A recent visit to an old friend's house was going smoothly; we'd got past the initial probing questions, everyone had inquired about everyone's work. As the chat settled into a natural rhythm, I was drawn to a series of framed photos on the wall.
My friends (possibly former friends, after this column), had done the unthinkable: paid for professional couple photos. The first photo saw them strolling on the train tracks, lazily holding hands. In the next one, they're laying on the beach, dramatically gazing out at the ocean, as if searching for their dignity.
Twist the knife
Unable to resist the temptation, I interrupted the conversation to express how blown away I was by these photos: "What a great idea, such a nice souvenir for you two! Are there any more?"
Sensing my sarcasm, Kate silently scolded me across the room, but they were oblivious.
"Yes, it was so much fun! Of course, there are more. Would we like to see them?'
Zomg yes! On the drive home, Kate warned me this would backfire, while I wondered if it was too late to phase them out of our lives. And then, not for the first time and definitely not for the last time, Kate was annoyingly proven right.
Hold that pose
Two weeks later, our friends sent us a belated engagement present. Having confused my faux-enthusiasm for genuine interest, they had 'gifted' (burdened) us with a ninety-minute session of our own. The photographer had been booked and paid for; we simply needed to liaise with him about where and when we'd like to surrender our self-respect.
"You couldn't help yourself, could you?" said Kate, who desperately wanted to feel smug but was too weighed down by concern. "So, now what?"
I laughed it off, knowing there was zero chance I was going to pose for a guy who had recently completed an eight week TAFE course in photography.
But then the check-in texts started.
"Hey guys, just checking in, have you booked yet?
"Oh really, why not?"
Keeping up with the Wilsons
I think my fear of the staged photo stems from PTSD relating an odd family we knew growing up. The Wilsons lived around the corner from us, and everything about them felt forced.
They only ever addressed each other formally – "Hello Mother, Hello Brother!" It was straight out of a horror movie. As if that wasn't terrifying enough, the entire house was covered in professional photos. The Wilsons posing on the steps in matching polos. The Wilsons laughing under an oak tree.
My mum always envied them because everything they did was perfect. "Why can't you be more like Wilson kids?" was a question that plagued our childhood.
They spoke two languages, we spoke in grunts. They picked up after themselves, we picked our scabs and watched them bleed. They had the perfect family photo; ours was slightly off – a thumb obscuring the lens, one of us looking the wrong way.
Perfection in flaws
But to me, that's what made us real, and the Wilsons weird. These photos aim to manufacture perfection, where it does not exist.
In his book, Burning Down The House, American novelist Charles Baxter writes, "When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story." That's precisely how I felt about the Wilsons. For all their practised smiles, I always got the sense they were planning the next Jonestown.
I'm willing to bet that Venn diagram intersection between people who get professional portraits taken and people who imagine what it's like to take a life is significant, and I want no part in it.
Sunny side up
And yet it seems out of my control, this morning I received another message.
"Hey mate, have you booked in your shoot!? Perfect timing with this warmer weather!"
Oh yes, great news, the mercury is rising, I can't wait to see my sweaty rig captured in high definition.
Light's, camera, get it over with
Kate is much nicer than me, which means she will fold soon, and I'll find myself on a windy beach, in a stiff button-up shirt, while a photographer instructs me to relax my face.
The worst part is that once we get the shots back, Kate will convince me they're not that bad and frame the one she likes the most (looks the best in). Every day I'll be taunted by our sepia-toned smiles, constant proof that I'm one of those people now.
With defeat on the horizon, I begrudgingly visit the photographer's website to check out his package options. Listed under 'most popular' is the abandoned train tracks setting, but I think we'll opt for the black-and-white beach vibe. At least that way there's a small chance we'll be washed away.
After continually being told to "use his words" as a young boy, Thomas Mitchell took that advice on board and never looked back. Since then his words appeared all over the place, including in the Sydney Morning Herald, Time Out, The Huffington Post and GQ. Thomas spends his days observing the unique behaviour of the Australian male, while trying not to overstay his welcome at the local cafe.
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