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I am not a camera

I hate having my photograph taken. If I am in a group I am not one of those who pushes their way to the front. If I am in bar, I usually raise my glass towards the camera. The appearance is of saluting the photographer, the intent is to (at least partially) obscure my face. It is not that I believe the camera will steal my soul, at least, not literally. But the camera does demand something of me that I am not sure how to give. It demands a pose.

Once a pose is required, I am instantly aware of my body. Any stance is automatically unnatural, any posture feels awkward. I am uncomfortable in my body, a discomfort, an awkwardness, that I do not feel 99% of the time for the simple reason that I do not have to think about the shape, the pose, at any other time.

If I am called on for a portrait photograph, I am, if anything, even more uncomfortable. How am I supposed to look? And that word, ‘supposed’, is the tricky one in there. There is some expression, some composition of my features, that is supposed to do more than simply provide my likeness, it is supposed to say something about me. But I don’t have anything to say in that language. I can glare fiercely out, I can stare vacantly into some empty distance, I can essay a small smile that feels silly even at the time, but in the very process of posing I am not being me.

And the result is inevitable. There is no photograph of me with which I feel totally happy. There are some I recognize as good, but that is a different thing. There is no way, I think, that I could recognize myself in a photograph. It is not the same as looking into a mirror (which is how I am most familiar with the ways my face works and is shaped), because the photograph shows me not reversed but as others see me, it shows me flat and still, it shows me in a situation and a posture that was at best ephemeral. Most of all, when I look at myself in a photograph I am looking into eyes that more naturally I should be looking out of.


Photography seems to have cropped up in my reading more than usual of late. In The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura J. Snyder (a book I intend to return to at greater length another time) we get, in passing, the story of the beginnings of photography with Fox Talbot and John Herschel. In Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes we get the interpretation of photography.

What I find interesting is that from Fox Talbot up to and including Barthes there is an assumption of truth in photography. Not in the simplistic sense – the camera cannot lie – but in a more subtle sense, the same sort of sense in which we talk of truth in art.

Fox Talbot thought of his invention as a form of painting, he talked of his creations as ‘photogenic drawings’, and saw the use of photography primarily in terms of the botanical drawings that scientists needed to do to record nature. Barthes begins his essay by talking about seeing a photograph of Napoleon Bonaparte’s youngest brother: ‘I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor’.

We see the camera as a recording device. It is many other things besides, it has acquired many other functions and characteristics, but that is how we see it at heart. That is why we take so many ‘snaps’ – the instantaneous record of the instant – that is why the pages of our newspapers are so filled with pictures, because the camera holds within it the ephemeral truth.

At least, we feel it does when we are looking at a photograph of someone or something else.


And yet, I get a sense that Fox Talbot in 1839 and Barthes, writing just before his death in 1980, bracket the entire history of the photograph.

Oh we probably take more photographs now than we ever did. We all carry a camera as an integral part of our phone, the camera has a ubiquity it never had before. Yet these are digital cameras, and I sense that digital photography (which appeared not long after Barthes died) is a very different creature than the photography that Barthes was writing about, the photography that I suspect we all still somehow reference when we talk about it.

Because this is the age of photoshop, of the airbrush, of digital manipulation accessible to every one of us. This is the age when we expect photography to tell a story, to take a stance, to strike an impressive image. And if we still think of a photograph as telling a truth, that characteristic is now way down the list of our expectations. It is not that the photograph is necessarily lying, but its truth is augmented. If anything, we come much closer to the work of art that Fox Talbot was imagining.

A photograph today may show us the world, but it is more likely to be the world as we would like it to be, rather than the world as it is. It is an imaginative truth, and the camera has always served our imaginations as well as it has served our reality; but I think we have less and less reason to think of the photograph in terms of bald fact.

When Barthes looked at a photograph he saw it as in some fundamental way different from, on the one hand, a painting, and on the other hand, a movie. Now those differences are breaking down. Even technologically, the distinctions are fading: any picture enhancement program will render a photograph in the style of a painting; and any modern camera will allow you to capture a scene as still or movie or (in some cameras) a rapid sequence of stills that occupy a Muybridge-like gap between still and movie.

And with the change in technology, with the change in the status of the photograph, there comes a consequent change in the way we look at photographs. We accept manipulation and enhancement. We accept that the colours may not be true, that figures can be wiped from the record or added in to the picture, not as the camera lying to us (which is how we would once regard them) but as just part of the story that the camera tells us today.


All of which applies when we look at a photograph of any subject except one. When you look at a photograph of yourself, you see a stranger, because you see a self that you were never meant to see. So any photograph of me is, by definition, a lie.

4 thoughts on “I am not a camera

  1. Hey Paul, glad you brought this up because I’ve had similar conversations with people about being photographed. I loathe being asked to pose for a photo and much prefer to be photo’d candidly, in ignorance of the act. Anything else feels extraordinarily un-natural, because it is not my “self” that is being captured, but some other uncanny image (perhaps similar to a cat looking in the mirror, seeing itself but only recognizing it as another cat-like thing).
    Among the admittedly small sample group, I’ve found that men share my aversion, but women don’t seem to and have a difficult time understanding what the hell I’m blathering about.
    Again, this is just my experience, but I find the gender disparity odd, particularly if you, say, scour facebook for photos. Women (for the most part), seem to love looking into the camera and posing, smiling, joining in. Men, on the other hand, will look away, or obscure their self with an object or otherwise try to “scar” the scene.

  2. I can’t speak for all women, but I too am terribly uncomfortable getting my picture taken. I think it’s a pretty normal feeling. People can get “good” at it if they have to do it for their job, like politicians or models. I wanted a proper author photo and I have a great friend who is a photographer. It still took two hours and lots of vodka and he’s a dear friend. That said, a good photographer puts his/her subject at ease (eventually) and that is a tremendous skill. Gena Mohwish comes to mind.
    And I’d argue that a photo can actually reveal uncomfortable truths as much as lies- think of the work of Nan Goldin or Francesca Woodman- just to name a few.

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