Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Stranger in the Photo

The other day someone dropped by my desk to ask me about something, and I had to ask him to wait while I finished sending an email. My cube has built up a fair number of pictures over the five years I've worked at Big Tech Corp. My visitor leaned over to look at a wedding picture of me and MrsDarwin and after a moment asked, "How long have you been married?"

"Eight years."

"You look very different in the picture."

Once I'd dispensed with his question, I found myself looking at the picture. Had I really changed that much in eight years? Certainly, I looked very young in the picture, but it's been one of my charges against myself for some time that I look too young to be taken seriously.

Thinking on this, I realized that one of the hardest things to know is what oneself looks like. It often seems to me that pictures do not "look like me" or that pictures of my wife do not really "look like her." Perhaps, though, this is because it is the people we know most closely of whom we have the strongest mental image -- an image which may not actually bear the closest relation to reality.

Looking at the pictures on my desk, perhaps the most extreme example of this is the picture I have of my father, taken a few years before his death. My father, like me, is someone of whom there are few pictures, since he was almost invariably the one behind the camera. And almost invariably, pictures of him look wrong to me. This one looks to old -- I never picture my father with white hair. A sprinkle of gray perhaps, but nothing more. Recently I find a family picture dating from when I was in second grade -- something which I had apparently salvaged when cleaning out my grandmother's house and then forgotten about. There my father looks too young. Or perhaps he looks the right age, but he is rounder-faced that I remember.

The real source of all this, I think, is that we carry in our heads mental images of those we love most which are composite images -- formed over time and influenced by how we feel about a person. Of ourselves, even more so, we have an image formed around how we think about ourselves. What we see in the mirror, who we think we look like, what we think are our best and worst features. Yet this image may not be the same as what a camera, in its mechanical dispassion, will record.

In this sense, we probably see strangers most clearly. The unknown face in a photograph or painting is something we can look at as an image and nothing more. While the face of a loved one, however much it may remind us of that person, does not look the way we see a person. Because when we look at those we love, we see the person, not the image.


Zach said...

This is a beautiful post. Thomas Aquinas thought that sanctity is something we can perceive in another person, and I think your remarks here address this obliquely. You write, "when we look at those we love, we see the person, not the image. " Did you come up with this? You should get a book deal!

Daddio said...

I agree, great post. I feel the same way. My siblings' senior pictures hang in my mom's hallway, all of us at age 17. My big sister still seems to look older than I do now, and my little brother looks way too young to be an actual adult, much less a father (poor kid...)

And I've had more people comment on my driver's license photo at restaurants (thank you for carding me!) and airports and rental car counters. It was taken nine years ago, at age 21. I think I still look like that, but they all say how much I've changed. And I don't think they mean that I've gotten better.

Daddio said...

PS - I also love being the one behind the camera. I read something a while ago that gave an interesting reflection on St. Joseph as the model of the dad behind the camera.

Anonymous said...

Nice esoteric post. On a more mundane level, we never see ourselves three-dimensionally. Hence, we truly never see ourselves as others do.

Off topic - I often link your blog for people wanting info on evolution. Would you have suggestions for deeper works on creationism? Thanks.

Hope Mrs. Darwin is well.

Anonymous said...

Darwin, I'm going to guess that the guy you had that conversation with was an engineer. Most people know better than to tell someone, "Wow, you sure look old now."


Anonymous said...

@Joel, haha. That was a good one. Worthy of a Dilbert strip.

Rick Lugari said...

Oh my. That was as insightful as it was funny, Joel. Great quip!

Darwin said...


Ha! Normally you'd be right. In this case, it was another marketing guy, so go figure. (Though he is Indian, and sometimes there's a bit of a cultural disconnect on how comments come off.)


Do you mean deeper works by creationists, or deeper works critiquing creationism?

RL said...

Heh, I have a pretty good idea who it was just based on personality. I've met a few people in marketing whose background is engineering. I could be wrong, but I think the person I'm thinking of has a degree in engineering from my old land.

Amber said...

This is something my husband and I have been talking about recently, as we've been living without mirrors for about six months now. It was a little strange at first not to stare at myself in the mirror while brushing my teeth, but when I visited my parents it seemed very strange to see myself so much. I'm always a little startled when I see myself in a mirror when I'm out and about. I look older, thinner and more tired than my interior picture makes me out to be.

At this point, we've all largely forgotten what we look like. This seems to make my kids spend large amounts of time making faces into mirrors whenever they have a chance, but it has a different effect on the adults in the household.

I mentioned this lack of mirrors to someone and they remarked that at least I wouldn't have to worry about falling into vanity... but I have to wonder, am I not bothering to spend $50 on a mirror for the bathroom because I'd rather stick with my internal picture than face reality? Apparently you can be vain without looking regularly into a mirror.

Enbrethiliel said...


I may be the only one who didn't get Joel's joke, but at least I've learned that it's probably not a good idea to tell an American, "You sure look old now." =P

Darwin said...

Curiosity overwhelms: The joke is basically a familiar stereotype joke. Engineers are reputed to be observant, but very low on social skills.

Is the "engineers are nerds who don't know how to deal with people" stereotype prevalent in the Philippines, or is that a US thing?

Enbrethiliel said...


Having reread the post, I see that what he actually said was, "You sure look different now"--which I think was already quite tactful. In the Philippines, I think people who see old photographs are expected to comment on the difference between the way one looks now and the way one used to look.

Just today, I dropped by the office of one of the magazines I write for, and the editor-in-chief, who has only met me in person two other times, took one look at me and said, "You look much thinner. You should eat more!"

Darwin said...

Being a nation of liars, I think the traditional US comment is, "Wow, you haven't aged a day."

Personally, I'm not fond of looking like a fresh-cheeked hamster, so I'm just as glad I _don't_ look like in my wedding picture any more. :-)

So while it is probably not the most tactful comment to make around here, I certainly wasn't offended.

Sibling Darwin said...

I have spent almost my entire life correcting my friends who remark on how much I look like my sisters. I have such a strong mental image of Mrs. Darwin that I can make almost no physical connection between us in my mind, but today, for the very first time I finally saw the resemblance. It was almost as if I were looking at a picture two strangers when I noticed the exact same cheeks and mouths on different jawlines. I guess it really is true that you see the person and not the image when looking at those you love. Weird.