“Make me look skinny!”
I hear it all the time. From brides and grooms. From moms and dads. From random guests who wander up to me at weddings on the off-chance, I suppose, that they wind up in a photograph. “Make me look younger!” they say. “Make me look beautiful!”
I laugh and play along. Sometimes I wave a hand at them, saying, “Don’t be silly! You look great!” Sometimes I tease them. “Who do you want to look like: Angelina or Brad?”
It always feels a little smarmy. It always feels slightly forced. Because in the pit of my stomach a tiny knot forms. I want to say, “No. Stop. Can’t you see how loved you are?”
A few years ago I photographed a family I’d never met before. They arrived perfectly pressed and cleverly coordinated, the mom, the dad, and a little girl about six years old. They were everything you’d expect to find in a frame you’d buy at Target, all white teeth and unnecessary scarves. But an odd tension wafted off of them from the moment I shook their hands. I couldn’t quite place it until the end of our session, when the dad picked up his daughter for a portrait. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek, and I snapped a few photos. As I lowered my camera, the little girl reached for him again, moving in to kiss his face – spontaneous and sweet. “NO,” he intoned sharply, setting her firmly away from him. “That’s only for pictures.” The mom rolled her eyes and resettled her Hermés bag over a well-toned arm. The little girl’s shoulders sagged and her eyes dropped to the ground.
And their all-American beauty crumbled like a rotting tree. They were thin and wrinkle-free. Their hair was shiny. Their skin was clear. And they were so terribly ugly.
I cannot make you beautiful. But I can tell you what beauty looks like.
Beauty is the mom who throws aside the scarf when it gets in the way of her hugs. Beauty is the dad who swings his cranky toddler in the air rather than scolding. Beauty is the couple so wrapped up in each other, they forget I’m there. Beauty is the family who rolls in the grass, who knows clothes are replaceable, who cherishes the moment over the presentation.
Cassie and Brendon’s wedding day was a mad scramble. No one was on time. My schedule was shot all to hell. Family and friends flew in and out from the house to the church to the reception, barely a second to breathe, hardly a moment for any semblance of coordinated photography. But everyone was laughing, smiling, hollering joyfully across the house, peeking gleefully through the curtains. Everyone hugged and kissed and high-fived. Cassie’s mom filled an old cough syrup bottle with wine for Cassie to sneak into the church, and they giggled like kids together as Cassie’s dad frantically packed the car and the stylists rushed to paint faces and tweak hair.
I made as many photos as I could in the chaos. At the end of the day, my face hurt from smiling.
Less than two months later, Cassie sent this in an e-mail: “My mom passed away on November 29th from advanced stage cancer. Your pictures captured my mom as she would prefer to be remembered – gorgeous, happy, and dancing.”
I cannot make you beautiful. But I can tell you how to be beautiful.
Hold your loved ones like this may be your last photograph with them. Squeeze your babies against those pounds you keep saying you’ll lose. Wrap your gangly arms around your partner like you’re never letting go. Smile with your entire face. Laugh with all your breath. Kiss with your eyes closed. Say I love you too many times. It will still never be enough.
In cavernous ballrooms, I photograph people dancing, jumping, spinning; bodies pressed together, fingers intertwined. In shaded parks, I photograph children running, grown-ups breathless, dogs scrambling underfoot. In dim nurseries, I photograph tiny new babies wrapped in handmade blankets, secure in warm arms. From intimate living rooms to wide open spaces, I photograph love and laughter and life. And in every picture lives a story. And in every story we find evidence.
I cannot make you beautiful. You already are.