see what they see

The beau and I don’t argue very often. But lately, when we do, it’s been about photographs.

Specifically, mine. 

Specifically, how I hate any photograph of me ever taken. And how he’s a dick for insisting that he wants to keep the photographs he takes of me, like a total dick would.

This particular series of arguments began in earnest several months ago, when my boss asked me for a picture of me for the company profile. I took a mental survey of the handful of known photographs of myself that I actually like and quickly ruled them all out since they all involved me either 1) wearing a wedding dress or 2) grasping an adult beverage in one hand while groping a friend with the other.

Yes, I am one of those friends.

It quickly became apparent that I needed a brand new picture for work, and that I was going to have to enlist the beau to take it. So “taking pictures” became a weekend kind of project. I’d get up on a Saturday and realize we were going somewhere mildly scenic — as in, maybe there was going to be a nice shrubbery nearby — so I’d carefully choose a garment with a modest neckline and apply tinted lip gloss and brush my hair extra hard. And at some point later in the day, I’d remember the camera in my bag and eagerly herd the beau to a quiet corner outside.

This was, if you can imagine, where things started sliding sideways. Because every photo session involving me and the beau always went down like this:

I confidently take my place in front of a suitable piece of scenery, turn, smooth my hair down, tilt my head, and give a winsome smile. Snap, snap, snap, snap. Turn the other way; project the depths of my soul at the lens. Snap, snap, snap, snap. Turn again, tug my dress down, playfully hoist my hand on my hip. Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap. These have got to be good, I think. “How are they coming out?” I ask hopefully.

He reluctantly shows me the camera. “You look fine,” he insists, preemptively.

“THERE IS A PIPE COMING OUT OF MY HEAD,” I shoot back. “Also, my hair is doing something illegal and my teeth are showing and I have mushy chins and visible zits and my eyes are half-closed like I’m drunk.”

“Well, we are wine-tasting,” he says.

“I DON’T CARE,” I hiss. “Take another one. And move to the left, so you don’t get the pipe. And raise the camera up, so you don’t get my chins.”

So he takes another one, and would you fancy that? I hate that one too. And the next. And the next. “Oh my god,” I moan, peering over his shoulder at the viewing screen. “DELETE ALL OF THESE RIGHT NOW.”

“No,” he said. “You. Look. Fine.

A wrestle match breaks out. I claw furiously at his arm as he holds the camera above his head. “No,” he half-shouts, “Even if you don’t want these, I’ll keep them! I don’t have any pictures of you because you never let me take any!”

“Because I look HORRID in all of them!” I wail pitifully. A pause. “Well, maybe if you knew how to take a good picture,” I volley at him cruelly. I can hear his eyes rolling out of his skull as I stalk back to my glass.

Later, I lean into the mirror of the bathroom, wondering where it all went wrong. Why can’t my face just be a normal, photogenic face? Why can’t my hair be shiny and well-behaved? Whoever said that adults could have acne and can we find that person and kick him in the shins?


It’s all too easy to assume that a photograph is truth. That if the camera lens sees it, it must be something everyone else sees, too. I think we tend to believe that a photograph is visual evidence of how others view us — how we look to the people around us. But a camera isn’t a truth so much as it is a story — a one-sided story, at that. 

I collect every instance of bad lighting, every unflattering angle, every awkward pose. I tamp them into an ever-evolving mold of my body that I keep in my mind. That mold becomes my sense of self.


I wish I could tell you that I learned to accept one of the beau’s photographs. I didn’t. What I did, in the end, was pick one of the ones that was least offensive to me and Photoshop the everloving shit out of it. With a little digital brush I smoothed my skin, I tamed my straw-like hair’s flyaways, I even relieved myself of the slowly-deepening furrow between my brows. And when I was done I sat back, and I thought, that’s better. 

And then a thought occurred to me.

This must be what the beau sees when he looks at me.

It’s the plainest, simplest, most obvious idea: the people around me don’t share the vision of myself I hold in my head. They see what they choose to see about me. The people around me see things that I don’t even have any awareness of, because I’m too busy minding the flaws in my mold. They see things based on their own knowledge, their own experiences, and their own insecurities.

Neither the camera nor the other people are necessarily right. Which is why neither of them necessarily hold any weight.


I’m probably never going to come to like pictures of myself. Maybe that can be helped by some future sessions with professional photographers who know how to coax the best out of their cameras and their subjects. But you know what? Maybe I don’t even need the help after all.

I’m starting to think I need to strip the power I gave to these outside sources. I need to stop assuming they know things about me that I’d rather not.

I’m too cynical to advocate self-love. There’s an element of perky wholesomeness in it that I just can’t get behind. But I feel like: the older I get, the more I’m aware of how short the time we have here is. And I want to spend that time being okay with myself. 

I want to believe I look fine.

16 Responses to “see what they see”

  1. I do this too! I hate photos of myself and if S snaps one where I look splotchy or I have a double chin or my clothes aren’t hanging right, I insist that it be destroyed. And of course, all of the photos he likes best of us are the ones were I look terrible!

    I’ve also often thought that I am way too dependent on outside sources for my sense of how I look — or, worse, for my sense of accomplishment or worth. The advice I keep hearing is “just don’t care what other people (or cameras) think!” and I’d really like to take it, but I have no freaking clue how to reprogram my brain so that I don’t care any more.

  2. I absolutely love the idea of people who love us having Photoshop in their brains because that’s absolutely true.

    And I am about the least photogenic person ever. I can look in the mirror before leaving and be like: “sparkly eyes, fun smile, looking curvy but good” and then see a picture of that day and realize that I’m disgusting in many ways. I’ve stopped looking at pictures of me.

  3. I relate, miss. I take such terrible photos that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t believe that somehow cameras don’t catch the full picture and I look WAY better in person.

    I love your conclusion.

    • I’ve taken enough comically bad and also flatteringly good (i.e. “I know I don’t really look like that”) photos to have decided that they are all LIES. I try and pick the ones I choose to believe… 😉

  4. This took me a long time to figure out but it is absolutely the truth: They see things based on their own knowledge, their own experiences, and their own insecurities.

    When we look at a picture of ourselves, we have intimate knowledge of every scar, zit, and line so that’s where our eyes go. I have tried (unsuccessfully obviously) to look more objectively at pictures of myself, to force my eyes to gaze over the whole image rather than immediately jump to the parts I hate. It feels forced. I can’t do it. But I do love the idea that we carry photoshop in our heads for other people.

    There really is nothing worse than consciously trying to get a good picture though. Whenever I ask John to take a picture of me posing in a nice dress or next to a nice scrubbery, it looks like crap.

    • Yes! Posed pictures usually come out awful, which is why when I take pictures I always go for candids. I feel like everyone I know always wants the posed shots, though.

  5. I love the idea that we live in the minds of the people who love us as perfect, lovely, and exactly ourselves. Even if it’s not exactly the whole truth according to the camera, it’s kind’ve truer.

  6. Dude, this is the story of my life. I hate anyone taking photos of me. There are only 4 acceptable ones: two of them include my face half-covered with a drink. One is a profile shot. And another one was taken in very faint light, so after a very short session in PS it was good – it’s the Twitter one.
    I managed to insult my friend who’s a very good fashion/lifestyle photographer and knows her shit. She took some snaps and I couldn’t help myself not to blurt out that I look absolutely, utterly, scarily ugly. She didn’t appreciate my opinion at all. What you say must be true, that others see us as they wish or as we are really, without that damn filter of own insecurities, body image paranoia and everything else that’s obscuring the view of our true selves. We divide our bodies into sections and analyse the shit out of each one instead of looking at the whole picture. As someone who was bullied because if their weight, is an ‘ugly duckling’ case and later anorexia and bulimia sufferer I can say that once you give in to those demons, it’s very hard to go back, look in the mirror and see the truth. I have good days, I have bad days. The latter happens more often then the former, and it drives Luke crazy. Well, as much as I work on it, it’s hard to actually SEE. Wouldn’t it be great if we had glasses that allowed us to see what the others can…?

  7. I am terribly unphotogenic. Someone said recently, and I wish I could remember who, that the dynamic are unable to be captured in photos or something like that. I am choosing to believe this.

  8. The last time M had to take a photo of me (also for a work thing) we got into an argument because I kept commenting how he must secretly hate me since all the photos he took of me were so bad. (He loved them all).

    I’m also embarrassed to admit that one of the reasons why I haven’t put together a wedding album is because I can’t look at the photos of myself.

  9. My ex used to take my picture a lot, and then go through and catalog why I looked bad, in the guise of helping me pose better. (God, in hindsight, WHY did I stay??) All photos from that era capture me in a frozen faced grimace. (Gee, I wonder why?)

    I’m still not in love with my pictures. Everyone agrees that I look … er, different, than I do in real life. But at least I smile more naturally, and that sure helps.

    Also, having a baby and then taking 500 pictures a month, many of which I am in, totally ups the number of decent pictures. And because they’re of the BABY, you can’t delete them.

    Note I am not recommending childbirth as a way to solve photo woes. It’s just like a small perk. 🙂

  10. Oh lord, I don’t know. No answers here. I hope that people see me better than how I appear in photos (of which I am in very few) or in the mirror. There are some people who see me as worse than what I truly am, and some who see me as better. I hope the ones I care about fall into the latter category.

  11. Huh. I coincidentally came across this video today. I know multiple chins is one of my hates about photos of me. Maybe this could be useful to someone else…

  12. I have so very few pictures of me with my daughter (now 7) for that very reason. I pretty much hate that…but I also pretty much hate pics of myself more. I’d kinda like to stop that, too.

    (glad you’re getting your writing mojo back!)

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