When I asked you to take off
your neon orange trucker hat
to sit for a photo between two trees,
I did feel embarrassed for you,
awkward to have tasked myself
with slightly undressing a friend.
I could tell by your open mouth
that you were genuinely distracted,
awaiting the first shot. Your sundress
pooled around your knees in the grass,
and you poked at ants.
It didn’t suit you,
posing, or being posed.
Everything, your expression said,
was out of place,
was not itself, was fragile
against sturdy oak trunks.
It was a lie.
Exactly what I wanted
Image: Public domain, Female in white dress standing on grass, Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.
I often hate posing in photos. Especially when I was child, the task of sitting for a photo was a chore that made me squirm. I suppose I saw photos as a tradeoff that I had to negotiate between my self-consciousness and the desires of whomever was taking it. A favorite line that illustrates this was spoken by my grandmother, who, when I kept failing to smile, to keep my eyes open, and to sit still for a portrait, once famously said with a straight face: “Nick, if you ruin this picture, I’ll ruin you.” I don’t remember if that made me laugh, but she managed to click the shutter at the precise moment to catch me in a smile, whether genuine or forced. In photos of myself, I could perceive a discrepancy between how it presented me and how I experience myself internally, which could feel upsetting. I suspect this is not unique.
In the case of this poem, the speaker is the photographer, and I am on the more active side of the arrangement, doing the careful, yet somehow indecent work of framing and composing my subject to my liking. I came across this image a decade after we took it, and was interested the paradox of manufactured candidness and the power dynamic this implied.