At a wedding last year, I was playing giant Jenga with some friends. A photographer, capturing images of the happy reception, came upon our game. Snapping away from different angles, he encouraged me to stop smiling.
This is the first time in my life a man has asked me to stop smiling.
I was caught by complete surprise by his request. Yes, I’d been aware there was a photographer. A secret of photogenic people (of which I not-so-humbly include myself) is that we’re usually aware of the camera in the room. At the same time, sipping on my second drink of the evening and hanging out with friends, it had never occurred to me that my smiling seemed unnatural. I was having fun!
The problem wasn’t my smile. It was the image the photographer wanted to capture—an image that didn’t exist except in his mind. He envisioned us studiously glowering at the wobbling tower, maybe jumping back as the bricks tumbled around us. He envisioned the sunset on the lake behind us, an idyllic contrast to our tense competition.
But that wasn’t the image before him.
One of my favorite pictures from a recent trip to Europe is a panorama I took at Pompeii. Near the entrance, with crowds of people, I took a picture of the vastness of the location and the crowds. Looking at it later, smack-dab in the middle, is a lone tourist with a selfie stick. Suddenly my picture wasn’t just a picture of a historic place with some tourists. It had life and humor. The majority of my photos from Pompeii are empty streets, empty houses, weeds growing in cracks between ashen walls. Some are truly gorgeous and interesting, but they don’t capture my experience at Pompeii. Trying to cut the clutter from photographs, you sometimes miss the important aspects that root the photograph in reality, that make it interesting.
My photos of the Sagrada Familia church are all close ups. I hadn’t yet learned that perfect photos sometimes have noise. My close ups weren’t intentional examinations of the fascinating architecture. I zoomed in to remove the other tourists from the photo. To remove the construction equipment and the incongruous architecture of surrounding buildings. All three of those elements are essential to understanding the wonder and interest of Sagrada Familia. They contribute to the public’s continued fascination with this piece of Gaudi architecture.
As photography, so does life. The life you want isn’t always the life you get. But if you put blinders on, looking for that perfect image you have in your head, you can miss the actually wonderful one around you. That’s not to say that you should give up on your dreams! Just like a photographer finds different perspective by finding a new angle to shoot his photograph, there may be another way to view what you want that shows you it’s right in front of you.