Not-so-candid camera

SOME things in life have been designed with the sole purpose of humiliating and reducing some people to spectacles of ridicule. Such has been my experience with photographers and their product over the years.

I can still remember the first time my mother took her four eldest children to a photo studio. Even at eight years old, I was painfully aware that my short, static-ridden hair defied gravity, in a way that made me look as if I’d just stuck my finger in an electrical socket for a few minutes. To further embellish this image, I also sported an eyepatch to correct a lazy eye.

Just before the photographer began his work, my mother pinched my cheeks (to add some colour to my pale complexion), whipped my eyepatch off, and flattened my hair with immense blasts of asphyxiating hair lacquer.

While the photographer cracked jokes in an attempt to get his four young subjects to appear “naturally” cheerful, my mother gave directions from the sidelines. Her promptings, which included, “Mary, don’t slouch!” and “Stop rolling your eyes!” did little to put a smile on my face.

Several weeks later, I returned home from school to find two large framed photographs hanging in the alcoves on either side of the living room fireplace – my two younger sisters posing in one, and my brother and me in the other. My brother, with his chubby cheeks, beguiling smile and large eyes, looked almost cherubic, but the sullen girl who sat next to him couldn’t possibly have been me.

I stared at my image for a long time. Did I really look like that? I took in the stiff, lacquer-coated hair, the crossed eye, and the mouth firmly and defiantly clamped shut. But what really stood out more than anything else in that photograph was my vibrantly rosy cheeks.

I discovered later that the photographer, at my mother’s bidding, had added a little post-development colour to enhance my anaemic pallor. In my mind’s eye, though, I had been transformed into something almost clownish.

The years slipped by, my hair settled down and my eyes focused in a parallel manner. Nonetheless, I usually tried to avoid having my photograph taken. That early image, and the feeling that I didn’t quite measure up in the cold, hard light of a camera, somehow stuck with me.

It wasn’t until I was about to get married that I agreed to have a professional photographer record my big day. But I resolutely drew the line at any posed studio shots that would have my then Chinese husband-to-be and me transformed into bit players from The Last Emperor. I wanted my wedding photographs to be as candid and as natural as possible.

When the photographs were finally developed, I realised that anyone who is even remotely aware that a camera is being pointed in their general direction will automatically take up an artificial stance and strike a pose.

Moreover, when I looked at the snaps of the young bride who had been coerced into wearing enough make-up to keep L’Oreal in business for months, I had a strange feeling of déj

vu. The brightly hued face that stared back at me from those photographs wasn’t me either.

Being either eternally optimistic or perpetually foolish, I was persuaded to take the plunge once again on my son’s first birthday. Ostensibly, the idea was to send a cosy family photo to my mother in Scotland, but I should have known better.

I bought a new outfit for the occasion, and visited the hairdresser to have my hair done. I requested something natural; something far removed from the hard, crash-helmet-like clump that I finally ended up with.

When I arrived at the studio, the photographer had me sit on a garish, Italian “repro” chair with my son perched on my lap. I then had my legs rearranged into a muscle-cramping configuration, while my then husband was instructed to drape himself lovingly over the back of the chair.

The following week, when I collected the proofs, my hopes of an image of familial bliss were seriously dashed. My son’s father was hanging over the back of that chair as if he were suffering from a slipped disc, and I, with my new bouffant hairdo and outfit, looked like Maggie Thatcher, the then Prime Minister of Britain.

Still, my son did look kinda cute, so I sent the photographs to my mother. A few weeks later, I called her to ask if she’d received them. “Oh, yes,” she said, “and your hair looks very nice.” Then she added, “But don’t you think you look a little pale?”

To this day, I still baulk at having my photo taken.

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Not-so-candid camera


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