It’s Mental Health Awareness Week 2019! Those of you who have followed my various social media presences for a while will most likely have picked up just how close this topic is to my heart. Seeing as the theme this year is “body image” and, as a photographer, this is something I come face to face with on a regular basis, I decided it was probably high time I opened up and shared a few things with you on the subject of being camera-shy. What follows is a little of my own story, followed by some practical advice and ideas I’ve picked up from working in this business for over a decade.
Please bear with me, this blog hasn’t been an easy one to write and I’ll just reiterate that this is my own personal experience and journey through a complicated issue; what is discussed here might not work for everyone, but if it helps a few of you / raises the empathy level a bit / gives you a positive thing or two to think about, it’ll all be worth it.
Before we start, here’s a quick content warning: this blog, although ultimately positive in its outcome, touches upon self-hate, body dysmorphia, bereavement and depression on the way. If you aren’t in a place where you feel able to read about these topics at the moment, please take care of yourself and know that I’m sending you as much love as I can muster.
Ready? Settled down with a nice brew? Here we go…
The person you see in the image below, moderate sass-face and all, is a) me and b) used to be horrifically, cripplingly camera-shy.
No really. It was pretty awful. It was cutting myself out of the family photo albums and tipping food off of my plate so I could hold it in front of my face, awful. It was not feeling able to give a close family member a photo of myself to have when they went travelling, awful - and all the guilt that came with other such similar scenarios.
It was hating everything about my physical appearance and not feeling like I had any control over it. It was the anger and frustration when perfectly well-meaning people couldn’t understand how much turmoil I went through every single time they tried to sneak a photo, even though I’d explained how much it played merry hell with my head. It was feeling oddly betrayed every time that happened, and hating myself a little more every time I saw a photo of the version of me I so despised.
I don’t remember the exact moment I switched from just feeling a little awkward and uncomfortable in photos to feeling like a nervous wreck every time someone got a camera out. I do, however, remember that it got progressively worse as my mental health deteriorated throughout my teenage years. With each trauma I experienced and every unkind comment I received, my sense of self-worth and self-image got bulldozed a little further. The rare moments I felt good about myself would be snuffed out the moment it was suggested we capture them on camera; even if I liked my reflection that day I was utterly convinced that the version of me in a photo would look horrendous. I was picking at my skin and picking apart every visual aspect of myself, locked in a chaotic spiral of self-harm and doubt and self-hate. It was an appalling -and dangerous- place for my brain to be in.
After losing my Mum in 2016, my Dad, sister and I set ourselves to sorting through an enormous volume of files and bundles of old photos which had been stashed away in various secretive places around the house. There were plenty of cute photos of us as young, reasonably-carefree kids (usually on a mountainside or on a steam train or carefully holding an animal of some description in #classicLucas fashion), lots of reminders of nice holidays we’d been on and then… pain. All of a sudden there was a photo of me, aged somewhere around fourteen or fifteen years old, which actually hurt to look at. Despite it being a rare truly-candid photo (i.e. I genuinely wasn’t aware of it being taken), every single thing about me in that image radiated the trouble going on in my head. Every detail from the way I was sitting, all hunched and defensive as if perpetually waiting for the worst to happen, through to the glazed expression and the complete lack of care in my appearance; the dull hair and baggy clothes, the enormous shadows under my eyes. It hit me that, in hindsight, perhaps that was one of the reasons I hated myself in photos so much at that time – when it was caught on camera it was impossible for me to deny the state I was in. In the same way I couldn’t talk about everything I was dealing with without turning it into a metaphor (because talking openly about it meant it was real and something I had to accept), I couldn’t stand seeing the effects of it captured in any kind of permanence. This was a time in my life that I didn’t actually want to remember – at least, I didn’t want to remember my part in it.
But here’s the thing: teenage me had, via a growing obsession with the arts and all the lovely cathartic options they offered, started really getting into photography. As much as I adored taking photos of details and things in nature, I really reeeeally wanted to start creating portraits. And I did, but in the beginning there was something not quite right about them. For a good while I puzzled over this, tinkering with different edit styles and approaches, planning some obsessively and completely freestyling others – and then I realised something. How could I truly make my subjects feel comfortable in front of the camera when I hadn’t the first idea how to be comfortable in myself? From this point on I was determined to make a change, to do something positive to help me build a greater sense of empathy and a greater sense of myself.
For me, this started with taking creative self-portraits. I’d regularly turn myself into more of a character (distancing myself from myself) which in turn taught me a huge amount about styling, and I’d often feature some kind of prop too (essentially a kind of creative safety blanket). Taking the photos myself meant I initially had complete control over who would ultimately see the images, which meant that I could – at my own pace – work through them and decide what I definitely didn’t like and, importantly, what I actually kinda did. The more photos I took, the more I began to understand how to move in front of a camera. The more I understood that, the more I liked the resulting images and the more I began to decide that I maybe wasn’t such a troll in front of the camera after all. Hurray!
It’s potentially important here to take a moment to note a few distinctions between a selfie and a self-portrait (at least, for the sake of this blog, the distinctions I personally have made between them). A classic selfie will most likely have been taken on a phone or tablet which, slightly worryingly, can change the face / body staring back at you in real time with the help of filters. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to look at your actual person for more than a couple of seconds as you flit between cat ears and heart eyes and varying levels of doll-like skin smoothing. The results are also absolutely instant and probably very similar in composition (most likely limited by however you’re able to hold your phone/tablet). A self-portrait (as I see it) is something which is forcibly more considered thanks to the set-up needed, is (for me) a slower and more thoughtful process with artistic intent, and it initially requires you to view and subsequently make peace with the face and/or body in the image exactly as it has been photographed. Any photographer will tell you that angles and lighting and styling and all that jazz play a huge part in how flattering the resulting portrait is and they’d be absolutely correct – that was all part of the photographic learning curve for me as well as the self-image one – but until those files are edited, that is how you look in that light and from that angle.
I should add that a self-portrait can be taken using a phone or tablet camera without filters too, the art form isn’t limited to professional gear / things which are more traditionally camera-shaped and it could most certainly be argued that the artistic process is the key difference here. Please know that I’m not dismissing selfies; they absolutely have their place, I take them myself and I genuinely think it’s brilliant being able to informally capture moments in time (especially with the people I love), but the distinction for the sake of this blog and the point above felt necessary.
As I got braver, I gradually started to open myself up to the idea of shoot-swaps with some other lovely photographer pals. These creative, playful days during which we would take it in turns to be on either side of the camera made me realise something incredibly important:
Some of the things I hated about myself were the things that other people loved. Some of the little quirks in my personality and appearance that I’d grown to hate as a teenager were the things that other people adored.
This was hammered home to me over and over again. Each photographer I
worked with would see me in a slightly different way, and that was utterly fascinating. I’d be lying to you if I said that I liked every image from every shoot, because I didn’t (and I’m not sure that many folk can say they love every image they see of themselves) BUT – incredibly importantly – I did like some of the images which, let’s face it, was an unbelievably huge improvement on liking none of the images of myself (after the age of around nine years old) previously. I started to learn to accept the compliments I was paid. I gradually began to see the things that others liked about me, both in photos and in the mirror, and went on to see more for myself. These small but intensely significant revelations led to me investing far more into my self-care; not just on the aesthetic front (although that definitely helped!) but in terms of dealing with the pain and learning to understand my brain a little better too. These were the sparks which started the fire; the catalysts which sped the reaction.
These days I use modelling and self-portraiture as a creative and cathartic exercise; as an excuse to step into different shoes for a while, to document myself at a point in time or place, or maybe to break out of my comfort zone once in a while and perhaps teach me to accept and love the parts of myself I’m still occasionally fighting.
My body image now is much, much better. Honestly, it’s still a work in progress – there was a lot of harm done during my teenage years and a lot of toxicity absorbed from a number of places, which has made the act of unlearning it all a fairly intensive process – but I’ve come an astonishingly long way. I’ve found exercises I can do which don’t cause my hypermobile joints too much issue (swimming and gentle bodyweight-based strengthening workouts = brilliant) and, since following some awesome body-positive role models online (Jameela Jamil in particular), I’ve found myself actively questioning and re-framing negative thoughts about my body as they arise. It took a fair force of will to get the positive changes rolling, but I’m so glad I prioritised them.
If you’re struggling right now, please, please communicate that to someone. Even if you might not feel like it right now: you are beautiful and brilliant and you absolutely deserve to be happy and to feel good about yourself; you are not your illness. Check out I WEIGH for a whole lot of positive loveliness along with The Blurt Foundation, Mind, Time To Change and the Mental Health Foundation for a variety of excellent mental health resources. Please, don’t suffer in silence.
One final note upon being camera-shy: The images above are of my lovely Mum, at various points in her life, and they are some of my most treasured possessions in the whole world. They help me to remember her when my heart hurts so much that my head tries to block it all out. They make her real again on the days when she feels more like a dream than a memory, because that’d be easier. They help me to see her as I knew her, but the older photos also let me into the stories and nostalgia of those that knew her for longer – something which has its own magic and a way of bringing us closer in the sharing. On the days I sometimes feel a little untethered, they help to fill in the gaps, to remind me where I came from.
I’m extraordinarily fortunate to have photos like these for a number of friends and family who are sadly no longer with us. I’m so, so grateful for every image I have of the people I love – and I’m so glad that, now, I feel happier about appearing in these photos too. I tell you this because, previously, I found it hard to find the energy to make changes when they felt like they were just for me (and still do, sometimes) but when it’s also been important for the sake of someone else, that’s been just the nudge I’ve needed.
Don’t wait to make positive changes. You can do this.
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P.S. Here’s a bit of practical advice I’ve picked up along the way:
If you identify as someone who’s somewhat camera shy but would perhaps like some nice photos of yourself, here are a few things to consider:
Whatever the shoot is for, whether it’s personal or professional, choose a photographer who you get along with. I really can’t stress this enough. If you find someone whose personality complements your own and you’re able to relax around them, I promise you everything will feel a whole lot easier. You might even have a bit of a giggle.
Choose somewhere fun / interesting / somewhere which means something to you! If you’re particularly nervous about having your photo taken, sitting in a blank studio with a camera in your face probably isn’t going to be your cup of tea. A really good photographer should still be able to get some nice images of you in that scenario, but I’d suggest that you’ll find the whole experience a lot more pleasant if you go somewhere where the fact you’re with a photographer can become almost secondary. I initially found I was always much more at home being photographed somewhere out in the moors / woods / general fresh air where I could take in my surroundings and just enjoy being there, camera or no. You might want to look into a lifestyle or documentary photographer for this kind of shoot.
Consider treating yourself to a bit of help on the styling side of things. The amount of difference that putting a bit of extra effort into / assigning more of a priority to your self-care, thus engaging with some self-love, is genuinely magic. Styling helps you to outwardly decide how you’d like to present yourself to the world on any given day and there’s some pretty serious power in that. The amount of extra sass which can be achieved with the help of some strong hair / makeup / clothing game may actually be witchcraft. If you don’t believe me, go and watch Queer Eye on Netflix and freakin’ believe it.
For musicians: If you’re the kind of person who feels a little like they’ve had their security blanket whipped away when you can’t hide behind an instrument at your photoshoot, maybe consider going for something slightly more concept-driven / stylised (you might find this helps you enter a performance headspace in a way that simply standing in front of a brick wall would not) OR, as suggested above, something more casual but detail-orientated in an interesting location. Again, finding someone you get along with and whose work you love will also be inordinately helpful.
If you’re looking for a wedding photographer and you / your other half is a bit anxious about the photography, try to make a point of choosing a photographer who offers a pre-wedding photoshoot. This is an excellent opportunity to essentially have a little practice run in advance of the big day, so not only will you be able to talk everything through with your photographer and get to know them a little better, you’ll also get chance to work out what does and doesn’t work for you and your other half when it comes to your portraits as a couple. Plus, y’know, additional cute new photos.
Huge love to all of you, I hope this helps!