You’re so vain

I’ll bet you think this log is about you, don;t you? Well maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. It depends really on a few things. Do you like having your picture taken? Do you like to travel and if you do, do you do it fairly regularly? If you answered yes to these questions then maybe you’ll find this of interest or maybe better yet you’ll help enlighten me.

You might be wondering just what it is I’m on about. My answers to those questions were a except to the “Do I like having my picture taken?” I don”t. That may be because I am a photographer by trade. I”ve come to terms with having my photo taken over the years and am better in those regards now, providing I have at least some creative control over the portrait. The look of the photo (how bad I look and the aesthetic) tend to be the most important overall factors to whether I think the photo has any worthy  merit at all. The whole notion is actually pretty simple in those regards, on the other hand as a photographer I realize for most people it isn’t so simple, they almost always hate how they look, thus we get to the crux of the biscuit. For myself the mystery is twofold. Why is it some folks can’t stand to have their pictures taken, and some cannot get enough of it, especially while traveling? Travel photos seem to be the sole exception when it comes to how your average “Joe” feels about how good or bad they are represented. They can wear the stupidest looking outfit but because they were on vacation somewhere it seems to make it somehow more palatable. If they had the same picture snapped at home with the same stupid rags on it would be tossed post haste into the trash.

It stands to reason that the folks who don’t relish being on the subject end of a camera have some fairly simple logic. Shyness and modesty aside, there is some basis for how folks perceive themselves as most are only used to seeing their image in a mirror and when they do see an image of how they truly look, they more often than not initially have a negative response. There is some basis to this behavior being gender driven i.e. women are more predisposed to this phenomena. That being said it dumbfounds me greatly to the opposite end of the spectrum, these are the folks that never seem to get enough of their smiling mug. This opposite end of this scale of behavior has literally seen an explosion over the past few years with the advent of digital cameras and websites such as Facebook and Myspace. It seems as though the main content of these self-absorbed portals is (at least photographically speaking) the “at arms length” or the “helicopter shot” or the”in the mirror” type of self-portrait. An endless succession of marginal quality less than original self-portraits that’s only real difference is the faces involved. This brings me to the travel context of this examination.

Ultimately this may be my issue and not everyone else’s but when it does start to affect the day-to-day existence of others (myself included) it becomes everyone’s issue, or I’ll make it so. By extension why when people travel do they feel they need to be photographed in every conceivable act and type of pose? While I completely understand why you may WANT a photograph of yourself riding on a camel or an elephant (scam though it may be) I’ll never be able to figure out why you NEED a photo of yourself with the Eiffel tower protruding out of your head, or why you NEED to mar the beauty of a place like the Taj Mahal with your moronic grinning mug and bad fashion sense. Why isn’t it enough to just take the picture and buy the key chain to prove to people that you’ve been there and seen it in person? A good friend of mine that I’ve done quite a bit of traveling with always used to say “Ok and now a shot for Mom.” Whether or not he ever sent his mother these pictures is something I always wondered about, though knowing him I’m dubious that’s she’s ever seen them. There may in fact be some truth to it though as many times the pictures (much to my chagrin) that people always enjoyed the most were these types. Never were they the high composition artistic photos of the seven wonders of the modern world complete with deep azure blue polarized skies, or of the weathered face of the old man, or the third world child smiling amid the squalor. It was almost invariably a photo of my friend and I posed in some innocuous (and poorly composed by the guide might I add) way smiling uncomfortably.

I’ll take this a step further. To acquire this much cherished photo I’ve witnessed people profane the sanctity of a multitude of holy places, manhandle monks and other elderly folks, risk life and limb, and seen more than one temper flare and in one particular instance almost witnessed fisticuffs, all for the luxury of posing in front of the Giant Buddha. It was in Thailand and it must have been a very popular place to have ones photo taken as a line of tourists developed waiting their turn. One woman and her friend obviously wanting more than the one allotted photo of each were taking far too much time as deemed by the gaggle of German tourists waiting their turn. Angry snarls of “Schnell! Schnell!” were hurled their way. Not that these English speakers had the faintest clue at what was being tossed their way, this only made the situation worse. As an observer it was pretty entertaining to watch. Another unfathomable act is standing precariously near the edge of a cliff or some perilous ledge or dangerous precipice to get that invaluable “Me standing there” photo. I’ve witness people nearly killing themselves just to procure this type of photo.

You might think I”m obsessing a bit too much about this and perhaps I am. But in the last couple of years I’ve been traveling with someone who’s majority of travel photos are of her posing here and there. I call them her “Cardboard cut out” pictures, if it wasn’t for the mind numbing variety of her ever-changing fashion wardrobe you’d think that’s just what she was, a cardboard cut out. Her smile and pose is almost always uniform, only her clothes and the backgrounds change. When we’re home again and we look at our photos together she’ll say to me (content and technical merit thrown to the wind) “Other than the pictures I took of you, there is nothing for you to remember the trip, you take pictures of ugliness and shit, see how nice mine came out!” Then it all comes back to me in one vast flashback all the photos I had to take of her posing when she asked me, sometimes in the very same place,and with a veritable audience watching me, she’ll order me to “Take one more, hold the camera the other way, is it focused, make sure my feet are included!” the only minor a difference being a blouse or a pair of slacks. Lord knows one might compliment this or that element of the scenery better than the other outfit did.

National Geographic and combat photographers have nothing on me!

  4 comments for “You’re so vain

  1. Neeta Cheeta
    February 6, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    Your blog about travel photos rang so true. You aired so many thoughts that I politely kept to myself. What’s really funny unconsciously, whenever I look through someone’s travel self-portraits, I will quickly view each one until something of interest captures my attention? I guess that could be considered as rude.

    Being a photographer myself, I try hard not to take those types of standard shots. Yet, I too have fallen to the classic “cardboard cutout syndrome”. It’s a bad habit that takes discipline, breaking out of that posing in the center mode. That’s why I make a point of photographing at least one or two shots, of a particular subject or landscape. Something I can claim proudly and appeal to my artistic eye.

    Well, are we photographing for ourselves? Or, for the viewer who will later peruse our “vacation to exotic places” photo albums?

    ;-)

  2. February 6, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    Thanks Neeta, I appreciate your observations.

    Funny that another really common habit folks have nowadays with the advent of digital cameras that are using little LCD screens is how (especially with video cameras) they wander aimlessly about watching the screens as opposed to looking at the site or destination they’re visiting.

    Getting the video or photo seems scondary to actually experiencing the site for most folks.

    ~Stiv

  3. Lee
    February 11, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    … Or do you mean experiencing the site seems secondary to getting the video or photo?

  4. February 12, 2007 at 10:40 am

    Ahhh yes Lee of course.

    Good to see someones on the ball!

    Best,
    Stiv

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