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11 Nov 2011

Strike a pose – Guess what? It’s Pepero Day! It’s not just any Pepero Day, though, it’s Millennium Pepero Day, 11.11.11!

These are Pepero that my wife gave me because she didn’t want me to feel left out when she bought Pepero for all her students. I accidentally just ate the whole box (there were only eight or nine in there, though).

It’s also Skyrim Day. Congratulations if you know what that means. I would drink a mug of mead to celebrate, but I don’t have any mead, so a bottle of Hefe-Weißbier will have to do.

This arbitrary alignment of numerals in the Western calendar is not what I want to write about today. No, the subject of today’s entry is something far more traumatic. Yesterday, I went to a photo shoot for a magazine. I will attempt to talk about this experience in such a way as to still be interesting but also leave out any details that could possibly lead readers to the magazine in question.

I suppose I should start by saying that I’m not really a photo shoot person. I’m fine with being behind a camera, but I don’t like being on the business end of one. I’m never sure how to stand or how to position my arms, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never pulled off a natural smile in a photograph. And the longer I have to stand in front of the camera, the more uncomfortable and awkward I grow. I don’t have this same problem with video, but that’s probably because still cameras capture a single instant devoid of context, which can lead to some pretty awkward images, even when the subject is used to being photographed. I wouldn’t go as far to say that my distaste for being photographed is a phobia (if there even is such a phobia), but it is definitely not one of my favorite things to do.

If that’s the case, why did I agree to do the shoot? Well, it was a combination of factors. I got an email at the end of last week asking me to do the shoot, and my immediate reaction was to reject the request. But I was busy when I received the email and did not have time to reply right away, nor did I have time to reply the next day, at least not until the early evening. Then, just as I had sat down at my computer and begun to think of how to word my reply, my phone rang (or buzzed, actually—in the seven years I’ve had it, it has never once been audible). To my surprise, it was the person who had sent the email.

I immediately regretted not having dashed off a quick rejection when I first got the email. Rejecting an email is easy—thank you, but no, I am not interested. End of story. Rejecting someone on the other end of a phone is more difficult (while rejecting someone face-to-face is, of course, the most difficult of all). I won’t go into the details of the conversation, but at one point the individual mentioned that the magazine would like to work with me on something “with more depth” in the future. I have to admit that this got the wheels in my head spinning. I can’t say that working with this magazine again in the future is at the top of my list of priorities right now, but over the years I’ve learned to carefully weigh the value of connections. You never know where any given connection might lead.

This alone, though, was not enough for me to agree to do the shoot. My real downfall was the strategy I used in attempting to reject the request. Put simply, when someone you do not know and to whom you owe nothing asks you to do something for them, you are not obligated to provide reasons for your refusal. A firm refusal is enough, even if you have to repeat it a few times. Partly because I was surprised by the phone call, though, I started offering excuses. Of course, the individual making the request was able to counter each of my lame excuses, and in the end I was left with no real reason not to do the shoot.

At this point I began weighing the pros and cons. On the con side was my aversion to being in front of a camera (and also the fear, which is still with me as I write this, that I will be terribly embarrassed by all of this when the magazine comes out). On the pro side, though, was a possible connection. Will it pan out into anything worthwhile? I am tempted to say “no” at this point, but honestly I have no idea. I was promised that it wouldn’t take too much of my time (and I have to give them credit here, because it didn’t), so it really came down to the question of whether it was worth a few hours of my time. You already know the outcome: thanks to the convergence of factors discussed above, I reluctantly agreed to do the shoot.

When I arrived at the studio, there was a girl in a black dress standing in the white circle of terror (the name I immediately gave to the white and featureless space where the subject stood, enclosed except for an opening in front for the camera). I was taken aback—she was pretty and was obviously very used to being in front of the camera. The photographer called out rapid-fire instructions and the girl immediately responded, striking the sort of poses that you usually see in magazines. I later found out that she was a “talent” (in this case, a television actress, but the concept is rather amorphous in Korea and might be better translated as “entertainment personality”). I didn’t know that at the time, though, and immediately felt intimidated and insecure.

I was first led into the hair and makeup room, where two women were charged with the formidable task of making me look presentable. I’ve actually had camera makeup done before, but that was for television appearances. I assume that the goal is the same, though: to make you look natural on camera and make sure that your face doesn’t shine. Cameras, both still and video, require lots of light, and if you were to go on without makeup, the prominent points on your face (forehead, cheekbones, nose, etc.) would shine. If it’s done right, it shouldn’t actually look like you have makeup on. It’s like good special effects, I suppose: so natural that you don’t notice it’s a special effect. This is different from theatrical makeup (another type of makeup I’ve had done), which is designed to highlight your features so that an audience can see your expressions from a good distance away.

While the makeup was being done, the hair stylist was working on my hair, going to town with a brush and a hair dryer to give me a more traditional look. I can’t say that this was a pleasant process, but it wasn’t particularly uncomfortable either, and both of the stylists knew what they were doing. After the hair and makeup session I was a cleaner, more palatable version of myself (with fewer visible wrinkles).

Next was costume, and this is the first detail I’m going to let drop: the shoot required me to wear traditional Korean clothing, or hanbok. The first and last time I had worn hanbok was at my wedding, and that was quite a few years ago. I got into the outfit with the help of the fashion stylist, but there was a bit of a snag with one of the pieces of the outfit—actually, two pieces. These were tubes of cloth that go around the calf to hold the pant legs in and prevent them from dragging. The stylist and her assistant were having a difficult time figuring out exactly how they were supposed to be done, mainly because this item only exists in men’s outfits and the stylist was more familiar with women’s outfits. After determining that these items were only worn when going out, the decision was made to leave them off.

Hair, makeup, costume—it was now time for my turn in the white circle of terror. The backdrop is all white and curved at the bottom where the wall would normally meet the floor, and the rest of the circle consists of tall, flat-white barriers designed to reflect the light back onto the subject, but with a soft reflection. It’s kind of like being in a sensory deprivation chamber for sight only. Directly in front of me were the camera, the photographer, and a small crowd of people, all staring at me. This was uncomfortable enough as it was, and the situation was made even more uncomfortable by the second (and last) detail I will drop today: the fact that the shoot required compositing in post-production. In other words, I had to pretend to be in the presence of objects that were not there.

I did my best to pretend that these objects were, in fact, there, just as I did my best to follow the photographer’s instructions. I turned my head, I adjusted my body, I held my arms in a certain way, and all the while I had to somehow smile without looking like an idiot. I don’t remember exactly how many photographs were shot, I just remember being temporarily blinded by the flash and, when my vision came back, seeing the small crowd of people run over to the monitor to look at the shot. At one point toward the end, the photographer must have given up trying to direct me, because she just started snapping shot after shot in rapid succession. The flash went off like a rave strobe and I tried my best not to panic. A short while later, the individual who had roped me into this said, “I think we’ve got plenty of good shots to choose from, so we can stop now.” I interpreted this to mean: “We could shoot from now until the cows come home and you’re still going to look like a deer in headlights, so we might as well pack it in.” Either way, it meant that the ordeal was coming to an end.

I was offered a look at the shots taken, and those in charge showed me the ones they thought were the best. They asked me what I thought, and I just said, “Well, it’s me, so I’m probably not the best judge.” What I was really thinking, though, was: “How much is it going to cost me to guarantee that none of these ever see the light of day?” I had gone through all that trouble, though, so after making some noises that could (I hope) be interpreted as vaguely positive, I was led back into the hair and makeup room, where they wiped off my camera face and restored me to my natural scruffiness. When I stepped back out into the studio, the next victim was already in the white circle of terror, and I found myself somewhat relieved to see the look of paralyzing horror on his face.

Then I was out on the street and it was over—or at least the painful part was. In my jacket pocket was a brief list of interview questions to be answered by email, but those would be a cinch compared to the white circle of terror. The late afternoon air was already cool as I made my way to the subway station for the ride home.

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