I Cannot Make You Beautiful

“Make me look skinny!”

I hear it all the time. From brides and grooms. From moms and dads. From random guests who wander up to me at weddings on the off-chance, I suppose, that they wind up in a photograph. “Make me look younger!” they say. “Make me look beautiful!”

I laugh and play along. Sometimes I wave a hand at them, saying, “Don’t be silly! You look great!” Sometimes I tease them. “Who do you want to look like: Angelina or Brad?”

It always feels a little smarmy. It always feels slightly forced. Because in the pit of my stomach a tiny knot forms. I want to say, “No. Stop. Can’t you see how loved you are?”

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A few years ago I photographed a family I’d never met before. They arrived perfectly pressed and cleverly coordinated, the mom, the dad, and a little girl about six years old. They were everything you’d expect to find in a frame you’d buy at Target, all white teeth and unnecessary scarves. But an odd tension wafted off of them from the moment I shook their hands. I couldn’t quite place it until the end of our session, when the dad picked up his daughter for a portrait. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek, and I snapped a few photos. As I lowered my camera, the little girl reached for him again, moving in to kiss his face – spontaneous and sweet. “NO,” he intoned sharply, setting her firmly away from him. “That’s only for pictures.” The mom rolled her eyes and resettled her Hermés bag over a well-toned arm. The little girl’s shoulders sagged and her eyes dropped to the ground.

And their all-American beauty crumbled like a rotting tree. They were thin and wrinkle-free. Their hair was shiny. Their skin was clear. And they were so terribly ugly.

I cannot make you beautiful. But I can tell you what beauty looks like.

Beauty is the mom who throws aside the scarf when it gets in the way of her hugs. Beauty is the dad who swings his cranky toddler in the air rather than scolding. Beauty is the couple so wrapped up in each other, they forget I’m there. Beauty is the family who rolls in the grass, who knows clothes are replaceable, who cherishes the moment over the presentation.

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Cassie and Brendon’s wedding day was a mad scramble. No one was on time. My schedule was shot all to hell. Family and friends flew in and out from the house to the church to the reception, barely a second to breathe, hardly a moment for any semblance of coordinated photography. But everyone was laughing, smiling, hollering joyfully across the house, peeking gleefully through the curtains. Everyone hugged and kissed and high-fived. Cassie’s mom filled an old cough syrup bottle with wine for Cassie to sneak into the church, and they giggled like kids together as Cassie’s dad frantically packed the car and the stylists rushed to paint faces and tweak hair.

I made as many photos as I could in the chaos. At the end of the day, my face hurt from smiling.

Less than two months later, Cassie sent this in an e-mail: “My mom passed away on November 29th from advanced stage cancer. Your pictures captured my mom as she would prefer to be remembered – gorgeous, happy, and dancing.”

I cannot make you beautiful. But I can tell you how to be beautiful.

Hold your loved ones like this may be your last photograph with them. Squeeze your babies against those pounds you keep saying you’ll lose. Wrap your gangly arms around your partner like you’re never letting go. Smile with your entire face. Laugh with all your breath. Kiss with your eyes closed. Say I love you too many times. It will still never be enough.

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In cavernous ballrooms, I photograph people dancing, jumping, spinning; bodies pressed together, fingers intertwined. In shaded parks, I photograph children running, grown-ups breathless, dogs scrambling underfoot. In dim nurseries, I photograph tiny new babies wrapped in handmade blankets, secure in warm arms. From intimate living rooms to wide open spaces, I photograph love and laughter and life. And in every picture lives a story. And in every story we find evidence.

I cannot make you beautiful. You already are.

56 Comments

  1. Thank you Anne. Thank you for putting into words what I hold deeply in my heart. So beautifully expressed tears began to well. x

  2. I’m Cassie’s aunt, her momma’s sister. We as that large, loud family treasure your photographs of Sara( indeed, the whole wedding) as Sara’s last great evening with all of us and her multitude of friends. You captured so many special moments of her and her family. What a lovely tribute you have written.

  3. Anne you are so amazing not a lot brings a tear to my eye anymore but this did I may only be the father in law but you make me the proudest father in the world we are so blessed to have you in our lives and my son is truly blessed as i said at your wedding God only sends so many Angels down to earth for us to love and you my dear surely are one I love you more than i can say or ever show never change a thing. Signed Dad

  4. Truth captured beautifully. Thank you for sharing, going to pass this along to all my clients, friends and loved ones.

  5. Positively perfect. Great great post! While I am sometimes guilty of this, I could not have said it better myself. Both as a photographer and a mother. <3 Definitely sharing this…

  6. Love this! You’ve hit the old nail on the head right here :)

  7. I really enjoyed reading your post. I completely agree! I could go on and on about how I feel the same as you (I actually wrote about it once myself) but I won’t. What I will say is that you are right and it’s great you are sharing!

  8. This is wonderful. Thank you for writing it.

  9. Wow. That really got the tears a’flowin.
    I’m a photographer who feels the exact same way. I hope it’s ok to share on my wall…and I’ll definitely quote you.
    Thank you for speaking it so true.
    :)

  10. I LOVE this! I am constantly telling my clients “no” to their request of “make me look younger.” I jokingly remind then they have earn every grey hair and wrinkle. I recently had a similar situation when a family member passed and it was me who had taken their last photo…so humbling. It was an honor to capture that memory.

  11. This was such a beautiful piece of art here. Thank you so much for opening my heart tonight. Your work is a gift and your perspective makes it sing.

  12. I loved this… every word… so much so I read it twice. <3
    Thank you for sharing your heart!

  13. Thank you so much for writing this! “Squeeze your babies against those pounds you keep saying you’ll lose.” I had just been feeling depressed about the weight I haven’t lost after baby #2. Every time my husband says “you’re beautiful” it hurts because I don’t believe him. After all, I don’t look the way I used to when I was a 20 year old size 4. But then my littlest one ran up and squeezed his little arms around my neck, smooshing his face against mine, rubbing off the leftovers of lunch. If my amazing, beautiful family says I’m pretty, then dammit I am! I see this so much in my clients that I didn’t realize I was doing the same thing to myself. So thank you. Here’s to a New Year of being truly beautiful! :)

  14. Anne, your words really resonated with me, because I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been behind the camera wishing my clients could see just how perfectly imperfect they really are, and I’ve been the mom who hides from the camera because two kids and seven years later, I’m still carrying around that extra baby weight that didn’t just stick around but somehow multiplied. :) A wonderful, share-worthy reminder at a time of year when many of us are reflecting, planning, and re-prioritizing!

  15. love your blog! This one has brought me back to the focus of why I started shooting. Thanks for putting it back into perspective for me. I was moved to tears.

  16. Thank you. A photographer friend c posted to read this. I did. I cried. I remembered. August 19, 2006. In all the rush of the wedding I forgot to ask the photographer to capture a photo of my daughter, the bride, with her “other grandparents” who she hadn’t seen in a long time who had driven a long ways to attend the wedding. He was I’ll and died two weeks later. How I wish I had remembered…..of all the photos…..!!!!

    • I meant to say that her grandfather was very sick and he died two weeks later. A lost photo that can never be recaptured!

  17. Pingback: Be Beautiful
  18. Wow… Well said, you should be a writer as well as a photographer.

  19. Oh my gawd!! You’ve said everything I always want to say when I hear the phrase, “Ooh, can you photoshop this out?” but you’ve put it so much more beautifully than I could ever manage. I’m off to go and share this right now. EVERYONE needs to read this xxx

  20. Beautifully Written……………. so true…….

  21. I love this so much. So well said. I want to read this every day! (This is one of the first comments I’ve ever left on a random post I come across.) Thankful this found me tonight. :)

  22. I’ve had moments with clients like the father at the beginning of this post…moments that have almost made me reserve time behind my camera for those that I hold dearest. Moments that have almost sent me scrambling for another day job. Then I have those moments like the cough syrup bottle full of wine, moments with people who know the value of each precious second we have here together and don’t want to squander any of it. And I come alive with them. And together we make images they will cherish for the rest of their days and it’s all so perfectly worth it. This. I wish all of my potential clients could read this. I wish all of the world could know this… it’s the reason I started photographing, it’s the reason I blog and it’s my passion in life… to show people how beautiful they already are… to capture a snippet in time, hold it up and say “See this here? look. Life is so beautiful and so are you.” It’s all so perfectly perfect in it’s messy imperfection and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I make images to celebrate the beauty that too many of us, far too often, let pass by unnoticed. Thank you for this piece. And thank you for your beautiful soul that you so freely share here…. for the wisdom you offer and the beauty you capture with both images and words.

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