The Photographer Who Made People Look Monstrous—That Is To Say, How They Actually Look

At first, it was an accident. The clumsy click of a button that resulted in making someone look rather blobbish and blurry. But in that resulting moment, when Brenda saw what she had done to a girl who ordinarily looked “hot,” it titillated her. Here was someone the world had objectively seen as beautiful, and yet, now, she had been rendered objectively horrendous with a single image. Brenda marveled at the power she suddenly held in her hand—the power to alter reality entirely. The girl she had taken a picture of, Emma, was the most popular in school. Not only a cheerleader, but head of yearbook, class president and just about any other front-and-center activity she could be “the face” of. Brenda had instinctually hated her on the first day of junior high, when it was decided what everyone’s new roles in the social hierarchy would be now that they were starting to go through puberty.

In elementary school, as the story usually goes, Brenda had actually been friends with Emma before the latter turned on her at the end of sixth grade, suddenly hot shit because she started wearing a bra. Such predictable preadolescent behavior on Emma’s part. Brenda, meanwhile, remained flat-chested and boyish-figured, still dressing in the oversized tomboy clothes her brother had handed down to her. More and more, this resulted in the other kids calling her a dyke. But what was being a dyke to someone who had no sexual affinity for any human? It meant nothing to Brenda. Or so she kept telling herself until the day she reached her unexpected breaking point. Worse still, against the only person who wouldn’t tolerate being “disrespected”: Emma. She had been the one to call out “dyke” one too many times apropos of nothing, and it incited Brenda to whip around and punch Emma right in her bitch mouth. Ever since, Brenda had been paying the price by way of total social ostracism. Until she snapped this picture of Emma during senior year. A candid image that transformed Emma into everything she wasn’t in real life: fat, pasty, misshapen, sporting a ghoulish smile. As the moment had been candid, Emma was laughing bombastically at something one of her twit friends had said to her. Probably some damning insult or piece of gossip about someone they viewed as a frenemy. Brenda had been so transfixed by the sight of Emma in that hyena state that she took the photo as though in a state of hypnosis.

She was just thankful that Emma hadn’t somehow managed to spot her doing it, otherwise she would have been cruising for a proverbial bruising. And as she walked away, vaguely aware that she should delete the photo from her phone, lest it somehow come back to haunt her despite Emma being the one who should feel haunted by it, she kept it instead. For years and years. Because it served as the first in what would be an endless series of what she called her “art.” That is, taking atrocious photos of people. Just as Vivian Maier before her, Brenda was wont to keep her thousands upon thousands of photos a secret. She figured that the world wasn’t ready to see themselves as the camera did. And, depending on who you asked, the camera was the real, honest depiction of a person. Brenda certainly agreed with that. Perhaps because the camera felt like her one true friend—the only other “being” that could see people for the cunts she saw them as.

Over time, Brenda found that she wanted to revert to “old school” cameras for her documentation—not just her iPhone. Some days, she would use the beat-up old Kodak camera she had bought on eBay, others her phone. Or some days, both. It just depended on what mood struck her…and how discreet she could manage to be with a Kodak in her hand. The accumulation of all these rolls of film prompted Brenda to carve out a dark room in her parents’ basement. Because, yes, she still lived with her parents at the age of thirty-three, with no plans to leave anytime soon, or maybe ever. Being that her parents tried to pretend she didn’t actually exist because her existence was so shameful to them, Brenda could get away with such things as constructing a dark room without much pushback. It was only as a result of Brenda’s mother, Barbara, conveniently forgetting about the dark room that led her to absent-mindedly bring an art curator friend of hers in its vicinity. Elliott, always overly curious, insisted upon seeing the contents of the room when Barbara started to sputter embarrassedly about how her daughter had taken up photography as a hobby. “Heaven forbid she could get paid for a hobby though,” Barbara added in disappointment. Elliott wore her down by saying, “Maybe if you show me her work, she could get paid for her hobby.”

Despite this glimmer of hope flashed before her eyes, Barbara was still reluctant to open the door, doing so slowly and cautiously before Elliott barreled right through, gasping in a mixture of horror-delight at the vision of so many monstrous-looking people. “My God, Barbara! Your daughter’s a genius. This is giving Diane Arbus a run for her money!” Barbara couldn’t believe any compliment bestowed upon her daughter, so all she said was, “If you say so.”

He turned to Barbara and demanded, “You must let me talk to Brenda immediately.”


Weeks later, Brenda found herself headlining her own show at Elliott’s gallery in Santa Monica, where a considerable amount of buzz had been generated for the opening. So much, in fact, that even a couple of A-list stars were expected to materialize, and maybe even make a few purchases—which would greatly boost Brenda’s cachet, Elliott informed her. As though she couldn’t figure that out for herself. But that was the thing about those in the business of “representation,” they weren’t really useful, yet somehow you couldn’t make it in the art world without them.

The night was like the prom experience Brenda never got to have, and she wished that asshole, Emma, could see her now. By the same token, she knew she actually owed a great debt to Emma for unwittingly launching her entire career. In fact, it was Emma’s photo that served as the anchor for the rest of the photos on display. Emma would shit if she saw it. And probably even try to sue, the fragile little trophy wife. But a person such as Emma would never hear about an event like this. Which turned out to be a major relief to Brenda. Because, despite Jake Gyllenhaal buying three photos at the opening, seeing the picture of herself with a glass of white wine in hand next to Elliott at the gallery splashed across all the major art news websites was like a bitter taste of her own medicine. She looked absolutely ghastly. Like a bad drag queen or something. Why had she put so much makeup on? What’s more, she could have sworn the outfit she had on wasn’t that mismatched and ill-coordinated with her shoes when she had glanced at herself in the mirror.

It was after seeing her own image so egregiously mirrored back to her that she decided, from that day forward, never to take a picture of any human again. Needless to say, her photos of animals and landscapes never took off with quite the same level of success as her grotesque humans.  


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