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Of Looking Bad in Pictures

Translated by Ria Novielli
Vuoi leggerlo in italiano?

Photogenic:

 Adjective. (Especially of a person) looking attractive in photographs or on film: a photogenic child ”

 

Recently, after a night out with friends, I happened to address a friend of my boyfriend’s a little too desperately when he tried to take a picture of our group – I was in the middle of it – with his phone. “Come on, don’t. Want to know a secret? I hate having pictures of me taken, please don’t.” He mumbled back: “What are you so scared of? That it would suck the life out of you?”. We were all quite elated at the time, but that doesn’t excuse my display of paranoia (yet again) at the thought of having my picture taken.

Well, yes. My unstable self-esteem is often faced with this obstacle once diagnosed defined as “Il Dono” (my gift): an obvious lack of photogenic quality.

The word “Il Dono”(originally “el don” in Spanish) comes from my former spanish flatmate, when I used to live in Florence. Amaia was exquisite and she wasn’t trying to insult me: her joke became rapidly a sarcastic device through which convey the incredible result of some pictures:

 Io, il dono e la mia amica spagnola (nascosta dal grosso gatto scontornato male)

Me, my gift and my Spanish friend (hidden by a poorly cut-out giant cat)

 I wasn’t born with this gift. Early photos of me as a baby clearly show  a cheerful Valeria, and that’s probably why they’re pretty photos. You could say I’m pulling funny faces, but not ugly ones.

Everything changed with puberty, middle school, dental braces, fleece clothes and hair ties. Things I had never heard of before. Pictures from that period of my life (obviously taken with disposable Kodaks or my dad’s Olympus analog camera) portray me as a monster. The braces made me uncomfortable so I kept on trying not to smile which made it harder to achieve a cheerful picture: there were just sad faces. Summer camp group photos: sad faces. I was really enjoying myself, best time of my life, but I didn’t show my teeth: sad faces, again.

I had long hair, but I didn’t know what to do with them, so I used to messily tie them up. The result was a face surrounded by strands of flattened hair. It looked like I had a highway parting my hair right in the middle. Was it even possible that this person was the same little girl of the photos in the kitchen at Righele’s home? The one with big smiles and blowing-in-the-wind hair (soft, shiny, as if a famous hair stylist had treated them)? The worst thing was that I didn’t really bother with my appearance, but those photos slapped the ugly truth in my face: I wasn’t beautiful. The mental image I had of myself (a girl more or less normal) wasn’t the real one, the one everyone saw.

Anyway, no one made fun of me until high school. During that time, the school trips offered some interesting new dynamics. School trips’ photos evoke great memories of great times for me, but they’re also the source of disappointment and mockery. Think about friends watching photos on their memory card SDs (digital photos already existed during that time) laughing while zooming on your face. Tears-in-the-eyes laughter. You are laughing too, because it’s a contagious circle, but deep down you hope to look better in next days’ photos. Or, cruelly, you hope someone else will look worse than you and will claim your title of “What is your face even doing 2005”.

During that time, Photoshop was just an english word without a real meaning for us. We knew nothing of filters, shadows, or details that made photos “less real” and more appealing to our consciences eager to retain the memories but aware of the aesthetic limits of a one-take shot.

So I’ve always lived with discomfort before taking a picture. Even if I concentrated really hard, trying to remind myself to not move a single muscle unless I wanted to look like Sloth from “The Goonies”, It just wouldn’t work.

Instead of saying CHEESE, I looked like I was whispering EGG.

I talked about it with a (photogenic) friend of mine, who told me to try and rehearse in front of a mirror the “right expression”, one that I would use whenever the next shot would take place. A set-up expression that I could put on every time, that would make me look  nice and spontaneous. Nothing. It’s not that I wasn’t trying but the face in the mirror was nowhere near the one in the photos. Egg.

Vorrei poter dire che si tratta di shatush, ma è solo ricrescita.

I’d like to say it’s ombre hair, but it’s just roots showing.

Adolescence isn’t a smooth period for self-esteem. I did find a solution (as in I quit feeling sorry for myself) in stopping taking pictures. An immature behaviour, really (thinking about it now, I wish I had more photos of that period; I just hope my memory won’t ever let me down: I store particular memories in a special drawer in my brain).

Well, during summer vacation it was quite difficult to stick to the Rule. Cameras were popping out everywhere, but it was nice to hug your friends and take pictures as evidence of your before-and-after going out or to monitor the progression of your tan (burn, in my case). But “Il Dono” was always there, ready to ruin photos that would have been worth of being framed and hang above the fireplace undoubtedly, if only that nose, those teeth, those eyes weren’t there! And they were mine.

My gal pals didn’t even notice, but I wanted to hide my head in the sand for all the shame and guilt.

As I was saying, the term “Il Dono” was born during University, a rather serene period of my life, in which I had developed a nice peace of mind. The photos that portray that period, strangely, presented my poor photogenic quality less and less compared to the past. But my former flatmate was still skilled enough to point out and classify the sly phenomenon, opening the Pandora Box of my teenage paranoias.

Io che mangio una mela a Barcellona. Foto di Diane Arbus

Me eating an apple in Barcelona, Photo by Diane Arbus.

At the same time, I had to face everything all over again with the birth of Facebook. Even if I made sure to appear as little as possible on social networks’ walls (unless it was for holiday pictures: I have wonderful friends, but they love to post albums full of photos that should never see the sunlight; fortunately, you can remove tags), the worst consequence of having an online profile was (is) getting to see other people’s profiles and their photos. A triumph of photogenic faces. And egocentrism (aka the hunt for likes). But when you only have questionable shots in your “Photos” folder and you see people posting magnificent personal pictures which seem to have been taken from the Magnum archives, you just really want to cry. You don’t really think about the questionability of such showing off.

What to do then?

After having failed with the option “Cry” and “Stop taking pictures”, my Gifted self suggests as follows:

  • Take a picture focusing on the good time you’re having (“And I’m feelin’, woohoo, that tonight’s gonna be a good night”)
  • Rely on your own sarcasm to come out of it with dignity (“I look like Steve Buscemi!”)
  • Find an acceptable detail (“Well, at least my hair look good”)

But, hey, if you don’t want to take pictures, don’t. No one will blame you for not having a photo album of you that time at the Biennale or at that poker tournament.

That one night, anyway, I behaved on a whim when I saw the camera pointing at us, but the photo was ultimately taken. So, now I’m here, waiting for that picture to be sent to me, to see what it looks like, to store it in my personal folder and help my little brain remember that that has been a really good night out. And it’s okay not to want your picture taken, but it should not become a habit.

Crederci sempre, arrendersi mai (cit.)

Always believe, never give up (cit.)


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