If I look wooden and stupid, there’s a good reason. Besides being wooden and stupid.
It neither bothers me nor excites me to be photographed. You won’t see me rushing to insert myself in a hastily posed group picture, nor will you hear me begging to be excused from becoming the subject of an unexpected snapshot. Like most people, I appreciate a portrait that makes me look good and wince at those that do the opposite. But whether my likeness is captured thousands more times or never again, it’s pretty much all the same to me.
However, there is one photographic ritual that I have always disliked, and that is the annual taking of school photographs. I don’t recall enjoying the experience much when I was a student, and I have no enthusiasm for it as a teacher. Now in my tenth year as an educator, I have learned to simply grin and bear it. And that is exactly what I appear to be doing in most of my teacher portraits: grinning and bearing it.
I blame the conventions of assembly-line portrait photography for some of this. You’re led before the camera and made to sit on what appears to be the upended crate in which the photographer totes his gear. As you remind yourself to stay loose and comfortable for the most natural pose, he is contorting you into a position you would never assume even by accident. For some reason, your knees are pointed away from the camera so that you must rotate your torso to face the lens, a practice that has never made any sense to me when taking head shots. If you wear glasses like I do, and if your nose is particularly long as mine is, you will be made to push your spectacles up the bridge of your nose until they can advance no further, an ocular setting that you would ordinarily avoid so as not to smudge the insides of your lenses with your eyelashes.
The worst indignity, however, is a final adjustment in which you are required to tilt your head slightly to one side, presumably to make your pose appear less staged and to deemphasize your asymmetrical features. What it actually does is evoke the dopey countenance of a dog that thinks it may have just heard one of the few magical words it recognizes, like walk, ride, or treat. So there are a lot of strikes against you even before the shutter clicks. Despite this, I always try to relax within the constraints of my unnatural pose, imagine myself in a situation that might prompt a smile, and flash an authentic expression of carefree joy for the camera.
So far, I have described what everyone must endure in their brief encounter with the school photographer. It is a challenge for anyone to look natural under the circumstances, but it is especially difficult for a teacher. This is because teacher portraits are usually taken at the same time that their students are photographed. As any teacher will tell you, it is advisable to keep your eyes on your students at all times. Of course, it is impossible to do this during the minute or two that it takes for the photographer to do his or her job. This truth does not escape the attention of students, any one of whom may choose to take mischievous advantage of it.
At my elementary school, this year’s photos were taken on the stage in the gym, which doubles as our cafeteria. The backdrop was placed at the lip of the platform facing a rear corner of the stage, preventing students from observing the posing of their classmates. When my fifth-graders were called down to the gym for pictures, it happened to be the lunch period for half a dozen other classes. We lined up along the perimeter of the gym and waited patiently as our queue slowly ascended the stage steps, each student exiting the makeshift studio by walking among our lunching classes and lining up at the door.
It was not an ideal situation, for though the photographer worked quickly, my attention was soon divided between two groups of students on opposite sides of the gym. Whether they were waiting to be photographed or lined up to leave, the patience of my students diminished at about the same rate. By the time half of us were done, it was clear that no one wanted to stay in line any longer. Nevertheless, I tossed out directions on both flanks, calling out the names of kids whose minor infractions threatened to multiply into classwide mutiny. The bolder ones would wait until I turned my attention to the other side and simply continue their petty insubordinations until they found themselves again under my surveillance.
When my last student had been photographed, I was summoned by the photographer, and as I do every year, I was rapidly compliant to his every suggestion in order to get the whole thing over with quickly. Greater than the physical discomfort of my unnatural pose was the mental strain of knowing that I could no longer observe my class. I had my back to them, and there was a backdrop and a sea of kids eating lunch separating us. Despite the presence of adults supervising lunch, the fact remained that I was responsible for a class of students that I could not see, some of whom were surely weighing their chances of getting away with some form of misbehavior that they otherwise might not try. This knowledge made my brief time before the camera seem much longer.
I pointed my knees to the left, rotated my torso to the right, pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose until they bumped into my eyebrows, and tilted my head to one side. “Smile!” commanded the photographer, and as I heard the noise level in the gym rise in the manner that it might when a distant line of fifth graders notices the absence of their teacher, I tried to force myself into a state of blissful relaxation. Click. The photographer eyed the results and invited me to look at his monitor.
“Happy with that?” he asked as a formality. I think he knew as well as I did that there was no way that I would pose for another picture.
“Looks great!” I enthused immediately, having regarded my digital image for a nanosecond. I had already rotated my torso toward the stage steps when I heard him chuckle.
I turned and regarded his sympathetic grin. If only he had taken my picture at that very moment, we would have captured the elusive and highly coveted unguarded smile. Alas, yet again, my official faculty photo depicts me with all the confused excitement of Fido about to take a ride.
Next year, I swear, I will not tilt my head.