I eagerly click on the bright red notification, but I soon cringe when I see the picture my friend has just tagged of me. My hair is frizzy, my features less than perfect, my frame not as petite as I wish it was. I feel exposed. I quickly hide the photo from my newsfeed, hoping that no one else has had a chance to see the ghastly photo. Not to get all Mulan on you, but as I look at the pixels staring back at me, I don’t feel that they reflect who I truly am, or maybe more accurately, who I wish I was.
Why is it that a lifeless two-dimensional image that doesn’t show thoughts or motives or character has the power to ruin my day? I believe that the answer can be found in my aforementioned knee-jerk reaction to the offending photos: “I don’t feel that they reflect who I truly am, or maybe more accurately, who I wish I was.” The above statement that flows so easily into my consciousness reflects my belief in the lie that I am my picture. That my image equals my identity.
We as a culture are obsessed with taking pictures. Every event is an opportunity for a photo shoot, so we feel the constant pressure to look “our best.” I have some embarrassing personal stories to illustrate this point.
On a beautiful summer day, one of my best friends and I decided to go on a hike in Bar Harbor, Maine. Whereas ten years ago, we might have taken just one shot at the mountaintop, thanks to modern technology, we decided to take pictures at every step of the hike. Now other than breaking up the continuity of the trek, there is inherently no harm in this. After all, the scenery was breathtaking and it’s fun to document your friend adventurously scaling the side of a mountain. There is nothing inherently wrong in the picture taking itself, but the presence of the camera served to reveal lots of ugliness in my heart. After each picture, I found myself thinking thoughts like “I look fat in that picture/that angle was terrible/ahh- I hope she doesn’t put this online!”
My senior year of college, my friends and I continued our annual tradition of greeting the sunrise at a beach near my school. Knowing that my friends were bringing along their cameras, instead of rolling out of bed and throwing on sweatpants at the last minute, I actually got up to do my makeup at 4:40 in the morning.
As embarrassed as I am to share these stories, I suspect that I am not alone. In a culture obsessed with photos, we have learned to define our experiences by how good our photos come out. Instead of fully losing ourselves in the hike or the sunrise, we are burdened by self-consciousness, nagged by the fear of the photos making us seem less than we hope we are. This small-minded thinking leads to loss; instead of collecting memories of scenery and conversation and the essence of the event, we end up relying on pictures to tell us how we feel about the experience after the fact.
Some might cite comparison to others as the main source of fuel to this fire, and although I believe comparison plays a role in our rabid search for the perfect photo, I believe that the issue also stems from wanting to prove something to ourselves. For each person, the thing he or she is trying to prove may be different; beauty, prestige, popularity and prosperity are just a few of the possibilities.
But though the manifestations might vary, at the core of the desire to see perfection in the photo is pride.
A pride that does not acknowledge the honor of being made in the image of God, but decides that his hands were not deft enough.
A pride that is grossly self-conscious, whose eyes are permanently lodged inward.
A pride that ignores the cross, thinking that it can conquer imperfection through self-improvement and self-realization.
As a culture, we have fallen for the lie that we are our pictures. We are too civilized to bow down to golden calves, yet we pay homage to the shrines of our own graven images daily.
Photography in itself is good. It is a beautiful thing to be able to evoke memories of special people and places with a simple click of the mouse. But as we can do to any good thing, we can distort this gift into something that energizes pride, vanity, and inward focus. Fighting this idolatry isn’t as simple as trashing our iPhones; it is at the core a heart issue. We are all sinful, and there is no quick fix for our pride, but perhaps we can start by realizing that the statement “I am my picture” is a lie. We are not our pictures; we are individuals created in the image of God, whose souls cannot be captured by a hastily snapped photos. And tearing our eyes off our own images and onto him is the only way to escape our little 4” by 6” prison cells.