I’m not that good at small talk. I’ve spent much of my life being the quiet one in the room, in a group, in the office or at a party. I can converse well with people and I can articulate about subjects which I find interesting or with which I have plenty of experience. Jo, for example, is forever telling me how people are attentive and interested when I speak, when I am unwittingly (and rarely) the centre of attention. On the other hand, I get bored easily and I have difficulty covering my boredom, which leads me to the regular experience of people asking me whether I’m feeling OK, whether I’m under the weather or just asking straight out what’s wrong.
Most people who know me well have long since realized that if I am quiet, that doesn’t mean that I am bored or unhappy. My hang-dog face, which comes on when I am not being particularly expressive, makes me look sad or annoyed a lot of the time. That means that I often look sad when I’m not, which leads to no end of concerned expressions and people worrying that I’m not enjoying myself. The fact of the matter is that I am a watcher, an observer. At a party, I am most comfortable organizing the event, or being “backstage”, enjoying myself by ensuring that people enjoy themselves. When I was in the drama club for a while at school, I used to be backstage; when we used to have summer parties at friends’ houses, I was more often than not behind the turntable or organizing music for people to enjoy, instead of being in the middle of the group laughing and joking. This by choice, as it’s where I’m most comfortable and where I enjoy myself the most.
To get around my discomfort in situations where there are a lot of discussions going on at once, during which I can rarely take part in mundane small-talk conversations, I often have my camera with me. Since I stopped smoking a couple of years ago, my camera (often with a discreet but all-seeing 24mm lens) serves ever more as something for me to fiddle with. Most people know that I take pictures and most are familiar with my ever-present camera to know that they’re not going to be blinded with a flash or asked to pull a cheesy grin for the sake of a picture. They see me, they see my camera and are reassured that I am enjoying myself. Those closest to me (and now you, dear reader) know that the more photos I take, the more comfortable I am. That’s not to say that an absence of photography means that I’m having a bad time: it’s just that if I am taking photos, the act of capturing good shots in itself makes me livelier and more likely to join in with what’s going on. It also gives people an easy way to start conversation with me, to help them see that I’m not distant or as sad as my droopy face appears to indicate.
My camera is like a security blanket in a way; it’s something familiar on which I can depend, on which I can rely to avoid standing wallflower-like in the corner and feeling uncomfortable. Where I used to light up on a regular basis, just for something to do, I now watch what’s going on as a photographer, looking for the next shot. Seeing a shot and having the experience (and balls) to get it means that I bolster my confidence and come into contact with people who I would otherwise stay back from. I suffer slightly from claustrophobia, which makes it difficult for me to find myself in situations where I feel that I’m trapped by the need for social acceptance; obtusely, having the confined view offered by a camera allows me to see that there is a wider view and the camera allows me a form of distraction, to take my mind off any feelings of enclosure.
There’s a quote by Richard Avedon. To paraphrase:
…if a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it’s as though I’ve neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up. I know that the accident of my being a photographer has made my life possible…
In this case, the fact that I am recognized as a photographer means that I feel accepted in groups. It gives me something to do when I am genuinely bored, it allows me to parade one of the things I am most proud of, it gives people an easy inroad if they want to talk to me and my camera provides me with a metaphoric shield if I really need it. This evening, I will be at a social event in a physically claustrophobic environment, where I know few people and where I will be meeting and getting to know others. I will have my camera with me and I hope to get some good shots, but the reassurance of having the camera with me will make me more sure of myself. The accident of my being a photographer means that I can go into this unfamiliar environment with head held higher than I would otherwise be able, talk to new people, be relaxed enough to enjoy myself and know that I am going to come out afterwards having enjoyed my evening.