One of the relatively small tasks that comes along with my job is to build photo galleries for our website. The process is pretty simple, almost automatic. I don’t take the photos, I just load them into a gallery and click through each one to make sure everything looks good and the crops line up well before I post them online.
Sometimes the photos are from a local event or meant to accompany a hard news story. Most often, they’re sports – games, matches, races.
For whatever reason, I end up posting high school volleyball galleries more than anything else. I think it’s because of the shift I work and when those photos come into the newsroom.
When I was in high school, there was a photo of me running cross country printed in our local paper. It was the last mile of one of my better races. I was exhausted. I was running hard. I was not thinking about the face I was making. The photo would’ve been awesome. It was, as far as I know, my first sports-related appearance in a newspaper. The photo would’ve been awesome, if I hadn’t been making that face.
My arm placement was good. Coach would not have told me I was wasting energy by swinging my arms in front of me, they were in relaxed bent positions pumping by my sides.
My legs looked strong. Long and skinny, but strong.
My uniform was sweaty, just like it should be nearly three miles into a 5K.
But my face was tightened, twisted, contorted into something akin to the look a ghost gives mid-“booooo”.
The photo embarrassed me. I was a pretty confident teenager, but this wasn’t the me I wanted published in the paper. I wasn’t given the chance to smile for the camera. I went to school hoping no one saw it.
A year-and-a half later, a different photo ended up in the local paper. I was high jumping. High jump was my best event and the photo was accompanied by a cutline that highlighted a skill I was proud to own.
I was mid-jump, my back arched over the bar. My lead arm arm was bent upward, flexing my bicep. My face was concentrated and I was biting my lip – I wasn’t nervous, I was focused.
The photo made me proud.
High jump, in so many ways, helped me appreciate my unusual height. It made it an asset, rather than something I was stuck with.
That photo helped me see my own strength.
More than a decade later, as I click through photos of teenage girls playing sports, I see the same kinds of faces. Tightened cheeks, bitten lips, squinted eyes – the faces a person unwittingly makes when playing hard. I see these photos and I think of the two ways they can be perceived. These girls can be embarrassed that they’re not smiling like they would for a posed photo, or they can appreciate what they look like in a moment of sheer power.
I hope it’s the latter. I hope they see these photos as their strength captured in one shot. I hope they notice the lines their muscles make as they go for the ball. I hope they remember that they were sucking in their cheeks in anticipation of a big hit.
I used to race 5Ks every week in the fall – if I could do that now, I wouldn’t care what my face looked like in the paper.