From Behind the Lens: When We See Ourselves in Photos


By Clint Thayer

Photo by Monty Montgomery

It happens at almost every race.

A tired participant makes his or her way to the Focal Flame same day event sales booth.  I or one of our staff members help search for their photo. Within seconds of their image flashing on the screen, they exclaim loudly, “I look horrible in that photo!”

Then - regardless if the race that day involved bikes or not - the athlete starts back-pedaling. 

“I mean, I just never like photos of myself…”

We stand there a moment. Side by side - photographer and subject -  trying to reconcile our often drastically different impressions of a photo.

As a photographer, I instantly look for technical details that might be distracting from the quality of the image. Lighting, background, focus. These are issues often within my control. By looking at literally thousands of photos of a single event, I learn what to do differently next time.

What’s not under my control is an individual’s gut reaction to a photo of him- or herself. Sometimes deeper issues like self-confidence and concerns about self-image often come into play.

At a very human level, I can relate. For me, it’s a mental perception. Despite the fact that I’m quickly approaching my forties, I carry about an image of "twenty-something me." When I look at a photo of myself today, I don’t see the person I think I am.  I think I’ll see a smiling college kid with a lifetime ahead of him. The Clint looking back from the photo resembles a man moving quickly towards middle age.  Quite often, it takes me by surprise.

Some hypothesize scientifically as to why we don’t like photos of ourselves. Photographer Duncan Davidson claims we reject our image in a photo because it doesn’t correlate to the image we see in the mirror daily. Perhaps.

Some organizations are working hard to alter our views of self. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty encourages women to have confidence and feel comfortable with themselves.  Girls on the Run, a program to which we've provided event photography services and in which I’m proud to have a daughter participating with this fall, encourages the formation of a healthy self-image in pre-teen girls. I appreciate the efforts of these and similar organizations a great deal.

But some days, when I'm standing next to an exhausted race participant who's trained for months, sacrificed much, and just completed a grueling athletic event, I just want to say something like this: 

"That image of you, in that moment, digging deep as you cross the finish line? That's authentic. That's real. That's the face of someone who sweated, and suffered, and questioned whether they could finish at all - AND THEN YOU DID. You know what? I can't think of anything more beautiful than that."