“Eurgh, delete that please,” I uttered, shuddering.
My boyfriend was delighted with the picture he’d just captured of my son and I dancing in the kitchen. I felt differently. Where he saw joy, all I saw was a lopsided toothy grin and a fat arse. He wanted the picture framed. I wanted it binned.
In a world of social media addicts, we fall into two camps – those who selfie, and those who do not. But beyond the limitations of our own arm length, it seems women are becoming increasingly shy, more often favouring being the photographer at family gatherings than entrusting our images to others.
It’s a situation that makes professional photographer Rebecca Holmes sigh in dismay. A specialist in capturing happy, natural photographs of women and families, she’s on a mission to get more women in front of the camera. Why? This holiday season in particular, she argues, risks going undocumented. With fewer people gathering, the opportunities to be photographed will be reduced – and it is women who will disappear from the picture in a year that, believe it or not, we will likely want to look back on decades from now.
So, we sat down (virtually) with Rebecca to get to the bottom of the issue, and seek some professional advice on smiling naturally, rather than grimacing, in snapshots…
What sort of concerns do you hear most often from the women you photograph, and why do you think these issues are so rife?
’I hate my double chin’, ‘I’ve got a fat tummy’, ‘I don’t like my smile’, and ‘I’ve got horrible wrinkles’, are just some of the things I hear regularly from women. And I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked ‘Can you photoshop off two stone?’
When it comes to why, I think from a young age, society teaches us to be critical of ourselves. We’re encouraged to seek out areas for self-improvement and do our best to grow, and that’s mostly a positive thing that allows us to become fully-fledged adults. The problem is, we apply this same level of self-criticism to our appearance. We consume images of what the ‘ideal’ person looks like, and then pick ourselves to pieces. Never mind Photoshop, glossy magazines or Instagram filters, which only make matters worse.
Those who are pretty self-accepting find it easier to be in front of the camera, whereas those for whom self-acceptance is difficult – or non-existent – really struggle. The ‘trauma’ of having your photograph taken is being faced with the real possibility that someone might ‘see’ who you really are.
It’s really common to hear people say, ‘I don’t like having my photograph taken’, and many might see such comments as harmless. Why do you think this is so detrimental and what impact does it have?
I’d argue that every time we voice a hang-up about having our picture taken, what we’re really expressing is a hang-up about ourselves. If we were genuinely self-accepting, then surely we wouldn’t worry about a photograph?
I’ve been a photographer for well over twenty years and even I find being in front of the camera challenging. I understand how photography works, and why it is important to make memories for myself and my children, but I certainly don’t find it easy to stand at the other side of the lens. I, too, see a picture of myself and pick apart the things that I don’t like. Most of us do! Self-acceptance is not something that has come naturally to me.
What we fail to remember is that we see each other as a whole, not as a sum of our individual features. When I see my friend, I see Lucy. I don’t specifically see her hair, nose, eyes, shape. I see beyond the physical. Conversely, when I look at a picture of MY face I see – a big nose, round cheeks, double chin, the scar on my eyebrow, thinning hair. We pick ourselves apart, yet see the whole of everyone else.
The way we think determines our reality. When I repeatedly express how much I hate having my photograph taken, I reinforce the message that not only is the experience challenging, but that there are things wrong with the way I look. Thoughts like this become habitual, and before I know it, I’ve created a way of thinking that is very difficult to break.
Appearing in photographs is about making a clear stamp that we were present, that we existed, that we mattered. It’s a way of making our mark on the world. For those with families, if you’re not appearing in photographs with them, you’re cancelling yourself out of your family history. When your children look back on photos of their childhood, will they see you there?
Is it a problem that primarily applies to women, and what differences do you see between male and female clients?
In my experience, there is a massive difference between the way women and men respond to getting their photograph taken. Most women apologise, providing a list of reasons why they won’t (or I can’t) take a good picture. They are self-critical, stressed and anxious about the whole situation.
Men absolutely have their hang-ups as well, but they never lead with them at the start of a photography session. Never. Ever. Men tend to make a joke of the things they worry about – citing things like the overconsumption of lockdown beer as the reason for a tight jacket. Women apologise and criticise from the beginning and will regularly refuse to take part. Men’s self-criticism tends to come out in humour, but it doesn’t seem to prevent them from getting their photograph taken.
Additionally, society expects women to be humble and self-deprecating. So even if I meet a woman who doesn’t mind getting her picture being, she’ll often lead with the same lines I hear from everyone else.
Tell me a little about how you look to overcome these barriers?
I’m not a super-technical photographer. Sure, I can utilise my kit to achieve my aims, but the focus for me – pardon the pun – has never been on the technicality of creating a picture. I knew early on that my gift as a photographer was my ability to connect with, and ‘see’ people. To really see them, and genuinely develop a rapport which puts them at ease and brings out the best in them.
I once worked with a woman who’d been through a horrific few years. Serious illness, divorce and single motherhood all left this wonderful woman a shadow of her former self. When we started the session, her shoulders were high, she was tense, awkward, even tearful. Her self-confidence had taken a considerable beating. We worked together for a few hours, with her gradually relaxing and settling. One of the last photographs I captured of her was of her huge, beaming smile. One of her friends shared with me that seeing herself looking so naturally beautiful had transformed her. She was more confident, happier. The simple act of listening to this woman’s horrible story, empathising with her, then capturing an image that she loved – changed her trajectory completely.
Why do you think so many women are reluctant to be photographed?
Women are bombarded with images of the ‘ideal’ from a young age. We are regularly taught to value appearance as much as intellect. Often, what we see in the mirror doesn’t match our preconceived notion of ‘ideal’, so we shy away from the camera. Why would we want a reminder of just how much we don’t ‘measure up’? We have an idea in our head of what we think we look like, but hardly ever does it reflect what we actually look like in a picture. It’s the ultimate self-acceptance test, and self-acceptance is a tough thing to do.
Has the move towards selfie photography made it easier for women to be photographed?
I’m asked this a lot – why would a generation of people so obsessed with taking the perfect self-portrait find it so very difficult to be photographed by someone else? Control. When you take a selfie, you are in control. Allowing someone else to take a photograph of you puts them in power.
It’s a common misconception that those who take a lot of selfies are self-obsessed and confident in front of the camera – in my experience, often the reverse is actually true. Often a selfie is taken to boost self-esteem, either by getting more ‘likes’ or to show off locations and events. Selfies help to create a specific identity, to put individuals in control of how others perceive them. But just because you can take a good selfie, doesn’t mean you’ll respond well when the camera is in someone else’s hands. The clients I find most challenging to relax into a natural state, are often those who take a lot of selfies. It really concerns me that the younger generation, in particular, isn’t comfortable with a ‘natural’ photograph, preferring the filters and effects found on social media.
We’re coming up to a time when, ordinarily at least, family photographs are usually common. What would you say to encourage women to step in front of the camera, rather than take all the pics themselves?
These are the important moments! I wish I could go back in time to hold each of my babies when they were brand new again. I wish I could capture and etch into my memory every time one of my children told me they loved me. I wish I had a beautiful photograph of when I was pregnant – my body was performing the miraculous feat of growing a new human being, and I would have liked to have captured that with something other than my phone. Mostly I wish I had photographs of people I now miss. Oh, for a picture of my Nana and I as we walked for hours, exploring and chatting about life. Or for a photo of me laughing with my favourite uncle, who passed away far too young.
There will be a day when you will want to remember these times. There will come a day when your photograph will bring someone else comfort.
What’s your overarching message to women dreading having their picture taken this season?
It’s ok to feel worried about having your picture taken, it’s totally normal. But try to see yourself through the eyes of those who love you. Every time we say, ‘I hate my photograph’ we’re practically standing in front of the mirror and telling ourselves ‘I don’t like you’. This isn’t helpful for our confidence or self-esteem.
It is so important to exist in photographs, to make your mark on the world, and leave a visual story of yourself for others to remember. And not just selfies – photos which show you doing ‘you’ – but photos that show you as the businesswoman, mother, friend, wife, individual you really are.
Rebecca’s top tips for getting comfy on camera
- Have the camera out, so you remember to use it!
- Make a plan for what photographs you’d like and who will take them – and make sure it isn’t always you.
- Use the self-timer function on your camera or phone if it’s just your family at home.
- Wear whatever makes you feel comfortable.
- Have a laugh with your partner and take a picture of it.
- If you’re worried about how to stand or sit to look your best, practice in a mirror! Move your body until you have your favourite angle then memorise what it feels like in your body. There are also thousands of videos on YouTube about posing in pictures.
- Don’t look at the photographs! Pretend that you have a film camera – anyone remember those? – turn off the auto replay on the back of your camera and consciously decide that you aren’t going to look at them for a week. Make the moment enjoyable rather than self-critical. When you look at the photos in a week, the time passed will bring a new perspective.
- Still feeling nervous? Find one photo that you treasure of someone that is/was close to you. When you’re doubting getting in front of the camera, remember that that person had to be brave enough to have the photo taken, for you to have it to cherish. Let this photograph give you inspiration. Frame it and put it on the wall. There is someone out there who will want to cherish a photo of you.
Rebecca Holmes is a professional photographer, based in central Scotland. As part of her mission to help more women feel comfortable on camera, she’s offering a discount to Flock readers who book a session with her. Follow the link here to find out more, or view more of her work on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.