My sister recently sent me some old family photographs she had come across. There was one of me, taken when I was twelve or thirteen. It is a horrible picture. I look like an adolescent alien trying to emerge from inside an angular bursting-at-the-seams child, with bulging elbows and knees and nose and teeth. I had new heavy-hardware braces then, and a criminally bad haircut with short bangs. I have never looked good in bangs. It was one of those captured-in-time photographs that you can’t burn fast enough. My sister had stuck a note on it which jokingly read, “an awkward stage!”, which should win her a prize for the understatement of the century.
The pictures of my awkward stages in life greatly outnumber pictures of me where I look fairly put together. I always liked to think i just wasn’t photogenic, but now that I think about it, my life has been a steady stream of awkward stages.
Once when I was complaining about having to have my picture taken for a magazine article and knowing˙ it would be unflattering, a friend told me how to fix that. He said to look straight into the camera and think “I am really good at what I do”, and the picture would turn out great. Damned if it didn’t work. That made it clear that what had been photographed all along was not my face, but my deep seated insecurities about, oh, everything. If I think back through the rogues gallery of my most unflattering images, I recognize that unfortunate look in each one of them. The most flattering images I recall I realize were taken when I was relaxed and happy and feeling like I was really good at whatever I was doing. So now when someone points a camera at me, I try to hold the same thought – I am really good at what I do. Sometimes it works, but it’s not easy to quickly rodeo all my features under that umbrella, and so, often as not, another awkward stage goes on record.
The silly thing is, I am good at much of what I do. I have a successful career as an artist, I have a happy and fun marriage of almost 30 years, I have good health, I keep (with some help) a passably clean and organized home, I am a good public speaker, I am practical, punctual, economical, and reliable. You would think I would be able to take a good picture any old time, but insecure waters run deep.
When I shared this reflection with my sister of the unasked for old photographs, she said, “Oh, you’re just insecure about taking another bad picture!” Maybe she’s right, because that would certainly be enough.
My husband never took good pictures of anyone or anything until digital cameras came along. Now that he can see what’s in the frame before he shoots, heads are no longer lopped off and things are aligned as nature intended them. This is a good thing, except for the fact that he is smitten with his success and is constantly either pointing his camera or his phone at me and anyone else within range. For a while all his pictures of me captured a witheringly annoyed and thus highly unflattering look, so I continued to fulfill my own prophecy.
The camera always took great pictures of my father. One, he is very handsome, and two, he never doubted that he was excellent at whatever he was doing. That meant he was always right about everything, which has often been awkward for the rest of us, but never for him.
My father is going through an awkward stage now. For a decorated WWII fighter pilot with two engineering degrees and three successful careers, dementia is about as awkward as it gets. Sometimes that awkwardness shows in photos of him now, but not always; for the most part he still thinks he is good at what he is doing. He knows, however, that he is not doing so well at growing older, and the insecurity that that fosters shows. He makes choices which don’t serve his best interests, but he can’t see that, so when the results are not good, he is confused and hurt. In his mind, he is still always right. I try to keep him believing that, because having lost so much of his former self, the worst thing he can lose right now is his self confidence. It is all he has left to sustain him through this awkward stage.