This newsletter is the latest in a series of guest posts from Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and was originally published on the main Library of Congress blog.
You know what no one teaches you how to do? Pose for photos. I know, some of you are like, “We’ve been being told to smile for pictures from the moment we’re born.” And yes, that’s true. But the whole “smile” or “say cheese” thing only takes the top of your forehead to the bottom of your chin into consideration. But what do you do with your hands? What about your shoulders? Should they be rolled back, and if so, will that make you look like a puffy-chested chickenhawk? By the way, there’s nothing wrong with looking like a puffy-chested chickenhawk if that’s what you are. But what if you’re not? And what about knees? Should they be bent, or not? I’ve heard if you lock your knees you’ll pass out, but I’ve been trying since I was six and it’s never happened. Not saying it can’t, or won’t, but let’s just say I’ve been waiting to turn a photo shoot into a monumental moment for 30 long years. (Kids, don’t try this at home, or outside, or anywhere, no matter what your older sibling says.)
The point I’m trying to make is … I don’t like taking photos. That’s all. I find it to be pretty stressful. To me, looking at a photo of myself is like hearing my own voice, strange and ultimately disappointing. Because, in the same way my voice never sounds the same recorded as it does in my head, my eyes, nose and mouth never look as cool in photos as I think they do on my face.
Which brings us to my ambassador photos. Ahem.
By now, you’ve seen them. The tweed blazer, the navy trousers—the professor’s uniform. The chambray shirt to at least make it “cool” professor. That silly smile that looks like I’m saying, Exactly! for no reason at all. The whole, you know, ambassador thing. I’ll admit, it’s not horrible. But, honestly, I don’t recognize myself. It’s like looking at my middle school teachers’ hope of what I’d become, but not at all who I am. I’m a black T-shirt, black jeans kind of guy. A pair of cool sneakers. A necklace or two around my neck. Simple and comfortable, with a tiny touch of flash. Maybe smiling, maybe not.
So, I called my buddy, Dayo, who’s a photographer, and asked if he’d take some new photos of me. Ones that represented who I am. I went to his studio (masked up) in a linen T-shirt that wrinkled in the car (ugh), a pair of jeans and my ambassador medal. Dayo set up a light as bright as the sun (as hot, too!) then pulled out his camera, stood at least six feet back, and got to clicking.
Click, flash! Click, flash! Do your thing. Click, flash. Find your comfort. Click, flash! What does an ambassador look like? Dayo asked, between…click, flash!
After a half an hour, we were done.
A week later, he sent me the photos and when I looked at them, it was so surprising to see myself. As myself. In myself. And in that moment I realized why posed photos have always felt strange to me. Perhaps, posing for pictures feels weird because I don’t live a posed life. Sometimes I want to smile. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I feel like slouching and slumping. Other times I feel like a puffy-chested chickenhawk. And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Who feels like a photo can’t capture a person who’s not … captured. Does that make sense? It does in my head, but you know how your voice never sounds the same when you … never mind.
Either way—and this is the point—when you see me in a photograph, I hope you see me as I see myself. See me as I am. My mother’s son. My daddy’s boy. My brothers’ brother, the middle child. A homeboy to my homies. A knucklehead to my neighbors. A regular guy, in T-shirt and jeans, who just happens to be the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
And when I see you, I’ll see you as more than the subject of a click and a flash. More than a lump of clay, standing awkwardly waiting on someone to tell you to smile. Someone to tell you to be perfect for a picture. Someone to tell you to deny yourself for a memory that won’t even be an authentic memory because of the denial. That’s right, when I see you, I’ll see you as you are.
And if you don’t know what to do with your hands, well, hopefully you’ll feel comfortable enough to put them in mine.