She was 17. Not one of the popular kids. She wasn’t a cheerleader or a track star, and she had long given up hope of ever becoming Homecoming Queen. She’ll be lucky if anyone even asks her to the dance.
She tries to fit in. She loves the trendy clothes all the seniors are wearing, even though her weight makes it difficult to stay in style. Her hair is long, wavy and luxurious. Some say it’s her best feature. She thinks it’s unruly; a dark kinky mass that never cooperates. Freckles dot her face like sprinkles on an ice cream cone, and all the time spent in the summer sun has just made them darker.
Her senior session took place in the Sandia Mountains. She loves nature and feels at home under the tall pine trees. She giggled nervously at first, but as the session progressed, she became more and more relaxed. The poses that had, at first, been rendered unattainable by a set of nerves determined to keep her body from complying, now seemed to flow effortlessly. She plopped down into a field of wildflowers, laughing like some kind of woodland sprite, her unruly hair lifting on the breeze, her body becoming one with tall grasses and smiling flowers. The session continued until the last drop of light had been squeezed from the sky.
The images came to me for retouching. It was late in the evening, and I was tired. I had already spent a full eight hours in front of the computer, and this was my last order of the day. I opened the file hoping to find a session that could be cranked out in a matter of minutes. Instead, I found 15 images that would keep me up well past midnight.
It didn’t matter, though, because I knew this girl. I had never seen her before, much less spoken to her, but I recognized her. She reminded me of another teenage girl; a girl I hadn’t thought much about for the past twenty years; a girl I used to see in the reflection of my own bedroom mirror each morning as I got ready for school.
An opportunity to place ones self in another’s shoes doesn’t happen often. Most of us have NO idea what it feels like to be a realtor, or a doctor, or a musician. We can’t imagine how it feels to repair a broken bone, or perform Beethoven’s fifth in front of a packed Carnegie Hall, but we can reach into the past and wrap our memories around the awkwardness and uncertainty of those high school years. Who among us doesn’t remember the unrequited crush, or the nervousness of a first date? Who can’t empathize with the feelings of uncertainty that permeate high school life? Moments of sheer jubilation followed by embarrassment. Floating on cloud nine after being winked at by that “someone special” in the hall, only to find the wink was intended for the girl behind you. Trying fervently to measure up to “the standard” and never feeling confidant you do. That’s what makes photographing seniors unique; we can understand their situation; their place in life, because we’ve all been there. As I sat in my office and gazed at the image of this senior girl, I could relate to her. I saw her sitting in a field of flowers and I knew exactly what she wanted. I felt her desire echo the unspoken in all of us, regardless of age: she wants to feel special; she wants to feel important; she wants to feel beautiful.
See, we don’t just photograph a person—we photograph The Whole Person. Clients come to us with more than a change of clothing-they come to our studios and bring every past experience with them: hurts and humiliations, insecurities and fears, triumphs and disappointments. Some wear these experiences like a banner, carrying them out in the open for all to see. Others tuck them away, out of sight, like a pair of old, worn socks encased in a pair of $200 shoes. It doesn’t matter if the subject is one of the “pretty people” or someone who likens sitting for the camera to the pain of a route canal. Insecurities come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and those we don’t see are just as important as those we do, maybe even more so.
She came into the studio with her mom to pick up her order, her face a story of hope and fear. I opened the box, took out her images, and spread them before her in a wash of color. She said nothing, only stared—complete silence. My heart dropped.
After a few moments, she turned to her mom, and, through blue eyes brimming with tears, she smiled. She then turned back to the images said three words that made my heart sing:
“I look beautiful.”
My friends, that is why we do what we do.
This time, she came into my studio, the girl with unruly hair and freckles, teeming with unspoken insecurities. The next time, it could be yours.
See her. Understand her. And make her feel beautiful.