“We want your presence, not your presents,” read the wedding invitation, “We already have a toaster, a kettle and enough bed linen. Rather than making a wedding list, we'd love it if you could give us a framed photograph of yourself, so we have lots of lovely pics of our lovely friends.”
I regarded this with the same level of horror as if the invite had stated the wedding would be Lady Gaga themed, and guests were required to approximate one of her outfits. Wedding lists are easy. You point and click, the department store takes your credit card details (and a hefty delivery fee), and bish, bash, bosh, there's your teasmade/bedside lamp/set of six crystal-cut stem wine glasses. But this ... I've never been too good at having my picture taken. School photographs have me grimacing, family ones show me smirking, in holiday snaps, I look like I'm having the vacation from hell. I regularly un-tag myself from any photos uploaded onto Facebook. My pics on Flickr are of landscapes. I'm not so much camera-shy as camera-averse.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not ugly or body-dysmorphic. In fact, when I look in the mirror, I see someone heading towards thirty-five with some grace: a tall, (almost) natural blonde with few wrinkles and all her own teeth. But as soon as I espy myself on photographic film, be it digital or analogue, I see dumpy, old, not so much mutton dressed as lamb as carcass. And how long had I had that rash on my neck? I'm not vain; I don't pout and preen in photos, I would just prefer to live in a time before cameras were invented.
I asked friends who would also be attending the wedding how they were going to play it. Some said they'd give a print of their own wedding photo. Another had a spare picture of her and her boyfriend snowboarding on holiday. A third had decided to donate a portrait she'd had done of her and her baby. No-one seemed to think it was that big of a deal. Except me.
However, whilst walking down the high street one Saturday afternoon, I noticed a sign in the window of a camera shop: “Special Offer: £9.99 Professional Studio Portrait.” A tenner not to cringe every time I visited the happy couple's house seemed a bargain to me.
The photographer was in his early fifties and had a cigarette behind his ear “for later”. He had worked as a wedding photographer but found that people nowadays were asking their friends to take and upload pictures rather than paying someone the best part of a grand to do it. So he'd rented the back room of the camera shop for mostly “engagement photos and kiddie portraits,” he said. He had various backdrops – Caribbean island sunset, autumn leaves, silk effect, or plain. I chose plain. I was slightly worried that he would try to get me to remove items of clothing or tell me to make love to the camera, but he seemed more interested in the lighting than my body. I didn't have to lie on the floor, or use props, I just turned this way and that way and smiled, smiled, smiled 'til my face hurt. You think celebs don't work hard for their money? Believe me, they do.
The photographer seemed surprised that I only wanted one print and said he'd do me two more for an extra fiver “for your mum, or your boyfriend?” I was adamant that one was enough. He said he'd send me a digital version for approval and then I could pick up the print in a couple of days.
I was in the middle of a particularly shitty day when I received the email with the digital attachment. I opened it up to full size, noticed approvingly that I wasn't gurning as usual, and sent it back telling him to go ahead. Again, when I went to pick up the print, it was between meetings, so I had a quick look, noted that the frame looked quite cheap for the additional £8.99, then put it in a gift bag until the wedding.
Which was great. I was placed on a table with fun people; there was lots of wine, fabulous food. The DJ was one of their friends, so she didn't play Angels by Robbie Williams or the theme from Dirty Dancing. Then there was the cutting of the cake. We all left the dancefloor and went into the room for the evening buffet where the iced-white fruitcake sat on a silver-plated stand. We stood around admiring the bride and groom holding the knife, but then oohs and aahs came from the other side of the room where, as I looked around, I saw the guest photographs displayed.
“Nice photo,” said my friend who'd opted for one of her and her baby. “You look really ... young.” Others murmured assent. In fact everyone who commented on my picture said how young I looked, as if that was this season's compliment, rather than how much weight you've lost. I picked up the A4 portrait of myself. It looked much as I had seen it. Then I looked more closely. My lines had gone, my wrinkles had dematerialized, the bags under my eyes had disappeared, my hair was a brighter shade, my lips redder, my eyes bluer, teeth whitened, cheekbones more prominent. The photographer had airbrushed me! “I suppose we all need a bit of photoshop nowadays,” said the friend who'd provided her wedding snap. “'We're all getting on a bit”. There I was in a sea of thirty year olds looking twenty. “Everyone wants to look their best in a photo,” said baby-photograph friend. “Maybe I shouldn't have chosen one from a few months after I'd given birth. Hadn't lost the baby-fat then.” She looked at my other friend with slightly raised eyebrows. Vain, she mouthed.
Rachel Stevenson grew up in Doncaster and now lives in London. She has contributed to Smoke: A London Peculiar, Here Comes Everyone, Short Story Sunday, A Cuppa And An Armchair book (Createspace Publishing, 2011), The Guardian Travel section, Are You Sitting Comfortably short story podcast, and her work has been made into a short film for the Tate website, narrated by Christopher Eccleston. She was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2015.