One of my good friends recently took a job that requires video conferencing. I don’t think there’s enough money to lure me into that circle of hell.While it’s probably unfair to say that I’ve always had an aversion to cameras, for all intents and purposes I’ve always had an aversion to cameras. I can’t exactly call my problem a phobia (I reserve that term for snakes, which are all trying to kill me. It’s true–look it up), it’s not far from that.
For example: During a recent visit to my dentist, the hygienist waved some sort of torture device around inside my mouth for an inordinate time without making any contact with my teeth. At the first opportunity I asked her what she was doing. “Taking pictures of your teeth,” she said.
Now, during my previous visit the same hygienist whipped a digital camera out of a drawer and sent me into a panic. “No pictures!” I nearly screamed. “What are you doing? Why do you need my picture? No pictures!”
“We just like to have them on file for reference,” she explained.
“No! No pictures! If you can’t just clean my teeth I’ll find a dentist who can,” I said.
She sighed and put the camera away. When the dentist entered the room she said, “He refuses to let me take pictures.”
“Oh, okay,” the dentist said. “Just note it in his file so we don’t ask him again.”
But here we were six months later, and she was waving a wand-shaped camera around inside my gaping maw. “Is that a problem? I’m pretty much done,” she said.
Protesting didn’t make much sense, given that she’d almost finished her creepy and unwelcome task. “Just get me out of here,” I said. For the next 45 minutes I stewed while she cleaned my teeth. I considered jumping up and walking out, and I tried to remember locations of other dentists nearby. Mostly I obsessed over the notion that hideous close-ups of my gums and teeth existed on a server somewhere, photos that the dentist and his staff would pick apart. Maybe they’d end up on one of those gross posters promoting dental hygiene. My obsession bordered on panic.
When she was done prodding, gouging, grinding, sanding, buffing, and polishing she leaned the examining chair forward, and there on an LCD screen awaited the photos. I held up my hand to block the screen, and the hygienist said, “Oh, you don’t want to see them?”
“No, I don’t want to see them. I don’t want them to exist. I want them deleted.” I didn’t say this so much as blurt it, as if I was calling 9-1-1 to report an accident.
The dentist walked in at that very moment. “You don’t want us to take pictures?”
The blurting continued. “No, I’ve been very clear about this. You told me that you’d note it in my file. I have OCD, anxiety disorder, and borderline agoraphobia. It’s all I can do to even leave my house just to come here, much less handle cameras. I just want my teeth cleaned. Why can’t you just clean my teeth?”
That’s what I said, but it all came out in one frantic, un-punctuated blurt like this: “No I’ve been very clear about this you told me that you’d note it in my file I have OCD anxiety disorder and borderline agoraphobia it’s all I can do to even leave my house just to come here I can’t handle cameras I just want my teeth cleaned why can’t you just clean my teeth?” I probably said it in bold and uppercase, too.
“So you just want us to tell you in words if we see something?” my dentist asked.
“Yes! Use words! Dentists have used words for years!” The dentist and his assistant looked at me like I was insane.
I think this particular madness started around third grade, when a photo of the cafeteria appeared in my elementary school yearbook. The picture is grainy, black and white, and thanks to the printing process pixelated. At least 100 kids appear in the photo, little dots gathered around long tables, eating mock chicken legs from institutional trays. How one of my friends found me in that photo, mouth stretched wide like a python trying to get a deer down, is beyond me, but there I was. The teasing was relentless. I was so embarrassed that I stopped eating lunch at school, at least until my concerned teacher sent a note home asking if I needed to be on the free lunch program. My parents’ embarrassment at being perceived as poor outweighed my lunch photo humiliation, and I returned to eating in front of people.
But photos, no way. If I couldn’t get out of taking those annual school photos that every kid is subject to, I simply forgot to bring home the form. If my mother somehow managed to order photos anyway, I’d fail to bring home the pictures when they arrived. This was a source of great frustration for my mother, who just wanted a damned picture of her youngest kid, and it remained so for the rest of her life. I never sat willingly for a photo.
While the lunchroom incident may mark the beginning of my photo aversion, it certainly isn’t the only explanation. Self image has a lot to do with it. It’s bad enough I have to walk around with this ugly mug, much less have it captured in perpetuity. I’m bald, big-nosed, and chinless, sort of a mix between Barney Fife and a russet potato only without the latter’s exceptional complexion, comparatively speaking. My eyes droop and my ears are too big.
All of this is multiplied by some sort of supernatural gift for striking exactly the wrong expression at the precise moment that the shutter clicks. Take my picture and my eyes are guaranteed to be half-closed or my mouth frozen in some bizarre rictus. My chin will likely seem burrowed deep between my collar bones, resulting in the appearance of a double chin which hopefully I don’t actually have. In the history of cameras, no person has ever been more capable of taking a hideous photograph. “At least I’m not that poor bastard,” I once overheard the Elephant Man’s bones telling the kid from Mask.
Finally, there’s the issue of soul stealing. I think the superstitious natives were onto something, and we reduced it to “soul stealing” in an effort to make them seem foolish. Photographs don’t capture a moment in time so much as they disrupt memory’s natural process. Memory is naturally blurry and imprecise. It’s a colander that allows the unnecessary, unimportant, and undesirable details fall away, at least in terms of good memories. Those who were there remember Woodstock as three days of peace, love, and music rather than three days of mud, hunger, garbage, bad sound, and backed up chemical toilets. They remember themselves as young and beautiful, not filthy and crooked-toothed, their stringy mustaches and stringier hair undercutting their golden god memories of misspent youth.
Photographic evidence simply disrupts the emotional truth of those memories, or at least it would for me. Pictures are little tyrants who insist that a particular moment in time looked a particular way and included a particular set of details. I don’t like that. I want my memory to degrade the way that nature intended. I wish that I could remember myself as a nine year-old who knew how to open his mouth just enough to jab a forkful of mock chicken leg past his lips, but I can’t thanks to that stupid picture.
So no, no video conferencing jobs for me. Just the idea of it throws me into a slight panic. I still feel guilty about letting my Ma down for all those years, but keeping my ugly face as far away from cameras as possible is really best for all of us. Except maybe snakes. I’m sure they’d like a better idea of who their universal target is.