Vanity — when is it allowed, and when is it frowned upon? Who is allowed to be vain and who is not? And where lies the line between vanity and self-love? These are questions that have interested me since the very first time I picked up a camera — questions I have yet to find an answer to.
When I first started taking portraits, the only subject I had was myself. As an insecure thirteen-year-old, I was, unsurprisingly, unsatisfied with what I saw in the viewfinder. Like many other teenage girls, I was hyper-aware of all my flaws; more specifically, all the ways I deviated from the norm set by tall, thin supermodels. However, to continue taking photos I had to come to terms with what I saw in the viewfinder, and to do that, I learned to distinguish the Veronica I saw in the mirror with the Veronica in front of the lens.
By dividing myself into two distinct people — the Veronica behind the camera versus the Veronica in front of the camera — I allowed myself more room for flaws. The Veronica in front of the camera was just another subject to capture. With this mindset I could focus on more important things behind the camera: composition, color grading, light, etc.
But even more crucially, dividing myself into these two people gave me room to appreciate myself: namely, my separate, distinct self in front of the camera. Not in the traditional sense of learning to appreciate my flaws, but in the sense of learning to appreciate her flaws. Put simply, in order to justify complimenting my own physical appearance on camera, I had to see myself as an entirely separate person.
While this may seem somewhat confusing or contradictory, I soon found this to be the case with nearly all the women I took photos of. After shooting with one or two of my friends, I would show them the photos, hoping for a positive reaction. What I was met with instead was either an overwhelming response of self-deprecation, i.e. “I look so bad,” or complete shock, i.e. “that can’t be me.”
Now, while it is possible that the photo could have been unflattering or perhaps not within my friends’ tastes, as I shared more and more photos a trend became quite clear to me. Each woman I took photos of found it necessary to deprecate herself or express shock at her appearance before, eventually, admitting that she looked beautiful. This admission was most often followed by a dismissal of her own beauty, which was justified by claiming the I had made them beautiful with the camera. In other words, I had somehow transformed them into an entirely different person, and since this person was separate, they could appreciate her beauty.
In essence, nearly every woman I have ever taken a photo of has refused to acknowledge her own beauty. Why? Perhaps because of a deep-seated self-hatred. But more likely, I think, it is because, as women, we are taught that vanity is a sin. We must care about our appearance, but we must never show an outward appreciation for our appearance. With the recent trend of self-love, I hope that these ideas are changing; yet, the responses of women to images of themselves remains dismal. The women I have most recently photographed gave me the same responses as the ones I photographed four years ago, and the Veronica I see in front of the camera is still distinct from the one behind the camera.
All I can hope to do, as a woman and as an artist, is to remind other women that vanity is not as great as sin as we have been taught. Vanity is simply self-love’s older sister: a little more worn and a little more berated, but still incredibly valuable.