A few months ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I accidentally started a new photography project when I snapped a portrait of a friend with my iPhone. Since that first iPhone portrait, I have photographed over 100 people with my iPhone, and my excitement for this project continues to grow (you can see some of the images on my Instagram stream as well as under the Projects section). I was in Hollywood for work last month, and I photographed my cousin’s roommate Jordan while staying with them. Jordan wrote a short story about his experience of being photographed, and I am so excited to share it with you. Please enjoy, and thank you Jordan!
On Having My Picture Taken
There are certain people that like having their picture taken. They enjoy it because they are good at it. They remember to smile and lift chins so they don’t look fat. They can look happy even if they are not happy. It is comfortable for them to hang arms over the shoulder of the person they are standing next to. When people tell them to scoot closer, they do it happily.
I am not one of those people.
Not that I don’t want to be one of those photogenic people, it just doesn’t come easy to me.
I come home tired from my job and commute. There’s an air mattress in the living room, which seems vaguely familiar. I am struggling to remember something that my roommate Lonnie had told me about–something about someone staying with us for a little while. It is all fairly hazy–I dunno, I’ve been drinking too much lately.
I pour myself some cold coffee left over from the morning pot. I look through the kitchen window and see Lonnie with another guy, presumably our houseguest, and our downstairs neighbor. They’re all talking at the picnic table in the backyard.
I go out and meet John. John is Lonnie’s cousin. Like Lonnie, John is a photographer. I shake John’s hand. I’m trying to be friendly. Lonnie asks me how work was. I growl that it was rough and excuse myself to do some chores. I don’t totally nail being friendly.
Then I’m sorting through a bunch of dirty clothes, trying to break out of my 9-5 work headspace, and getting ready for the writing I’m going to do this night.
Lonnie knocks on my door. This sort of uncommon at our place.
Lonnie asks,”Hey man, would you mind having your picture taken?”
I open the door. Lonnie explains, “My cousin John is a photographer and he really wants to take your picture.”
I say yes, because only celebrities can say no to having a picture taken of them. And also, no one has ever seen me and said, “I want to take your picture.” I can’t quite escape the mixture of compliment and embarrassment that goes along with this.
John is enthusiastic. He has already shot Lonnie earlier in the afternoon. He tells me about this iPhone portrait project he’s been working on as he looks at my shirts–not the dirty ones on the floor, but the few that are still hanging in my closet. I push for a red Pendleton camp shirt, but he isn’t interested in it. He knows what he’s looking for. So I put on an old 70s polyester flannel, which I like, but it is missing the third and fourth buttons from the top. I am slightly worried about this, but it doesn’t seem to bother John.
I follow John around the apartment as he looks for the lighting he needs, which is in Lonnie’s room. I sit on Lonnie’s army cot. John and I talk as he holds his iPhone with both hands. He stares intently at the screen. He puts the phone close to my face, about twelve inches, maybe sixteen inches away from me.
It’s got to be a delicate thing, the iPhone portrait. Like everybody else, I’ll snap off some pictures with mine, and occasionally they’ll look alright, but it’s just a phone, and I don’t care too much. But John’s really working here, looking for a specific thing to show up on his screen. He gives directions like: shoot your chin forward, or look at the top of the phone, or look off to one side. I move my head a centimeter one way, then the other. Later, we move around the room, chasing the light.
John takes, I dunno, less than a thousand photos but more than five hundred. They’re all about the same–I’m not doing much here, just sitting and doing what he asks me to do. At some point, he tells me to look concerned. And my eyebrows squeeze together a bit. Later, he asks me to pretend like I’m about to say something.
At some point, I try to smile, because it’s a photo, and you’re supposed to smile in photos. John immediately tells me to cut it out.
Eventually, John decrees that we’ve gotten it and he says thank you and I say thank you and that’s it.
Later that evening, he shows Lonnie and I some of the shots he had taken that afternoon.
We see the photos from Lonnie’s shoot. They are great, unmistakably great. Lonnie looks earnest and charming, like he might be on his way to sail to Patagonia or propose to his girlfriend.
We look at my photos and they’re the best photos I’ve ever seen of myself. The lighting is warm, my shirt looks better than it looks in real life, all of what anyone could ask for in a portrait, anything you could possibly want. But I look very unhappy in these pictures. My looks range from concerned to sad to angry. I look like someone I do not want to be. John, in the few minutes I had known him, had keyed in on this emotional thing inside me. This was me on a Monday after work.
I thought about this a lot. Weeks later I quit my job, not exactly because of this, but certainly because life’s too short to be a miserable Monday-hating-sonofabitch.