Everyone is Photogenic

Hi there.
You are beautiful. Hopefully you know that.

Through the course of my work, I have created over a million pictures, mostly portraits. I have photographed thousands of individuals from all sorts of backgrounds in varying circumstances. Whether they are making decisions in boardrooms, organizing protests in the streets, celebrating at a wedding, performing surgeries in the operating room, teaching in the classroom, standing in the spotlight or laboring behind the scenes, I've found them all to be amazingly beautiful.

And yet, I keep on running into people who tell me "I'm not photogenic."

I find myself repeating the same thing over and over in response to these statements, so I figured that I'd write it down. Consider this my little manifesto on the idea of "photogenicity" - next time that you hear someone say that they aren't photogenic, you can just send them this link.

The word "photogenic"

First of all, let's talk about the idea of using this word "photogenic" to describe a person.

My dictionary gives the following definitions: photogenic |ˌfōtəˈjenik| - adjective
1 (esp. of a person) looking attractive in photographs or on film : a photogenic child.
2 Biology (of an organism or tissue) producing or emitting light.

Setting aside bioluminescence, I've got a big problem with using this word especially to refer to a person.
Proper use of the term "photogenic" refers to scenes or moments.

There are plenty of scenes that are easier to photograph in than others. If you've got the right lighting and a complimentary background, any photo taken in that context will already look pretty decent. A photogenic scene may be a certain landscape at a certain time of day in a particular season with just the right type of cloud cover. Another photogenic scene might be a particular outfit in front of a particular wall, in a nice patch of light. It's a photographer's job to recognize or create photogenic scenes.

When a person's eyes light up in true heartfelt joy, now that's a photogenic moment. They can be hard to catch. Again, that's the photographer's responsibility, and if they miss it, that has nothing to do with the person being photographed.

Even if we're accepting this idea of using the word "photogenic" to describe people- then it must be obvious that we're *all* photogenic, because you can take an attractive portrait of anyone.

Photographing people

It's true that there are particular challenges in getting good results while photographing people. Much like with any other subject, the picture needs to be well lit and well composed. You may need to pay attention to your shutter speeds and apertures, contrast ratios and depth of field and countless other variables- but light and composition are the main things in most photographs.

With human subjects however, you've got these extra variables that you need to factor in: comfort, emotion and timing.

The beauty in people is there all the time even when a camera's not around. People are beautiful when they're finding joy in life, being kind to others, and enjoying themselves. Of course the photo will be stronger if you've nailed the lighting, composition, focus etc... but people look beautiful in pictures if they are comfortable and happy, and if you've caught them at just the right moment. That's all there is to it. It's certainly tricky to catch real emotion in a photograph. And it's a lot harder if your subject isn't comfortable. But those are challenges for the photographer to deal with, not the subject.

If you're photographing babies, they'll let you know right away if they're uncomfortable - but as we age, we start to be trained to pose for photographs, and we try to hide our discomfort behind our best fake smile. We sometimes tolerate being photographed because a situation dictates it, but it's not always a pleasant situation. The truth of it is that being photographed (or photographing someone) is far from a natural social interaction. Instead of seeing eye to eye, one of us has a big hunk of metal in front of her/his face. Instead of normal personal space relationships, the photographer's compositional choices may dictate that s/he be strangely close, or far, or coming from an unusual angle. Let's be honest, this kind of interaction can be downright weird for most people. It can result in discomfort, which then leads to worse portraits.

The "secret" to looking good in pictures

You already look great. If you want to know how to look good in pictures, here's the trick: Don't stress out about it. Make sure you're having fun. And of course, have a good photographer around. Let's be clear about this: If they want to create good pictures, it's the photographer's responsibility to make sure you're comfortable with the process, not yours. Just like it's their job to pay attention to lighting and composition. And if someone takes a pile of hideous pictures of you, it simply means that they're not a particularly gifted portrait photographer; it has absolutely nothing to do with you.

The "unphotogenic" cycle

It's important to remember that the quality of the photograph reflects on the photographer, not the subject, because frequently people can get stuck in a nasty cycle of bad photos. If someone sees some bad photos of themselves, they tend to take it as a judgement on their own appearance or self worth. They start to think of themselves as "unphotogenic"... and when a camera next comes around, they are fearful of more bad photos, and therefore less comfortable around the camera... This self-fulfilling fear makes for more bad photos, and a spiral of discomfort that results in a person who is no-less beautiful, but a whole lot less comfortable around cameras.

The people who are the most comfortable in front of cameras are actors, models and celebrities who are used to being in front of an audience all the time. Even though our society idealizes them, it's important to remember that their situation is the strange exception, not the rule. It's perfectly normal and healthy to be uncomfortable in front of a camera. What isn't healthy is the fact that we are taught to be more concerned with our appearance than with our actions.

The "Beauty-Industrial Complex"

There are big industries built around reinforcing this idea that some people are "photogenic." They promote insecurities and then sell you things to try to make up for it, or sell you stories about other people who are somehow more important or better than you.

When you next see a model on the cover of a magazine, remember that someone spent a lot of money to create that image; outside of the frame there's a team of assistants, stylists, and specialized lighting equipment. The background has been specially arranged and the image is probably heavily photoshopped. They may have created a photogenic scene in the studio, and put that model in there... but that in no way means that that person is more photogenic than you are.

As big corporations have tried to reach larger audiences through mass media, the content that they sell us has become dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. It's all pop-stars and cheap distractions, because that's the easiest way for them to make money. But the most important and relevant stories are happening in your own community. Just take a moment to shake loose that filter that society has conditioned you with and take a good look around; you'll find that all around you are wonderful, amazing, beautiful people doing incredible, fascinating things to make the world a better place. Just take a moment to appreciate it.

This is important:

Next time you catch someone describing themselves as "unphotogenic" - take a moment to remind them that the whole idea of "some people" as "photogenic" is just a harmful construct. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves. And remind others.

So remember this: Right now, with that little hint of a smile on your face, I think you're the cutest.

be well,

—jj
PS To hear about work inspired by this philosophy,
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  • PPS If this idea resonates with you, please share it widely.
    This has implications beyond just pictures; it's about attitude and way of life. Remember to appreciate your own beauty, and that of those around you, and bring that light into everything that you do.
  • PPPS Reload the page for a few more beautiful faces…