all people, all types, all ages, all kinds. And I think it shows across the board, from the way we treat our celebrities, our work colleagues, our homeless, our neighbors … everybody.
Women wear makeup to cover age. Sometimes men too. It’s frowned upon in children. Thank goodness. But children are gods in our culture.
I grew up in a church where we were taught that Jesus loved everyone. He accepted everyone individually, with grace and mercy. He loves you just the way you are, physically, mentally and spiritually. I believe a lot of people were brought up in a church, but maybe that lesson isn’t as sticky for most.
That message of youth is too loud. It’s drowning out any call for self-acceptance.
I love watching movies with aging actors who don’t do plastic surgery. I love thinking they are cool with how they’re aging and they’re cool with letting the camera see them this way. I love thinking that has an effect on most viewers.
Sadly, it doesn’t.
What the hell can we do to convince so so so many people to stop the madness of worshiping a youthful culture? If you have the answer, I’d love to know.