Our Lying Photos
Hiding in front of the camera
Our true selves are so rarely on display in photographs. In too many of them, we are poseurs, stand-ins for our actual selves. Fakers, in a word. Who’s that guy? Oh! It’s me.
We know who we are, and it isn’t as we’re pictured.
Many of us slouch and twitch and breathe through our mouths. Heck, a few of us scratch our ribs like hound dogs and otherwise exist in a very natural state right up until someone points a camera in our direction. That’s the moment our posture snaps back and our facial features freeze in a fixed grin or a nondescript expression. All very unreal.
The journalistic version of this moment is what we used to call “grip-and-grins.” In those, the people being photographed ceremoniously shake hands—looking not at one another, as one normally does when clasping hands, but toward the camera. When you think about it, the pose is hilarious.
A variation on this is when a person is shown staring at the camera and holding, in front of his or her belly, a plaque or certificate upon which words presumably are written attesting to some stellar achievement. I’m not denigrating winners of awards, only the ridiculous way they’re posed.
The grip-and-grin, the plaque pose, and the formal group shot each attempt to preserve a moment. But what is preserved is only a veneer of the pictured person or persons. As American photographer Paul Caponigro says: “It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another to make a portrait of who the person is.”
Does all this matter? Only if we’re interested in meaningful visual records. If Grampa was a nasty grump, yet always is shown smiling in family photos, how do succeeding generations square his visage and his reputation? That’s how kids become cynical.
Writers of fiction and poetry mislead all the time, of course, portraying people one way and only revealing their true nature—if at all—as the work moves to a climax. The obvious difference is that those “people” are creations of imagination, conceived in minds rather than in wombs. Their secrets aren’t real.
Whereas candid photos truly are revelatory. They show real people talking straight to one another. Working. Playing. Faces stretched in smiles or stressed by worry. When family, co-workers, or strangers are frozen in mid-stride or mid-conversation, we have a still life in which life still pulses. Though we cannot look into someone’s eyes in those photos—because they’re fixed on another person—we come closer to seeing into the person’s soul.
Any decent picture of a human being is valuable, of course. Each of us wishes we’d snapped one more blurry, boring photo of a loved one or a dear friend who now is unphotographable. A technically deficient photo of a person is never a waste of pixels.
Yet natural portrayals are something else. They capture us as we are, not as we wish to be seen. They are raw testimonies of life.