Why do some people hate being photographed?

Or: How to stop worrying and love the camera

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Do you hate being photographed? Every portrait photographer knows some people hate it because they think they don't look good or aren't photogenic. But nobody's perfect, right? So what makes some people strut cocksure while others cower and shrink?

The simple answer is that one person is confident and the other isn't. But this simple explanation has several reasons, and understanding them will help you overcome your own reluctance.

The first reason is deeply personal and is related to ideas of inferiority. Okay, so you may be less attractive than a Hollywood star. Most of us are. But it would be unnecessarily critical if you thought you were nothing special at all.

Such attitudes are widespread, but remember: there is no such thing as average. Every one of us is unique. And to those who love us we are truly special. That is more than a good reason not to feel "average." You are not – like a star – making your picture for millions out there who superficially adore you but don't actually care; you are doing it for those few who really love you. Don’t they deserve to have a quality portrait?

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Second, a professional portrait is rarely about appearance only. It is always about something else, and that something else is exactly what is most valuable – the special expression, the sparkle of your personality, the ephemeral qualities of you which a professional can capture.

The third reason people don't like being photographed is more complex, as it is rooted in culture. In the Christian tradition we are sinful and unworthy. Even if we are not religious, the unconscious impact of the culture is huge. We are taught that modesty is a virtue and vanity is a sin. Our values seem incompatible with feeling attractive and gratifying ourselves with our own portrait.

Humility is taught in many cultures and inherited over generations. The first great Western philosopher of our postmodern age, Friedrich Nietzsche, challenged this. He called it the "slave morality." Teachings of humility, submissiveness and self-contempt are simply incorrect in Nietzsche's view, and that the good life is challenging, creative and risky. To be bold is to be good! We should feel no shame at all in being proud and putting ourselves out there.

The fourth cause of this timidity in front of the lens is this modern obsession we have with "being the best."

Nobody really knows what being the best means, but the word is there chasing us like Hera's gadfly. And the harder we try to be the best, the more we feel that we are not. So why pose for a portrait? People of real achievement do that. I am just an ordinary nurse/teacher/businessman. Who the heck am I?

This notion is similar to the Hollywood star misconception and should be likewise discarded. You don't need to be "the best" to have your portrait made; you only need to be yourself. And yes, this is a thousand times harder than being the best – probably why the whole "be the best" thing came about in the first place – but this is the only thing that is genuine. Just relax, be yourself, and be proud to have a portrait!

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Posing for a portrait can be, and often is, quite a revealing process. You will see and feel things you never have before. You will get one step closer to being yourself.

The final reason for people's discomfort is not so much related to the camera as to its operator. Sometimes people fear they won't enjoy the session.

The solution is both easy and hard: simply find a good photographer – one who can create a good experience. Do your research. Ask your friends. Find someone who is not just technically equipped, but has an understanding of the issues we've discussed. And then relax. Remember, you usually don't have to do much during the session, but it is important that you trust your photographer and follow their instructions. If the two of you click, the chances are high that you will end up having the best portrait of your life.