Unreliable Narrator: Kodak Moments of Zen
“One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind.” — Dorothea Lange
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 29
Once, during one of my family’s many trips to Disney World—the site of so many formative memories—my mother and I found ourselves deep in the bowels of a now-shuttered five-story indoor interactive funhouse center located in the resort’s entertainment district. I no longer recall why the two of us were wandering the venue without my father and brothers; perhaps they’d chosen to see a movie at the theater nearby that we weren’t interested in. In any case, I was in middle school and beginning to clash with my mother more often than ever.
I should pause here to clarify that I’m the daughter of Haitian immigrants. When I say “clash with my mother,” I’m talking about the small, subtle ways in which I’d attempt to assert myself before she’d shut the whole endeavor down with a few words, sometimes just a look. In my house, the concept of children raising their voices, cussing at parents, storming out of rooms, and slamming doors were laughable fictions that only existed on television. Though I can’t recall what exactly my problem was in this instance, I was expressing my pre-adolescent lack of enthusiasm for our outing by inserting a bit of strain behind my smiles, dragging my feet ever so slightly. I was treading so lightly that there’s a good chance my mother missed these gestures completely, that they were more for my own pouting satisfaction than anything else.
By the time we’d done Buzz Lightyear-themed bumper cars and a Bill Nye-hosted roller coaster simulator, I was having fun in spite of myself. My mother suggested we commemorate the moment, sitting down in front of a cartoonish, schoolbus yellow console with colorful buttons flanking the screen. The idea was that you’d take a picture and apply special effects and frames before printing out a copy of your photo to take home. “That’s okay,” I began, as she gestured for me to sit behind her.
Ten minutes later, we’d walk away with no photo and a renewed animosity between us. “Can’t you just pretend you’re having a good time?” she asked.
I hadn’t meant to bring our fun to a screeching halt. I simply sat down, looked into the camera, and made what I hoped was a pleasant face, all the while dreading the concept of having to look at myself once the photo was printed. Each time my mother insisted that we retake it, this time with me looking happier, please, it became that much harder to do. I’ve never done well in front of cameras.
For me, mirrors are proven themselves more trustworthy. They show me my good days and my bad days, and for the most part, I believe what I see. Cameras are wild cards. I can venture out on one of my best days, cross paths with a camera, and the resulting photo somehow stuns me. I don’t typically make it into a whole thing—sorry, Mom—but while you may catch me lovingly snapping photos of my friends, you’ll rarely see me handing my phone off so that I can join in on the group shot.
In roughly 85% of my photos, there’s a look in my eyes that says, “I would like this to be over now.” The other 15% are candids.
As progress so often does, it occurred without a distinct watershed moment and no tearful breakthroughs. It’s only now, as I look back on the last couple of months—a stretch of time that included my own wedding, my brother-in-law’s wedding, my honeymoon, and other assorted travel—that I realize that the constant presence of cameras all throughout failed to trigger my usual method of turning away inconspicuously and hoping that the would-be photographer doesn’t press the issue. More than that, I actually asked my husband to take my photograph at least once a day while we traveled throughout Brazil, a task he undertook with gusto, considering how rarely I’ve let him take photos of me during our twelve years together.
A friend had asked for daily outfit shots during my travels, I explained to him, as if I hadn’t promised the same to several others over the years at various events and simply not followed through. I wanted to make sense of this behavioral shift with a view to external circumstances, though the change had clearly occurred internally. At what point had this particular insecurity melted away, or at least thawed? Maybe if I could figure out what had done the trick, I could apply it to one of my many other insecurities-in-waiting. I’m still mulling it over, to be honest.
And yet: a part of me wonders if perhaps this retrospective analysis I’m trying to conduct amounts to looking a gift horse in the mouth. It took decades for me to feel remotely comfortable in front of camera, to be pleased at the prospect of a physical memento to remember myself by, even though I have no earthly clue how to master lighting or angles. For now, maybe it’s best to simply bask in the strange magic of this revelatory new territory, to smile and let the chips fall where they may. I’ll come back around to daunting Whack-a-Mole game that is the struggle of cultivating confidence, I’m sure. For now, I’m taking a moment to bask in this one small victory.