Seeing ourselves as others see us

Posted by in September's Magazine

My seventeen month-old already understands that if someone points a camera or phone at her it results in her image appearing on a screen. She delights in looking at the pictures and films, fascinated with the sight of herself. I’m painfully aware that this won’t last, this blissfully ignorant time when Grace’s confidence isn’t sullied by the media and other opinions of what constitutes a beautiful body or face.

I can’t bear having my picture taken. When I look at photos of myself I invariably hate what I see. What is it about seeing ourselves in photographs that is so distorted? I don’t want this self-criticism to rub off on my daughter.


As a result there aren’t many photographs of me, much fewer those I like. And the paradox is that despite hating having my picture taken, this saddens me. It’s something that resonates with portrait photographer Amelia Jacobsen. “I want women to exist in photographs. One day their children will look for photos of their mothers and what will they have? It’s so important to have a record of who you are, not just in smartphone photos but properly taken images that capture you throughout the different stages of your life. Not only to show you how beautiful you are, but for your children and future generations to know you and remember you.”

It’s true that in the age of smartphones and the security of an Insta-filter, we probably take more photos in a week than older generations took in a lifetime. But maybe there’s something to be said for having a professional shot taken, at least once, to guarantee a good result?

From her studio in Giles Street, Amelia photographs women of all ages and walks of life. “We are constantly bombarded by messages to be and look a certain way. But what is beautiful? I want women to love themselves as they are now, to celebrate themselves for who they are.”

“My clients choose to be photographed for many different reasons. Some want to celebrate their relationship with their mother or their own children, some want to record a moment with a sister or friend. Others want to record a milestone, whether that’s giving birth to their first child or a personal battle like overcoming illness. Some do it simply to own to beautiful portrait. We can never relive a moment, and as time moves on memories fade. A photograph is a way to capture a moment in time and that’s a profound thing.”

“I’ve been a professional photographer for over seven years. I’ve worked in the film and television industry, I’ve worked for newspapers, and I’ve photographed well-known people from the New Zealand Prime Minister to the All Blacks. But it was the real people I photographed who really inspired me, and hearing their stories. I learned that through the power of photography you have the ability to affect someone’s life.”

So what about my fear and loathing? When someone points a phone at me I don’t know where to put myself, so the thought of staring down a professional lens terrified me. But in the approach to my day in front of the camera we exchanged emails in which I was honest about my reservations, and Amelia put me at ease. “I have been the person who doesn’t feel good enough or pretty enough. But we never really see ourselves as others see us. We focus on what we don’t have rather than what we do. I want to show women what other people see, I want to highlight the best of themselves. When I photograph a woman and she loves the results, I see it contributing to her confidence and it’s great to watch that happen, to see how something as simple as a photograph can affect them.”

The studio is bright and cheerful, and the photographs are shot in the natural light provided by a huge window. Hair and makeup artist Julie McGuire, as well as working in film, TV and print media, also runs Beehive (based in The Drill Hall) where those-in-the-know visit her for private appointments. When it came to my close-up, I was guided by Amelia on how to stand, to sit, where to put my arms and hands, how to hold my head. And rather than freeze or feel self-conscious, I enjoyed it. She also took pictures of me with my daughter which I particularly love because they show us interacting with one another, rather than both grinning in an awkwardly taken selfie. If I wanted my individual portraits to show me as a woman in my own right, those of me with Grace show the bond of a mother and her life’s biggest love. Far from being the stressful ordeal I was terrified of, being photographed was a liberating experience that made me think differently about the way other people see me. And when my great-grandchildren want to know who I was, they’ll only have to look.

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