How Understanding Are We?

For the last 30 years, I have turned away from photos. When the cameras come out, I back away. It’s part of a deeply held conviction that we are not our bodies, that our values, and beliefs, the “who we are” show up in our actions and that who we are can’t be photographed, but must be experienced. It’s not an easy

Full moon rising behind palm tree

concept to explain, so often I just offer to take the photograph. It’s not made any easier by the fact that I cannot recognize people in photographs. I just don’t see people the way a camera does. In the 587 photos on my camera, there are two that have people in them. Someone asked me to take them.

Another one of my deeply held convictions is not to proselytize my beliefs. I know many religions encourage proselytizing, but I do not. Seeking is a difficult, personal, spiritual quest that is not mine to foist on others.  I’ll be happy to discuss what I think, but I do not expect others to “see the light” shining in the same slant as I do.

I have also distanced myself from a lot of our culture of celebrity and ideas of success. Oddly enough, if a publicity agent showed up at my door with a magic wand and said, “I can get you on every TV chat show, on the cover of People and in every version of TMZ!” I’d turn him down. Or at least ask him if he would get the causes I’m interested publicized without me appearing in the photos.

All this is about to collide with my book signings and events. My book does not have an photo of me in it. That was my choice. My website doesn’t have a photo of me on it. What do I do when people reach for their cameras? In the last 30 years, I have had some pretty tough things said to me when I refused to appear in a photo. People want what they want. When they don’t get it, the response is frequently not “Of course I’ll respect your beliefs,” but more often, “What’s wrong with you?” If I act out of the norm of  our photo-loving culture, it will have a damaging effect on my book sales.

I’ve been wondering how to handle it for several months now, and haven’t come up with a good way to handle not just the requests, but the automatic reaching for cameras and resulting Facebook and YouTube posts. How understanding can I ask an audience to be? How much do I have to keep my beliefs hidden? I have about two weeks to think of what I want to do.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and author of Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art.

25 thoughts on “How Understanding Are We?

  1. Hi Quinn,
    I had a thought this morning about your dilemma.
    Perhaps it would be more acceptable to you to have an abstract self-portrait printed on a calling card/business card. Then if someone wants a photo, you could hand them a card and say you prefer they have one of these instead. (Or, if you know a crack line drawing artist they could do a quick sketch of you in trade for a book?)
    I’m not sure if that would be any different than a photo to you, but it could act as a distraction.
    I also like the hat idea someone else proposed!
    Take care.
    Vicky F

    • thanks, Vicky, that’s an original and raw art idea! People who take photos at book signings take them to prove they were there with the author. But I’ll face it when it happens.

  2. Quinn, I work in costuming and would suggest a hat with veil if you want to stand out from the crowd AND not have your face photographed – could look very classy. Or like an Imperial Hapsburg widow if you go for black!

  3. Quinn I believe that it is only human to want to see a face behind something so nice as your book. I am also terrible with names but I remember faces.
    My suggestion is let people take some pictures if they want to. Meeting you and seeing you will part of their future memories.

    And another thing, you let us hear your voice with your videos and I think that you really have a nice energetic voice, which is also part of the package so to speak 😉 .

    • I’m learning how to add voice to videos on a separate track, Marianne. It’s a steep learning curve for me, but I’m fine with my voice. The thing about “letting people take photos” is that it goes against my deeply held beliefs. What if someone said to you, “Let someone kick your dog, as they get pleasure out of it.” You’d refuse on the grounds that it hurts the dog. It hurts my beliefs to be photographed. And yet, I understand people don’t mean harm. Well, most of them. That’s why it’s such a struggle for me. Betray my beliefs or keep people happy? It’s a struggle to know the best thing to do.

      • Would it be an idea for you to tell us some day how you ‘see’or perceive people..?
        I know that we are more than our bodies but we live in our bodies and maybe for a reason. Through our dna for example we can trace our family and ancestors.

        • It’s hard to describe, because I don’t really know how everyone else sees people, but, here is a rough idea: Many years ago, I worked with a wonderful woman whose name was Carol. She was kind and generous, and a colleague at work. I was relatively new to the job, although I had worked for the company for a while. Carol had been promoted from secretary up the ranks and knew the workings of the company better than I did. She taught me the ropes, she helped me, she laughed with me. Carol was 12 years older than I was, and had been a smoker for years. I thought she was beautiful, vibrant, elegant. One day I saw a picture of an older woman, with the wrinkled skin typical of years of smoking. I didn’t recognize the person, and asked Carol who it was. It was, of course, Carol herself. I had not noticed her wrinkles, or her age, or the circles under her eyes. I looked from the picture of the older, tired woman into the face of the vibrant Carol I knew and could not reconcile the two. The only similarities I saw was the pearl necklace. That’s the best experience I can give.

  4. Tell them that you are member of an extremely obscure tribe and believe that if they take your picture they’ll be stealing your soul. Say it with a smile and they might just leave you alone because they won’t know if you are truly serious or just joking.
    On the other hand, I can understand why some people want photos of the people they meet or like. I have a great memory for faces but not for names and it helps me remember who someone is if I see them again outside the context of the first meeting. The more important reason for me is that my husband’s best friend was anti-photo and was killed in a car accident almost twenty-five years ago. He used to tease me unmercifully and I really miss his face: I’d love to have a picture of him to make me smile on bad days, but he never let anyone photograph him. Sigh.
    But it’s YOUR face. You get to choose whether to share it or not!

    • Actually, when I ask people not to photograph, they go for the “steal you soul” line, tell me I’m not Native American and click away. I can understand why people want photos–people posing in front of monuments, with friends, are the most popular shots of vacations. I can get that they want proof they were with someone they like. I am just hoping not to make it a power struggle. I don’t want to have to be in the position to make someone feel wrong so I can retain my deeply-held beliefs.

  5. When people ask for a photograph, they want to establish a connection or capture a moment in time to hold as a treasured memory. If it is too much to satisfy this request, what can be used as a substitute? Perhaps a “commemorative” bookmark or other small, personalized item would work.

    Have you considered that once you ask people NOT to take your photograph, they may use cell phones to sneak photos, just because they have been asked not to. Would it be helpful to offer a few sentence explanation so people will resist this urge and respect your request?

    In these days where privacy appears to be disappearing, this is quite a challenging problem.

    • Well, I’ve got the commemorative bookmark, I’ve got the giant pencil that stands in for me all ready. But yes, there are always people who find it very clever to sneak photos after you have requested that it not happen. Sometimes they have to tell you to prove they have power over you, sometimes they don’t tell you, but feel somehow victorious. I’ve seen people do this with a big camera, too.

  6. I would think you have enough to think about without this additional worry you have put on yourself. I take a photo to remind me of a time, an event, a person but not just the image taken at that specific time. I love to look back on photos as it helps me to remember things that I have put aside to make room for new ones (especially as we get older). Good Luck, hope it doesn’t weigh you down too much. Anne

  7. I totally understand where you are coming from! Like you, I use an avatar on-line and run from cameras in real life – its not my thing. Can I suggest in addition to large 60s film star glasses, a wig, or large floppy hat with a big yellow pencil through the band? There should be enough people there at your signings to be able to keep your head moving so taking candid shots is almost impossible, and your face should be shadowed enough that if you have to pose for the local media, no-one is going to be able to make out your facial features. A good dose of hayfever at strategic moments, with a man’s hanky could help too! Think Dolly Parton! Who knows what she really looks like?
    Otherwise its a case of grin and bear it, intrusive as it is and awful as it seems to give in to other peoples demands for a bit of you. Photo-taking is not the same as standing in front of a group of people giving a lecture, or running a workshop, but when you enter the public spotlight, privacy flies straight out the window. I’m sure you will come up with something neat that says you without showing your personal face and will keep most people happy.

    • Oh, Caroline, I can just see me in a big floppy hat, wig and glasses! It makes me laugh every time I think of it. And not to be improper, but I think a lot more people were distracted by other features of Doly Parton than her face. As it were.

  8. hey quinn: you are who you are – weird/wonderful, different/unique – it’s all in the way you look at it! think of it as a wonderfully unique part of your personality. you prefer your fans/stalkers (lol!) to create their own picture of you in their heads and hearts, not to engage in a rigid representation of you that will not continue to take on a life of its own (the way a living breathing relationship does). i find when i say something that throws people off, the best way to bridge the awkwardness is to smile sweetly and turn their attention onto some other topic. in your case that might be talking about photos of places you’ve been on the tour or perhaps you can offer a photo of something that has meaning to you to anyone asking for a photo of you… just a thought. wishing you a wonderfully unique book tour. vicki 🙂

    • A wonderful fan gave me a big yellow pencil–it’s at least a yard long! I could bring it and, since it is the image I use as a logo, people can have it in the photo! You are absolutely right, by the way.

  9. Oh this is a tough one. I looked up the word “proselytizing.” It made me smile because as I read your post I was thinking about how when we admire people we want them to love the things we love.

    People have a sense of intimacy with bloggers and writers because they really believe they “know” us even though they’ve never met us.

    You predicament makes me think of people who aren’t huggers and how if somebody comes busting in for an embrace they might quickly thrust out a hand for a shake.

    Quinn we all are what we are. Your predicament exists because it goes against mainstream norms and that makes it kind of quirky and cool. Like how Van Halen wouldn’t eat any brown M&Ms when they were on tour. It’s kind of awesomely “rock star” when you think about it!

    In addition to a sign on your table, maybe some of us bloggers could raise awareness about this kind of thing. I have a girlfriend whose husband refused to be in photos. Maybe there’s a name for this belief, and maybe we can just talk about it so that we can learn how to respect one another’s wishes and all live together in harmony!!

    • You are SO encouraging. And I had an idea–I could say, “I don’t do photos, but I give great hugs!” That would show what I AM willing to do as well as what I’m not willing to do without making me seem weird and different. Because for me, refusal doesn’t seem rock-star cool, it feels awkward.

  10. I neither have a pic of myself anywhere on the web for personal reasons. I don’t have to justify my reasons but simply ask for my reasoning to be respected. An unobtrusive sign posted on your book signing table requesting no photos perhaps could be the answer. A pair of dark sunglasses would net any unasked photo taking a poor picture of obscurity also. Let us know how you make out.

    • Good suggestions–I like the sign, but it’s going have to be obtrusive–unobtrusive equals, “Oh, I didn’t see the sign!” I laughed at dark glasses–I can see me looking like a Blues Brother! Thanks for the suggestions, I”m getting the idea it’s OK to put this out there.

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