Pattern & Decoration

August 10, 2020 / Annie Lyons

In the throes of my middle school angst, I couldn’t have imagined a greater torture than getting my yearbook photo taken.

It was peak awkward adolescence, and my braces, complete with rubber bands, didn’t help. 13-year-old me faced yearbook photo day with trepidation. I prepared to stunt in my favorite outfit: a pale pink American Eagle crop top layered on top of a scarlet camisole (yes, I know — it was a rough time). But as the photographer preened and prodded how I posed until I felt like a piece of clay, that initial anxiety deepened. I knew I wasn’t going to like the final product, but I felt helpless to change it.


When the glossy yearbooks arrived, I scrawled all over my picture with a green pen — not enough to obscure my face completely, but enough for my mom to get mad at why I would ruin my yearbook.

There was an intricate ritual behind taking photos in my childhood. Yearbook photos, Christmas card photos, family photos to be framed on the wall — each occasion called for dressing to impress and carefully arranging poses to get that one perfect shot. But it’s that purpose and meticulousness that made them noteworthy. There’s a difference between having someone take your photo and getting your photo taken. As unnatural as the latter felt, that spectacle was as memorable as the photo itself.

With the exception of a stray headshot, I rarely have a reason to get my photo taken in an official setting anymore. Even when a friend generously takes dozens of photos at a function to ensure one winner, I still can’t shake that unnerving discrepancy between how the camera perceives me and how I perceive myself.

Enter the smartphone self-timer. With its power at my fingertips, I can transform any moment into an elaborate photo shoot where I’m the photographer and the subject all at once. There’s no strange man sitting behind the camera telling me which way to turn and how to smile. I’m the one behind the lens. I adjust and readjust myself on my terms.

While studying abroad in France last fall, I discovered strangers don’t make trustworthy photographers. Each tentative “Excusez-moi … pouvez-vous prendre une photo de nous, s’il vous plaît?” brought a new horror: shaky hands, abysmal angles, and inexperienced Android users.

I’ve never been one of those people who could pretend to be unaware of the camera’s presence with that casual oh-I-didn’t-see-you-there nonchalance. The camera feels too watchful to ignore, as evidenced by the stiff deer-in-the-headlights terror of my yearbook and school ID photos.

But a good self-timer moment takes that self-awareness and revels in it. There’s no illusion that these are spur-of-the-moment candids. The camera goes from an overlord to a companion giving me a coy wink, liberating me to play it up with dramatic gazes and “Charlie’s Angels” finger guns.

I took self-timer photos that semester at what seems like a veritable checklist of Western European monuments, from the Eiffel Tower to a bike-covered canal bridge in Amsterdam. None of the resulting off-center, low-angled pictures belong in the Louvre (although we took some there too). They’re all imperfect photos at picture-perfect places. But the memories attached are the opposite. I see myself in these photos the way I want to see myself, laughing with my friends and not caring about the amused looks from passersby.

When I look at my eighth-grade yearbook photo now, I’m struck by how off it looks. This girl has my freckles, my braces, my clothes, but she looks uncomfortable in her own skin. I perform for the self-timer, but the results are more authentic snapshots than any precisely composed portrait.


This winter, I visited a close friend in San Antonio a few weeks before she moved out of the country. After a few happy hour drinks, we decided to walk to the Alamo. One whispered “Remember the Alamo” later, and I knew we had to commemorate the night, quickly propping up my phone in a now-familiar set-up. We got to work posing: playing with our sunglasses, dropping squats, flipping hair, laughing at the sheer ridiculousness. A well-meaning lady came up to us. “Would you like me to take a photo of y’all?” We smiled and politely said no. We had it covered. Click. ■

Story by
Annie Lyons.

Layout Xandria Hernandez.

Leah Blom.

Gigi Feingold & Sage Walker.

Amber Bray & Jane Lee.

Alex Garcia, Sophia Santos, & Veronica Rasmussen.

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.
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