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The Photo Trap



The perfect shot

In pursuit of the perfect shot

Film used to be expensive. Photographers had to hone their skills and concentrate on conserving their supplies, because each shot cost money. Actual dollars.

Now, digital photography is ubiquitous. Professional photographers have had to lower their rates. Everyone has a camera phone, and we’re constantly posing. We all have hundreds of photos of ourselves on Facebook.

We’ve been captured from every angle, in every outfit we own–looking beautiful, looking happy, looking ungracious and awkward and downright ugly.

And something has happened to our photos.

They’ve taken on a bloated sense of importance. Our photos represent us when we’re not around in person–and these days, who is? Photos are virtually free to take, post, share, and comment on. There is no contemplative downtime while we wait for our prints to develop; no anticipation as we see our Polaroids taking shape. They go up immediately, and we know exactly how we look in a given moment.

With digital photography, we know what a photo looks like immediately, and we have the resources to retake it over and over and over until it’s perfect. You know the drill: post-picture, everyone stops and huddles around the camera. We voice our complaints (“Ugh, look at my shiny face”) and we take the picture again. And again.

But in the meantime, we’re missing out. Life is still going on around us, whether or not we pause to worry about our photos. Take, for example, this recent story about a woman who hates her wedding pictures–though she eventually came to a place of acceptance, she spent an incredible amount of time and energy fretting over her appearance in the shots.

Most of us find it hard to laugh off a truly unflattering Facebook photo, or a friend’s smartphone snapshot capturing our puffy eyes or double chin. Memories can fade, but photos are permanent–right? Bustle calls this phenomenon “widespread cultural appearance insecurity,” and in some ways, celebrities have it the worst (bear with me on this).

Though they usually look picture-perfect, the rich and famous are often “caught” looking “just like us”. There’s triumph associated with these photos, even in the language we use to describe them. We’re relieved to have proof that someone whose job it is to be captured on camera can, some of the time, look just as bad as us.

Photographs of ourselves used to involve mystery, expectation. We couldn’t be concerned with how we’d look later, when the pictures were developed, because that was later. And even if we weren’t smiling, or someone was a little blurry, we kept that one moment on film, enlarged in print, because that was what that moment looked like.

With film, we were not in control of the camera. We had no agency over how we appeared. Now, it’s as if when we don’t capture something in a photo, it didn’t happen. We’re slaves to the perfect digital image. We’re living in the picture–not in the moment.

Stop proving that you were “there,” and start proving that being there meant something to you.

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