You Ought to be in Pictures

When someone aims a camera at me, I have no idea how to act. I don’t know what to do with my eyes or my hands. I focus on keeping my fingers away from my nose and constructing a smile that doesn’t make me look like a Jack-o-lantern. It’s as though I go through life looking mostly like a normal human being and then when someone shouts “Say cheese!” I just forget.

Aim a camera at a group of people who represent a mixed demographic of ages and you will see lots of things happen. The older people will suck in their guts and close their mouths, they’ll try to relax their hands and just pray for the resulting image to be nice to them. The younger people will completely change, in both physicality and demeanor. Their eyes will sparkle up, they’ll turn their bodies into a vogue-ish pose to present their best side, and they put on a photo face, which is a look that has been developed over literally hundreds of experimental sessions.

Worse still, is being a prop in a photo. My visiting sister likes to document every part of our day: food, pubs, public transport. In many of these I am simply there hovering above the plate of food or providing foreground candy to the busy pub in the background. Still, I should be used to this as I get my photo taken about ten times a day. In this case, the important part is the information behind me. My job entails standing in front of young people and relating information, so when I say something like: OK guys, here’s the assignment; Make sure you take this rule down; or This is an important point to remember; the students raise their eyes and their phones, snap a picture, and then go back into their regularly scheduled distraction.

But the all time worst photograph is the staged one. One Christmas my dad decided that he was going to record everything that happened and so took pictures as we opened gifts, reacted to gifts, ate eggs, ran off to the bathroom. If he wasn’t getting the pictorial juice he wanted, he was not above arranging them.

“Dame, why don’t you and Chris play football for a minute.”

“In…here?” The room was filled with presents, boxes, wrapping paper, two other siblings, a parent, a tree, and a dog.

“Just pretend to get tackled.”

I have never been part of a staged photo that worked out and looked natural. Never. They always appear obviously staged and unnatural. The best action shots are the ones taken when people are otherwise engaged in activities and don’t know they are being photographed. And so that Christmas morning in 1987 my dad took the most obviously staged picture in the history of image creation.

That is, until Trump released a picture of himself “writing” his inauguration speech last year. Aside from the fact that the Oval Office is occupied by the equivalent of a plastic bag filled with eel jism, there is nothing not hilarious about this picture. You’ve seen it. He’s sitting at an empty desk, his bepenned hand poised over a crisp clean legal pad, and he’s staring into the camera. The whole thing is so unnatural that you almost think it’s a joke. Anyone who has ever written anything other than a tweet knows that desk would be covered in dictionaries, tablets, discarded papers. The pad would be scratched and beat up. Also, they wouldn’t be looking, you know, into the camera.

I don’t know who believed this photo to be authentic and who didn’t, but the Trump team believed it fooled people enough to do it again last week. Another obviously staged photo of Trump taken during the governmental shutdown ensured his base (and I think nobody else) that he was “working” during the shutdown. There is not a paper on the desk. Not. One. Paper. He’s looking into the camera, and his pose is as unnatural as it could be. The real tellers that this is a staged photo are the facts that his mouth isn’t moving and his phone is nowhere in the picture.

The thousands of action shots of other presidents seem to be far more authentic. There are coffee cups and a worn, worked-in look to the room, they’re busy doing things like reading, writing, or listening or talking to others. They look like presidents presiding over a country. I have no idea if Trump is pressed into taking these photos and just feels awkward or if the photographer is pressed into the pictures and he feels awkward. What I do know is that these pictures look ridiculous and staged, and Trump comes off looking like a person who doesn’t know how to work to the degree that he doesn’t even know how to pretend how to work. Maybe they should get more snaps of him in his natural habitat, if they ever move that truck away from his golf course.

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