Jim sat on the stool trying to keep his shoulders back, his chin down, and manage a smile that didn’t look contrived. Then he remembered he needed to suck in his gut. Gaah! This was like trying to rub your head and pat your stomach at the same time, he thought. He would never have made a living as a male model. The photographer kept telling him to look natural. But there was nothing natural about sitting there under the impossibly bright lights.
“Now, open your eyes wide”
Just take the damn picture.
All he wanted was a few headshots for his website and some business cards. The photographer, a friend he trusted, was really good at this. He had seen her work before and hoped she could salvage something out of his alternately wooden, lurching and clownish attempts to look professional, trustworthy, and likeable. Jim had given up on hot and sexy a long time ago. But after thirty minutes of her instructions, he had begun to hope she could edit away some of his crow’s feet and that the vein in his temple wasn’t bulging so much that he looked like he was having an aneurysm.
I know I’m having one. I just hope it doesn’t look that way.
Breathe? I’m having a stroke here. You want me to breathe?
“We’re almost done. Let me just change the lens.”
“Do you have one that will make me look like George Clooney?”
She smiled at him and let out a quick chuckle.
“Hard work being a super-model, isn’t it?”
“Just don’t ask me to look pouty. My range of emotions is limited. I can probably manage surly without much trouble.”
“You’re doing great. We are gonna have some good choices to work with,” she said, snapping the new lens in place.
After fifteen more awkward minutes, she said, “Okay. All done.”
They walked into her office where she popped a memory card into her Apple desktop. A few taps of the keyboard and Jim’s face suddenly stared back at him. Suppressing a gasp, he managed to mutter only a muted, “Ewww.”
After sorting through several dozen digital images, they settled on three for final editing. They weren’t that bad, Jim thought. But he had seen every flaw; that spot on his cheek where the dermatologist had sliced away the lesion; the not so subtle droop below just under his chin, and the lines in his forehead. They were all there, his imperfections staring at him.
“Are my ears uneven?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean is one lower on the side of my head than it is on the other?”
If the photographer hadn’t been a good friend, he might have just dropped the whole project right there. But he needed the photos and in her presence, he felt some comfort.
“You’re silly. You’re gonna like the final product, I promise.”
“You have some of those filtering things don’t you? Like those Snapchat thingies.”
“Sure. Would you rather have a ring of flowers on your head or some purple sunglasses,” she kidded.
Jim told her goodbye, gave her a hug and headed back to his car. Calling down to him from the stairway, she said, “I’ll have something for you to look at in a couple of days.”
Before he pulled out of the parking lot, Jim took out his phone. He scanned Instagram and Facebook for a minute. Flipping through photos of himself and his friends, he thought about how he looked in most of them. Not bad. But not great, either. He was smiling in most of them. But not with that kind of “running for office” kind of perfection he was afraid would show up in his headshots. He looked kind of sweaty and tired, he thought, in a lot of them.
He had never learned how to use Photoshop. He had fooled around with a couple of Instagram filters, but that had never been with photos of himself. Maybe he should learn. Everyone else looks so good in their pictures, when they used those things.
A few days later, when his friend texted to tell him she would be sending him a link to a Dropbox account where he could look at the proofs of his headshots, Jim was a little nervous. He opened the files and began to scan through them.
Whoa. She’s a genius! It actually kind of looks like the way I feel.
The scar was gone. The crow’s feet were still there, but weren’t as obvious. And the lines on his forehead, they were a faint memory.
Jim thought about the scar that had been erased by the magic of technology. The cut that had produced it had been painful and his first acknowledgement of mortality. Almost ten years later I’m still here. The crow’s feet were probably the result of years of squinting into the horizon during his countless hours of travel across the country. Lot of good memories there. And the lines on his forehead, no doubt, were the product of hours of worry over children he so desperately wanted to love and protect. They turned out pretty good. He was grateful.
When Jim finally posted the photos on his website and Facebook page, he was glad they had turned out so well. But he had thought a lot about filters. He remembered one of his favorite poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, We Wear the Mask. People have been filtering what they let others see of them for generations. Their clothes. Their houses. Their demeanors. They were all a kind of a filter. Masks of a sort.
It would be easy to blame technology and social media for people presenting their lives and image as perfect. But it was nothing new; just a different way of fitting in to whatever group they want to fit into. Living for “likes” and “followers” wasn’t healthy, he knew. Still, Jim was grateful for the kindness people had shown him when he uploaded his new headshots.
All those imperfections on his face, they were the markers of a life. Fear. Joy. Victory. Defeat. Nobody escapes life without difficulties. Jim was glad for his friend’s skill with the camera. She actually had managed to get him to look natural. To be natural. Those photos showed a part of who he was too. But he knew he would also keep posting the unfiltered shots where he looked sweaty and tired. All of them showed a part of who he was, even if he didn’t look like George Clooney.