you are beautiful

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Nobody likes the way they look in pictures. You pull out a camera & people cringe or hide or make a desperate attempt to repose themselves. Millions quickly untag themselves from photos on Facebook. The rise of the selfie is in part, an attempt to regain control of our image & show the world what we feel we actually look like.

That people are generally unhappy with the pictures taken of them is especially obvious to photographers. In fact, when I first picked up a camera, I mistook my subjects loathing of their images to be a critique of my photography. I became disheartened, & for a while avoided photographing people whenever possible. Fortunately, I began to regain my confidence when I noticed most of the people who disliked photographs of themselves, were encouraging me to… take more pictures of people!

Sometimes our mirrors are to blame. Human faces are fairly symmetrical, but our brains are programmed to recognize (and even value) slight asymmetries in faces. The mirror reverses the asymmetries, but the camera does not. So right away, ANY picture you see of yourself is literally the reverse of what you are used to seeing in the mirror everyday. You recognize the person in the photograph as yourself, you recall be photographed at that moment, and yet your brain perceives someone else. Quite unsettling.


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As humans, we rely mostly on our sense of vision to tell us about the world. Our eyes see objective reality, but that is only half the process. After seeing, our brain creates a highly subjective perception of what we just saw, often based on past experience, expectation, and mood. Focus is one simple way our brain changes what we actually see into what we perceive. For example, despite our eyes having a nearly 180 degree field of view, our brains can really only focus on one or two things at a time, so you may literally not see anything other than what you have specifically focused on. This is called inattentional blindness. A similar effect can happen when you look at a picture of yourself. You may focus on a blemish to the perceptual exclusion of everything else.

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Another problem is the divide between how we understand ourselves, and how others perceive us. When we look at pictures of ourselves, we tend to only see a representation the photons that were reflected from us and into the camera. Think of the famous portraits of people like Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln & Ghandi. These people had a profound effect on humanity, but are certainly not fashion models. When we look at their portraits, we see more than what they look like, we see who they are. And when our friends look at us, they see much more than just a recognizable pattern of light. The full force of every experience they have ever had with us shapes their perception of the picture. In our eyes they see every hilarious moment, every dream and every sorrow they’ve shared with us. They see everything we’ve done for them & everything they hope for us to become. Our histories illuminate us.


The media has had a devastating effect on how we see ourselves. Complex subjects are reduced to bumper sticker soundbites. Human beings are quickly judged, labeled and categorized in the most one dimensional way. He’s a hero. She’s beautiful. He’s a villain. She’s a slut. We absorb these destructive categorizations and rigorously apply them to ourselves. Worse, we are bombarded by thousands of marketing messages a day, many including imagery of physical perfection. Every beer chick on a billboard, every cable news pundit with 5% body fat, every musician with perfect hair serves to reinforce the illusion that perfection is the norm, when in fact, it is the exception. These media personalities & advertisements are merely a one dimensional point in our imaginations. They exist only as one thing, at one time… easy to understand… easy to consume. Real people, on the other hand, exist in superposition. You are the complex sum of your entire life, all at once. And by comparing ourselves to the simplistic media imagery, we throw out the kaleidoscope of personality & history that makes us so much more than a recognizable pattern. We may never be considered perfect to millions of people, but to the few people that actually count in our lives, we are perfect.

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Studying the work of street photographers like Thomas Leuthard, Vivian Maier & Fred Herzog has taught me that beauty is everywhere, and more importantly, in everyone. There are thousands of beautiful photographic moments occurring all around you every single moment. And you are the subject of most of them. Right now, no matter where you are, what you are doing or what you are wearing, you are beautiful. You are beautiful whether you just rolled out of bed or you fell down a muddy hill. You are beautiful whether you believe it or not. There is a picture that can be taken of you, at literally any moment, that’s worthy to be hung in a famous museum. Most of the time we miss these moments. Or when we notice them, they’re gone in an instant. Or we don’t have the photography skill to capture it as the moment felt. But it’s important to understand that those moments exist in a very real way. And that is what I mean to say when I raise my camera to take a picture of you… that here, at this very instant, you are more than photons reflecting into the camera lens… you are beautiful.

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