“Just relax and act natural,” she said as she pushed my legs to one side and adjusted my glasses.

Relax?  My lips turned up as naturally as that of a plastic mannequin in a store window.   Relax when I’m on the wrong side of the camera?  Relax in the same room with multiple light-reflecting umbrellas?  What, was she nuts?  And what is this “act natural” bit?  Isn’t that an oxymoron?  If this felt a bit natural, would I be acting?”

The shutter snapped.  Once, twice, three times.  She popped out from behind the camera.  “Lean forward just a bit.”  She titled my chin, turned my head.  “Now smile.  You have such a beautiful smile.”  She was cheerfully encouraging with a subject who prefers a dentist’s chair to a photographer’s stool.

I was trying.  Really, I was.  But was I smiling too big?  Did I look like a shark about to consume its prey?  Was my smile so small that I looked scared, or worse, constipated?  Which was my good side?  Was she photographing my good side or the bad one?  Did I even have a good side?  Maybe I should have tried to smush down my hair?  Was I wearing lipstick?  Lipstick would have been a good idea.

With every flash, the smile waned.  I didn’t feel more comfortable, I felt less comfortable.  I also felt as if I might throw up.

“Let’s have a look,” she said, moving from camera to computer where we viewed a dozen head shots of me looking like a hungry shark with intestinal problems.  I’d found something worse than being in front of a camera — looking at the resulting pictures.

She suggested an acceptable pose, “Or, we can take some more if you like.”

“Let’s try a few more,” I said, perching on the edge of the stool like a tipsy vulture about to do a face plant.  I smiled.  I’m good with empathy. I have a reasonable imagination.  I could do this.  I tried to look glamorous, pretended I was wearing a crystal-studded evening gown instead of t-shirt and jeans.  I felt an undeniable urge to shake my curls and lift my left eyebrow in a knowing, provocative pose.

She adjusted and tilted me, delicately wiped the Oreo crumbs from the edge of my mouth.  Her honest touch blew my cover; now she knew that I’d scarfed seven cookies in the car before I’d had the nerve to walk in.  My confidence crumbled like a cookie between strong molars.  I left my curls and my eyebrows where they usually reside.

No, I counselled myself, you can do this.  You never complained about a root canal; surely this isn’t worse that a mouthful of dental instruments.  Quit being such a coward.

She spoke from beside the camera with the upbeat, yet soothing words of a therapist, and popped the flash while I acted.  Not naturally.  I slipped back into my evening gown and became an up-and-coming starlet, a 1940s pin-up with luscious red lips and liquid blond hair.  I pretended I’d just had reconstructive surgery, that I was a spy in a clever disguise.  I knew people would fawn over these photos, wishing they were me with my swanky lifestyle.  The pain subsided, and for 46 seconds, I’d had fun being anyone but me.

The acting had began to feel natural.  I wanted her to keep taking pictures so I could keep pretending to be other people.

“OK, let’s have a look,” she said.

We viewed another dozen poses:  shark, mad scientist, hernia patient, giraffe wanna-be, woman with crooked eyebrow, woman with crooked glasses, woman with nest of snakes on her head, woman who has just looked closely at road kill, mother who has just caught her kid telling a lie, woman gasping for air, woman grimacing in pain, and a woman looking at the diaper of a toddler who just ate half a box of Cheerios.

I looked at the photographer.  She looked at me.  We exchanged no words.

She flipped to the first set of pictures.  “I like this one,” she said, enlarging her original selection.  “What do you think?”

“Yes,”  I said.  “It’s perfect.  Let’s go with that one.”

I strode from the studio, head high and smile confident.  The photo is perfect; it looks nothing like me.

© 2012 Sue Farrell Holler