image credits Caitlin Mackie for Anne V Muhlethaler
Risk being seen in all your glory. - Jim Carrey
CAPTURING A PIECE OF ONE’S SOUL
I used to say that I didn’t like having my photograph taken.
That wasn’t quite the truth, though I never considered it until recently. What I dislike, as it turns out, is when the resulting picture isn’t to my liking— - meaning when it contradicts the image I have of myself— - which is basically 95% of pictures of me.
Come at me with your camera and you’ll see me wince or sneakily move away. It’s a thing. I’m not photogenic—some people are and, generally, they know it too.
For years, I’ve dodged group photos regardless of the occasion, with one rare exception made for photo booths; many of them gloss over our flaws by offering overexposed black and white shots. As a result, I deem them appropriate.
The other day, a good friend recorded me playing and singing at my piano. Despite her good intention, my reaction was a loud, though internal, shriek. Oh no! I had to continue my performance nonetheless, mildly creeped out. Suffice to say I never watched the video.
Not wanting to be in front of the lens is quite a lonely state nowadays because it seems that the world wants nothing more than for us to be photographed, everyday, at all times.
I’ve seen babies as early as a few months old posing for the camera. Believe me, that was surprising, but I couldn’t help but notice, as I was the one taking the picture. This obsession with seeing ourselves results in much entertainment: I laugh endlessly at seeing the silly accidents people get into by trying to get the right shot for Instagram.
My chocolate-coated kitten Lalah is like me, as she too tries to escape as soon as I point my device at her in my attempt to capture her cuteness.
What she’s either fearing or not liking is a mystery to me, after all she can’t tell me.
But this reminds me of hearing that Native Americans, when faced with the first cameras in the mid 1900’s, were also fearful. Their elders believed that the strange machines could capture their souls.
Considering this anew, I don’t think they were wrong.
When a picture is really good, the image feels like it holds the essence of a person, or a place, or a moment.
Perhaps that’s why I love taking photographs.
So, I guess my gripe with those pictures that don’t match my expectations is that they are lacking my essence—they weren’t capturing enough of my soul!
My resistance to the process probably doesn’t help though.
MOTIVATION AND A CHANGE OF HEART
Despite all of this, I was recently the subject of a photoshoot, one that I organised myself at home.
You see, I’ve been using the same black and white portrait since 2000 (I’m not kidding, but you’ll see that it doesn’t reveal much so it was pretty easy to get away with). In any case, there was one particular project I wanted to sign up for and the shots I already had of myself (that I deemed acceptable), weren’t meeting the site guidelines.
‘What am I going to do? I really want to do this,’ I thought to myself. I racked my brain. ‘Ugh. I hate having my picture taken.’
It so happens that our minds remember things via stories (not just those we hear, but those we also tell ourselves).
Whenever we are faced with a complex situation, our solution-finding system kicks into gear. The inner computer between our ears scans all of our memory files for the most relevant story, seeking the evidence from past experiences that match our beliefs or story.
‘This is it!’
A blast of dopamine hits us when we identify the ‘right’ one, matching our expectations, matching our past history in some way.
I could have gotten stuck right here, at ‘I hate having my picture taken.’ Because what I explored in the first paragraph is still true.
The difference between now and past scenarios, however, is that what I want is more powerful than what I fear.
Regardless of how I feel about getting in front of the camera, I realised I had to let that go. So, I bit the bullet and moved forward. It turns out that when I’m motivated, it’s not so hard to face my old fears.
First I thought I’d give self-portraiture a try, but I can’t say that I have much spare time on my hands—and time I would need in order to learn how to do this right. The first few trials were pitiful. Moving on.
What next? Let’s find a professional. That’s where it got interesting. Thank you Instagram, this is where your worth lies now: research. There is also a mix of control and freedom that comes with appointing a photographer, preparing a moodboard, discussing the shots and rejecting what doesn’t work. After all, I know what I don’t want, I expressed it and that is indeed liberating.
It turns out that I do possess the required skill set to get this done properly (as a subject and as a project manager). I always did. This evidence was simply hidden behind the old story.
My resistance was borderline ridiculous because I have always enjoyed taking pictures. I had a great example: My father was a wonderful photographer and I am grateful for the stunning photo albums at home, reminding me of times and people now passed. Thankfully, I didn’t start hiding from the camera until I hit puberty. Prior to that, or so the legend goes, I'd even grab the mike of his old Super 8 camera and sing songs about little fishes, out of tune and utterly unashamed.
My photography skills (partly thanks to the iPhone's ever improving lens quality) also came in handy when I used to trail around fashion events, mostly backstage, during fashion weeks. I’d accompany designers and feed the snapshots through to the social media team.
Probably because I was so comfortable behind the scenes, like so many other PR’s I know, I chose to stay there for as long as possible. A nice and cosy spot where I wasn’t risking any over exposure.
As a new media consumer, whether we talk about videos, podcasts, or social let’s say, I came to realise that the more someone revealed about themselves, the more I could relate to them and the more I liked them.
There is value in showing ourselves to others. How else are people meant to get to know us?
If you want to make a mark, make a dent or build a community, you kind of have to show people who you are.
Being an introvert, albeit an enthusiastic one, who also identifies as shy, I can force myself to do things—in French we have an expression for this: ‘se faire violence’, to violate ourselves. Imagine that. It takes a lot of energy for me to put myself out there. It doesn’t come naturally.
So you can guess my surprise when I realised that leaning into the discomfort and embracing my project manager persona made everything go super smoothly. No more drama.
I’m still not likely to share selfies but I feel like I’ve unlocked something super precious. Because, the result is something I’m actually proud of. Thanks to the photographer of course, Caitlin Mackie.
One of my friends summed it up the other day when she said: ‘I love your new profile picture—and also it really looks like you.’ Another one said: ‘It’s perfect.’ I hadn’t asked for feedback, but I am pretty excited they feel the same way I do.
DO WE ALL NEED TO SHOW OURSELVES?
Of course not. Some people are all about preserving the mystery. It’s not a case of one size fits all. You could choose to be anonymous à la Elena Ferrante, the pseudonymous Italian novelist, or share your life brilliantly and relentlessly, like my friend Jennifer Fisher, jeweller and entrepreneur—also known as the Queen of Hoops.
But the thing is, we are wired for connection, and ‘our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water’ according to scientist Matthew Lieberman.
That’s what we seek and need as human beings. Even consumers, as I read in this recent report by Luxury Society, want more than goods from brands. They too seek an emotional connection.
As my guest on the podcast, Cameron Silver, the vintage fashion impresario and owner of Decades - LA, offered in our interview earlier this year:
‘Vulnerability is super powerful. [...]
And I always say, vulnerability is not about crying on cue but about telling me a little story.
Let me get to know you a little better.
Let me love you.
We all want to fall in love a little bit with a designer and we all want to be the one to discover it. To say this is my new best friend—look at this brand.
My old boss, Christian Louboutin, was also more of an introvert than anyone would have ever expected. He has graced many covers and I consider him one of these very photogenic people, but to be fair, he learned to throw himself in front of the (right) camera since his early teens. Moreover, what he has—and which he shared with me—is a clarity of vision and a deep motivation to support his business.
One of my upcoming interviews with polymath and writer Salman Ansari reminded me of a post he wrote:
‘The longer we wait to share our work, the more disconnected we become from reality. We hide in our creative cave, sheltering our work from the very feedback it needs to improve.
We need to share in order to connect with others and realign with reality.’
We can all hide in our creative caves, especially when we are shy, scared to show ourselves, fearful of criticism and/or when our image of ourselves doesn’t align with the vision in our own heads.
Like Christian, I discovered that when we are clear about our vision, our goals, we become willing to share our work and do what it takes to support it—including showing ourselves. When we are in touch with our deepest motivation, it becomes possible to surmount the biggest hurdles. Even the invisible ones.
I almost let this fear of having my picture taken, of being seen, stop me from doing something important to me, almost disconnecting me from my purpose and the people I seek to serve.
Recently I shared that my favourite tuneof all time (until now) is ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,’ by Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell. Its meaning resonates differently in light of the above. Cheers! Here’s to overcoming obstacles.
Want to make some moves yourself? Here are a few questions for you to noodle on—or if you fancy—even to journal on:
Are there any hurdles or stories keeping you stuck?
What are you telling yourself about what you can or cannot do about this?
Can you find a way to make it easier for yourself? Try to find at least 5 options, however far-fetched they may originally sound.
Can you delegate, transform the situation or adopt a new perspective?
Most importantly, can you connect to the reason why this matters to you?
And, once you understand this significance, what is possible?