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Author Photos: Negotiation of Self and Experience

When I think of the authors I loved in my youth, I imagine their photos inside the back jackets of books on interlibrary loan in my small-town branch. 

I would peer into those pictures after school when I got to do the reading I wanted to do, and think about how they came up with the words I devoured in their books. The best often wore unsmiling, pensive expressions that weren't ingratiating the onlooker. 

These images stared back at me with big clunky glasses and unkempt hairstyles, surrounded by books or in a wild urban or natural landscape. For a young person who loved books and reading, the photos showed me another path. Because, even in this pre-Internet world, images of poreless, yellow-haired, and (at the time) neon-clad girlish women loomed. 

But my models wrapped themselves in cozy sweaters, had gray and frizzy crowns, and wore challenging smirks. I aspired to be as bold and sage as they appeared and their words attested. 

As I grew older, and with the explosion of digital cameras, amateur portrait photography became a daily presence. Everyone and her cat had a selfie with puckered lips and a head tilt. I don't know about you, but that's not the template I want to use to represent my writer self and me. 

In my poetry, I'm re-negotiating the self and experience, as Gregory Scofield put it in the blurb on my book jacket. I think that also sums up how I approach the author photo: a negotiation of myself and my experience. A photo balances who we are as a writer, with how our physical body represents us. (And what are our bodies, but a record of our life experiences?)

I believe the results of this negotiation will impact how your writing is received. Today writer headshots are accessible at a click, and a good photo can give you credibility and establish trust with your readers, or it can do just the opposite. I have been to book readings where the author was unrecognizable; the image they used to promote themselves was nothing like them in person.

As I negotiate the author photo, I'd like to worry less about camera angles than a picture that presents a truthful part of me—my writer self. Of course, I also want my professional images to be well-lit and composed, and probably surrounded by books, but I think I especially want that image to be true. I feel I owe it not just to that little reader in the public library, but to (if I may be arrogant) history, those who will read my words in the future. Most of all, I owe it to my words on the page. A false image will undermine their authenticity.

By sheer luck, my first negotiation with an author shot was easy. I found a photographer who made me feel at ease in front of the camera—a rare gift. Vivienne McMaster had done photos for a poet-friend of my poet-friend. We met, as planned, at VanDusen Gardens in Vancouver. We chose this spot because the landscape of most of my poetry was the Prairies, and there were meadows and grasses. I wore a sweater I liked, and I didn't bring a change of clothes, nor any makeup.

She helped me get out of my head and experience flow, as we slowly walked around the natural setting. It helped that she gave me simple directions like to look away and then look back at the camera. The resulting photo has been on posters for book launches, and it was my social media avatar until recently. Though I have used the photo for six years, it still looks like me and doesn't feel like I'm hiding behind some younger version of myself.

I'll be due for an update in the next couple years, but now that I don't live in Vancouver, hiring Vivienne is not possible. Fortunately, preparing for a photo shoot with some advice from her is an option. She teaches an online course called, Be Your Own Beloved, which helps people get comfortable in front of the camera's lens, learn self-portraiture, and even prepare to work with a professional photographer.

I approached her about sharing some of this advice in an online workshop with me. We held a workshop called "Love Your Author Photo" in early 2017. 

In the webinar, we discuss the benefits of having an authentic, professional author shot, and Vivienne shared many tricks you can immediately put into place to help you get the best photo—one that you love—for your budget. If you're tired of using your Facebook avatar to represent your writing self, you can watch the webinar replay for free.

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