School Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Korean photoshopping: it's just that thorough and vigorous. (Also, dig "Michoel")

I generally hate having my picture taken. Cameras always seem to capture me at just the most awkward angle to pronounce every feature I generally attempt to minimize, and on a day where I feel relatively comfortable about my grooming choices, I am suddenly presented with badly angled evidence that makes it look as though I am a thoroughly disheveled, wild-haired, generously bechinned urchin. I endure people taking portraits of me the way children accept going to the dentist, or how I imagine medieval lords and ladies dealt with their loveless marriages: a kind of sullen, contemptuous devotion to my duties, with hopefully the promise of moderate reward for not complaining. This stretches back as far as I can remember. That school included a yearly, ritualized form of picture-taking served only to enrage my tiny, cowlicked spirit. But my hate was a malleable thing, and it changed with each passing year.

As a very young kid, it was, at least, mostly painless. Before I really had the cognitive faculties to understand “picture day,” it was just a sudden occasion when my mother decided to pick out slightly nicer clothes, and mom’s clarvoyant choices just happened to coincide with a photographer showing up at school. Throughout elementary school it was just a day of minor unpleasantness. Take a photo because everyone wants to remember just what you looked like back when you were cute and weren’t so mouthy, possibly in front of a pull-down screen covered in leather-bound editions of nameless tomes. Immediately afterwards, you can loosen your clip-on ties, rummage through your backpack for a spare t-shirt, and change your shoes as soon as was feasible. Everything, at this time, as just a matter of discomfort and annoyance.

Going into middle school, school portraits took on an air of greater tragedy.

This was partly because between the ages of 12 and 15, everything takes on the air of tragedy: of great importance, and great sorrow, and great burden. Everyone in middle school was horrifically awkward in each their own way, as the first rumbling battles of puberty began to rage over our increasingly gangly and misshapen bodies and heads. There were outcroppings of acne spurting across unwashed visages, great and terrible orthodontic appliances that seemed to forage and invade one’s mouth and face like creeping ivy, and disturbing irregularities in growth in limb and stature. Everyone looked like a freak. Why would we ever want to immortalize this?

And so picture day became a day of secrecy, of occlusion, of trying as best we could to mask our wretched visages. Our parents, despite having to actually deal with us, still wanted pictures of us, and they kept us in iPods and candy, so we didn’t really have a choice. Everyone laid back and thought of England.

The real issue was the day the photos returned to the class. Our teacher would get an unholy stack with all of our photo packages, and would then need to go about distributing them. Given that they were teaching middle schoolers and this was one of the only occasions for real, hearty and subtle subterfuge and revenge, they seemed to revel. Our greatest desire was to simply have the pictures pass to our hands and immediately slip them into our backpacks or lockers before anyone else could see them, and the teachers knew that. And thus they would slowly, painfully dole them out, accidentally dropping them on their desk, turning them over to read the information package on the back of the sealed envelopes—doing everything they could so the whole class could see. They wanted the mortification to be total and decimating. And it was.

The high school years were a time of affecting the greatest level of affectlessness. I, like everyone around me, wanted to seem as cool and above it all as possible. That we even had parents in the first place seemed irreversibly uncool – bowing to their desires to get school photos, deigning to have our scowling black-and-white images included in the yearbook, basically marked us as social lepers. We would have our photos taken, but it would be under a veil of secrecy: the call down to the gym for photos would be long ignored, but while on a bathroom break we would quickly dart down, unzip our hoodies to unveil the shirt and tie concealed below, and have our photos taken with cloak and dagger.

I thought, certainly, that with my high school graduation I could refrain from the need to ever have my photo taken again. I was sure that I could retire my photo strategy: the uncrinkled eyes, the jutted chin, the plastic lawyer smile that seemed to declare all of my teeth freshly installed and irrevocably fused together.

And for most of my university career, I was thankfully spared. There were yearly opportunities for school photos, but as the information was only available to me, and never to anyone who would actually desire to have photos done, the need never came up. When asked, I would simply say that there were no school photos, or that all the cameras on campus had exploded.

But the looming of graduation alerted the family once more, and no matter my protests (“People don’t get photos done anymore, really! In the modern age, they get a tattoo of accomplishment and call it a day.” “Think of the poor people down in the camera mines in Burkina Faso! What about them? Huh?”), I was forced once again to break out my tight-lipped grin, my comb, and my withering patience.

I remember looking at the various photopackages being offered up: they were all too expensive by far, and each with a stultifying, pukey name to go along. The Scholar package. The Achievement package. With each came a greater variety of sizes and number of photos to distribute, and with each, also, the promise of greater and more skillful photoshopping. Picking a lower-priced package meant not only a few scant photos, but also that they would leave your picture untouched. The word was italicized on their website, too, as though to terrify and repulse: unless you give us more money, people are going to see what you REALLY look like.

I endured yet another grad photo soon after, but contented myself: as a teacher, in the future, I would only be required to be photographed with children en masse. Their toe-headedness and general shellack of boogers and glitter would throw the focus away from me, and I could pass away the years without notice or care. I was done. I was spared.

And then I moved to Korea, where photos are necessary, shown to everyone, and relentlessly re-touched and fiddled with until they approach perfection (perfection, as you can see from the masterpiece of photoshoppery at the top, apparently means “as Korean-looking as possible”). I thought I had escaped school photos. But there is no escape.


2 thoughts on “School Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

  1. You’re such a fine young man.

    I, on the other hand, consider myself lucky because my folks weren’t fans of cameras so I didn’t have photos of my childhood. But the day will come when I can hardly remember what it was like years past and those photos would have helped me remember.

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