I remember being a child and one day finally being the person allowed to touch the hallowed old family Minolta to take a picture when my family was off hiking someplace. It seems like ages ago when taking a picture was so much more than opening the app on your phone, choosing your filter, and clicking away. Even 10 years ago camera cameras of the digital variety were still a regular household commodity and although you could take endless pictures with them you still had to actually chose to have them with you to do so. But 20 years ago if you wanted pictures you had to actually buy the film that was the right size for your camera, the right speed for the type of photos you wanted and the shutter speed you intended to use, and thoughtfully point your camera lens because 24 shots go by fast whether or not you’re paying attention!
I might have been 10 when the only gift I wanted for my birthday was my own Minolta, one of the big clunky ones you’d have to wind two and a half times to get to a new frame with speeds and aperture settings everywhere. I loved that camera to high heaven even though I eventually graduated to an Olympus that was so much smaller but allowed the same amount of control. The pictures I got were divine. I knew how to frame things, how to find the perfect lighting, how to adjust the shutter speed and aperture to get the effects I wanted. When I was in the mood, I’d be up long before dawn and hiking in the dark to my chosen locations so I could be set up before the golden hour started. Old buildings, ruins, historic locations, railroad tunnels, pretty weeds covered in dew, sunbeams breaking through the branches of trees in the fog, and occasionally I’d even sneak in a selfie (before we even knew what a selfie was).
Those were the days when people would go on vacation and hopefully only pick the best pictures to show you rather than all 240 shots they took while trying to find the perfect postcard picture to showcase their year’s big trip on their Christmas card but instead ending up with well over 200 pictures of someone’s thumb or of uninteresting trees or places. I just had the most amazing deja vu to sitting in someone’s living room with a plate of food in my lap in front of a screen where the slides of trips were placed in half a dozen wheels and we had the delight of looking at every single shot.
There was a time when people worked to get beautiful pictures of loved ones and themselves so they could remember those moments. There weren’t massive computers inside their pockets capable of literally taking thousands of pictures. There weren’t special features that made the most inept among us look like a great talent. No filters, no portrait mode, no adjusting of lighting, nothing. If you wanted a good photo of anyone you loved or yourself you either had someone take your picture and hope to God they managed to get a good one or you went to a studio to pay a professional. When pictures were taken, they showed the truth because there wasn’t photoshop or a dozen photo editing apps available for you to remove your blemishes and rolls and double chin and runaway hairs and your crazy ex boyfriend from the shot. If there was a gorgeous photo of you it was because someone knew how to capture your beauty on film not because you used the Snapchat filter that takes off 10 pounds and puts on contoured makeup. And when it came to sharing there were picture frames and photo albums, and for the truly dedicated sharer there were wallet albums that added an extra half an inch plus and 4 pounds to your wallet. The only people who would look at your photos were friends and family and the occasional stranger your grandmother or parents would accost at the supermarket with the “isn’t my child the most beautiful” move… and that was okay!
Now we all have cameras on our smartphones, cameras that do all the work of a skilled photographer of old and a skilled photo editor.
No more is there a challenge in framing, aperture, shutter speed, lighting, and position because there’s an app to fix anything you don’t get right in the shot.
At least the pictures still remain. Sort of, anyway.
I was on some social media platform or another the other day thinking about these things when I was struck by the comedic nature of how people present themselves to the universe in their profile pictures having the convenience of filters and endless shots to capture the thing that will make them look their very best. Everyone I know carefully chooses their profile and cover photos so I feel safe in making the assumption that everyone I don’t know also is thoughtful about what image they present to the world and for some reason the pictures suddenly just struck me as amusing. It’s not that the pictures are innately amusing in their content or composition; on the contrary, they usually contain the qualities that make for “good” portraits. It’s the way the pictures speak of the person they were showing that had me chuckling.
First, there is the “I’m completely obsessed with myself so I’m posting at least one new selfie every single day” picture. The completely obsessed selfies are posted by those always looking for compliments and likes whether they are “me with my coffee” or “me with my prettily plated salad” or “me with my dog” or “me in my car” or “me with duck face” or “me with a peace sign”… me, me, me. These are the people whose sense of self seems to be completely tied to what others think of them. Most of what they post are selfies. I’m not talking about the occasional selfie taker here or about the occasional amazing shots friends took because, let’s be honest, we all like to know there’s at least one good photo of us for the newspapers to use when we suddenly win the lotto or get hit by a bus so we don’t end up being pictured in the sweatpants we wore to the bodega. I’m talking about the people who literally only post selfies and they post them daily so that others can praise them.
Then there are the “professional headshot” posters who only use photos that were done by someone with an expensive camera and a knowledge of photoshop beyond my patience level. Maybe it’s their “I’ll have this in my biography” picture or their business card photo. Perhaps they want to be the next Kardashian so they work hard to keep every photo perfect enough to be noticed. Whatever the case, they are posing and choosing a very specific face to show the world. Realtor. Public speaker. Fitness guru. Isogenix shake consultant. Self proclaimed bikini model. Instagram model.
Funnily enough, on the complete opposite of the spectrum from both those is the “logo or gif instead of a person” picture. These people either self identify so much within a group or brand that they have to use that logo for their face or they seek anonymity on social media (which is so counter productive and silly) to the degree that they won’t have a picture of themselves. If the former, I wonder if they actually know who they are without that logo and if the latter I wonder why they’re online at all.
Similar to the logo and lack self identity is the “family photos,” “pictures of my kids,” and “cute couple” profile picture poster.
Now, I can feel hackles rising already for even saying this is a thing before I give my thoughts on it. Yes. I know I’m on thin ice. Hear me out, though, and don’t shut me down until you read the rest of what I say.
Sometimes this is simply parents loving their adorable children and spouses loving one another. Let’s be honest, it’s hard not to smile when you see a child doing what they do. We have all seen the pictures of children running amok by painting each other with peanut butter or getting flour all over the house or throwing poo and we all laughed at the nature of children and at the fact that we didn’t have to clean up that mess. I have a couple snapshots from the Winter Faire I was at yesterday with kids being charming and beautiful: a toddler pushing my wheelchair around, the same toddler climbing the wheels and bars in the back of the chair to stand looking over my shoulder at kids reciting poetry and singing carols, me holding a very content and snuggly newborn while her beautiful big sisters give me some love.
There is a difference, however, between showing off my kids and my spouse because I love them and showing off my kids and my spouse because between soccer practice, and school, and keeping the house, and keeping my marriage afloat, and keeping my career going, and fantasy football, and the Bridge club I forgot that I’m an individual that is separate from the minions sharing my name and button nose and separate from the person sharing my last name.
Yep. I said it.
You are still individuals and I think you should remember your Ness, have adult friends outside of your spouse, laugh at adult humor, drink adult beverages, and not talk about children or home improvements or marriage stuff with. You are still a person without them. You have talents and passions, likes and dislikes that are different than the people living in the same house as you and therefore should have interests, hobbies, and relationships separate from them too. (See? That wasn’t so bad!)
Next there is the “legitimately documenting some sort of story I’m trying to tell” photo. This has been me lately as I made the conscious decision to see myself as I was in that moment of recovery rather than pretending I wasn’t in that place or wanting to never remember that place. The first photo of myself I posted with a piece showed me looking like I’m half dead and I even noted I had taken the oxygen off for that shot. Along the path of recovery, I wanted to remember who and where I was. I can see when I was ill or tired because I hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in months. I can see where the sass really started to return and where weariness began to lift. I can see life and joy and determination in my eyes again when I suddenly recognized the women in the mirror and on the screen again.
Now finally comes the picture I really want to talk about.
Once I started noticing them I saw them everywhere and it made me sad to see:
It’s the “I can’t remember the last time I felt truly happy and content” shot where the photo used is several years old. I’m not talking about posting an old picture with a loved one when you miss them or feeling nostalgic and posting something from a favorite place at some time in the past. I’m talking about the profile picture that never gets changed that is some old snapshot from a year or two or more ago that is quite literally one of the last times someone captured a genuine smile on *film*, the last time they liked what they saw in the mirror, or the last time they were really having fun.
Let that sink in a minute.
The last real smile someone in this overly digital world was seen smiling was a year ago or more.
That’s profound, I think.
A little over a month ago I wrote a piece about the Convincing Lies we tell ourselves and the world about our happiness as we try to project our perfect images of our perfect lives to the world. We all do it to some degree and at some levels it is necessary to present our best to the world. I wouldn’t walk into an interview wearing the clothes I wear doing yard work. I get up each day and dress well, putting on makeup, pulling out jewelry, everything, because it makes me feel good to take the time to present my best self when I write. You can’t see if I’m in old sweats or not but I can and when I can tell it changes how I write. Hopefully when you go to drop off or pick up your kid from school and have parent conferences you wear clothing, not pajamas. I assume you take the time to actively pursue health and hygiene as well. See? There’s a certain amount we (hopefully) all do of putting ones best foot forward. That being said…
The problem the stories our profile pictures tell, especially if they are the loss of self identity type or the “I can’t remember the last time I was happy” type, is that at some level we aren’t recognizing them or we may be choosing to ignore our own unhappiness and discontent when they exist, therefore doing nothing to change them.
I know what I’m saying is valid because it is exactly the trap I fell into for a very long time: forgetting who I was apart from the other, carefully choosing what persona to present to the world, ignoring my discontent and unhappiness, and doing nothing to change the face in the mirror and therefore the face I shared with the world.
What I want you to think about is this:
If your profile picture is the image you’re projecting to the universe, what truth is your profile picture saying about you, about your individuality, about your sense of self, and about your happiness?
Honestly, what does it say?
Do you still know who you are separate from your family, work, and home?
Do you have to think about the last time you were truly happy?
If you don’t like those answers, what will you do to change them?
Photo used with permission from Mamma. I’d like to point out that there are smiles of genuine happiness reaching the eyes of three of the four of us while little Miss Number Four wonders why Mamma is making such a fuss and calling her name when all she wants to do is cuddle.