First posted on my personal blog site: www.markweeks.com/blog
One of the greatest things about being a photographer is chance to learn life lessons from the people I shoot. Though my interaction with each of my subjects may range from a quick portrait to a full-scale production, I generally have the luxury of my subjects’ undivided attention at least for a few frames. By watching them, examining them, preening them and of course talking with them, I am able to assess their character quickly with relative ease, and generally take away something of value (besides a photograph) from the shoot.
Take the successful architect. He showed up an hour and a half late and chain smoked through the entire shoot. Gruntingly boorish in his manner, I was certain to capture his greasy hair, big belly and booze-pocked nose. Returning to the office to process the images, there was no retouching required. I uploaded the files from my camera, had a quick look to pick out the best ones, exported the RAW files to TIFFS and sent them off to my editor.
Conversely, there was the portrait of managing director from Cyprus. Though incredibly successful at the helm of his company, he didn’t seem to fare too well when it came to his diet. “Can you make me look slimmer?” he asked in a polite and childlike manner. “No problem,” was all I said as I positioned his body in a way to diminish his size and eliminate one of his chins. Afterwards in Photoshop, I gave him a bit of a tummy tuck, whitened his teeth and brightened his eyes. He never looked better.
These two shoots exemplify just a couple of things I learn from my subjects on a daily basis. If you want to look like a surly and bloated bohemian, be a jerk to the photographer. If you want to look the best you possibly can, a cordial conversation goes a long way.
There are shoots, however, where the impact that my subject has on me goes deeper than simply affecting my mood that day. When I shot a series of images for a youth charity in Seattle, I asked one of the subjects to sit alone with her backpack on a quiet staircase and look as if the bag was the only thing she had in the world. She shared with me that when she first came to the charity, it was all she had. I had to breathe deeply so as not to cry. Having come from a stable family with loving parents, it’s easy for me to take for granted all of the many opportunities this has afforded me and forget that many people don’t share that experience.
When I had the opportunity to photograph Rachel Elnaugh, a successful entrepreneur and former Dragon from the BBC’s Dragon’s Den, I didn’t have an assistant that day and had a bit more kit than I could comfortably manage myself. Without batting an eye, she asked what she could carry, picked it up and off we went. A simple gesture, and one I gleaned typified her chief cook and bottle washer approach to life. Clearly she didn’t get where she is today by sitting back and expecting others to take care of everything. If a task was at hand, she’d roll up her sleeves to get the job done.
While simple interactions like this are great anecdotes for dinner party conversations, occasionally, however, what I take from a shoot hits a bit closer to home, leaving me reflecting on the issues well beyond the tube journey home. Earlier this summer I was commissioned to photograph a series of images that would be used for the launch of a fitness studio in London called Bootcamp Pilates. A high-end exercise facility targeting urban professionals and yummy mummies, Bootcamp has four studios across the city and a large pool of fitness instructors to keep their clients in shape.
The photo brief was to capture three distinct shots of each instructor for use on the company’s web site and in its promotional literature: a portrait on a white background, a shot of each trainer giving instruction, and a photo of each instructor demonstrating one of the Pilates positions used in class.
On the surface it was a very straightforward shoot that went completely to plan. The instructors were chipper and cheerful, and very easy to work with. We experimented with a number of different positions and lightings to ensure that each one was shot in a way that best represented Bootcamp’s brand. I’m not completely sure when it happened, but perhaps while photographing the third or fourth instructor, I began to feel a bit, how best to phrase this, old and fat. Granted, most of the instructors were somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-two (whipper-snappers), and as they were fitness instructors, their bodies were active all day long—so of course they were in great shape. But my brain had no room for logic. As I took a sip of my cappuccino, the lyrics to Paul Simon’s song Call Me Al, “Why am I soft in the middle…” raced through my brain.
I finished the shoot on schedule and made my way back home, all the while pondering when I had transformed into this older, flabbier version of me. At home, I put away my gear and hopped into the shower. While drying off I looked down at my belly, my middle-age trophy, and pondered, how? This was what Bette Midler would probably refer to as the moment my sautéed chickens had come home to roost.
OK, admittedly I wasn’t obese, but I had to ponder where the body of my youth had gone. I was an aerobics instructor for years in my twenties. I’ve run a couple of marathons, but when—or better yet—how, did I allow myself to reach this point. I stepped onto the scale and realized I was the heaviest I’d ever been. I tucked that away into my brain and went about my day. The truth is, I’ve always struggled with the demons of flab—more precisely, my lack of self-control and my whole-hearted willingness to overindulge myself have been two guiding forces in my life, constituting the two little devils sitting on my left shoulder. Opposing these demons is the angel of determination who steps in when necessary to counteract their evil ways. Somewhere along the line, however, that angel fell asleep on my right shoulder, and as a result, I was now carrying an extra twenty extra pounds.
As I write this, I’m acutely aware that this posting has the potential to sound self-righteous, fattist or just raise the hackles of people I know and love, but my intention is to be quite candid about a problem that affects the bulk of Americans and many others in the developed world including me, over-nutrition. According to WebMD, 63.1% of adults in the US are either overweight or obese. SIXTY-THREE POINT ONE PERCENT! That’s huge. And the UK is not far behind, with just this week the government predicting that by 2030 over 40% of the population will be overweight here. The US Department of Health estimates that 300,000 deaths per year are the result of obesity and the cost to the taxpayers to deal with issues related to obesity run to about $117 million per year.
Stepping off the scale, I found myself at very upper limits of the target weight guidelines for men of my height, and that was disturbing. I’ve been close to this before, but each time before I’ve simply donned my running shoes and lost the weight. But somehow, this time it felt different. The word diet dashed through my brain. Diet? What? Me? How? I heard the voice of the cook from movie The Women whisper, “That Adonis figure won’t last forever without a little help from the kitchen,” and knew what I needed to do.
I’ve never been on a diet before. In my teens I drank Diet Coke because it was the rage, but at some point concluded I hated the aftertaste of any artificial sweetener, and went back to the real thing. I’ve never counted calories nor denied myself when tempted by a cookie or piece of cake. The truth of the matter is that I like to eat too much, drink too much and when given the option between a going for run or going for a sausage roll and a pint with Lee, I’d probably choose the pub. Something had to change.
While back in Seattle in June, Lee and I met up with our friends Gay and Troy for dinner, and they looked amazing—fit, fresh and genuinely youthful. We’d seen them a couple of years before and at that point they had gotten into shape after years of toiling behind their computers. Over a wonderful dinner of steak and salad, we grilled them on what they’d done to get so trim and stay that way. They shared that they’d incorporated exercise into their daily routine and when asked about their diet, they candidly said they’d not gone on a diet, but rather changed their diet by dramatically reducing the amount of carbohydrates they consumed each day. Hmmm, exercise and watching what you eat, you mean it actually works? Say it isn’t so. Armed with that sage advice, Lee and I left Seattle to complete the rest of our eating/drinking festival across the US.
Returning to London after our travels, I felt like a bloated pig. My intentions to keep fit while in the US had been quashed by late night catch-ups with friends and eating out every meal. But I had no fear, Lee and I had mentally embraced the challenge to slim down and redefine our bodies. While that may sound extreme, it was a very active decision to take charge of our bodies, get in shape now, and create a foundation for keeping fit moving forward.
Whenever I think of friends who are in shape, my friend Rod is one of the first to pop into my mind. We were roommates in the early 1990’s and once I lamented to him about how slowly the fat was burning off, he simply asked, “How long did it take to get there?” Touché. What sets Rod apart from many people is how he has incorporated exercise and a balanced diet into his daily routine. Keeping healthy and fit is his norm rather than the exception to the rule. He enjoys eating and drinking as much as the rest of us, but has a managed approach to his consumption, sort of like paying off a credit card at the end of every month. If you don’t, you simply carry too big of a balance over and incur unwanted interest.
For the first couple of weeks of the changed diet, Lee and I grappled with our decision. No bread, no crackers, no nuts, no fruit. No sodas, no milk, no beer, no wine. As we bemoaned what we were missing, and our cravings just seemed to increase. It was hell when attending our niece Hollie’s fifth birthday party were we had to forgo not only the cake, but also the homemade chocolate chip cookies. I’m not one wired for denying myself. You know when you walk into a Starbucks and see a sign that reads, “Indulge Yourself” or “You Deserve It,” I’m certain those copywriters have me specifically in mind. The truth is, however, that though the words desire and deserve may start with the same three letters, they are not interchangeable. I may desire a double-choccie-mocha-fappie-latte, but I wouldn’t deserve one any more than an eighteen-year-old looter in Croydon deserved that color TV or pair of sneakers he stole during the London riots.
As the weeks passed, however, adhering to the new routine became pretty easy. We had eggs and bacon for breakfast, snacked on cheese cubes and avocados, and ended the day with suppers of meat and vegetables. At the same time, both Lee and I re-established our exercise routines, knowing we needed to strike a balance between good eating and consistent exercise. The weight began to go away, not at a stupid-fast pace, but a couple pounds a week, and by the end of week seven, I’d dropped fourteen pounds. Not bad. While my objective was to drop the full twenty pounds, I was pleased with the initial results, and following the general guidelines of the new diet, began to introduce things back into my diet.
This is where the all the good work has the potential to go to hell in a hand basket. One piece of toast in the morning easily becomes two slices with a little bit of jam thrown in for good measure. Go on, indulge yourself. One pint of beer leads to a second pint of beer leads to the third pint of beer. You deserve it! Don’t even get me started on the bag of cinnamon saltwater taffy our friend Will brought back from the US—it was gone in a matter of hours. These “special treats” that are meant to be my exceptions have the potential to become the norm.
Over the years, I’ve had a number of wake-up calls to address my gluttonous behaviors. When I was in fifth grade, I remember telling my teacher that I typically ate ice cream once a day. He kindly replied, “A kid your size shouldn’t be doing that.” When I returned from living in Taipei, my friend’s dad poked my belly and said it was time to get into shape. And in my early thirties, while on holiday in Sitges with my uber-fit friend Alan, he pointed out I needed a serious fitness regime.
Previously, however, losing weight wasn’t a problem. When I was ten, I didn’t need to pay heed to my teacher’s wise words. I hit puberty soon after and got taller, dispersing the fat while keeping the ice cream. Problem solved. When I was in my twenties, I just picked up my running shoes and lost the weight. No change necessary. When I was in my thirties, I resorted to the gym in order to lose the weight so I could land a boyfriend. But now that I’ve hit the forties, am a bit more settled in my ways. I have a partner, own a house and run my own business. I know that my metabolism has changed a bit, and more importantly, my lifestyle has changed a great deal. The question at hand, what would motivate me to do something to prevent slipping even further. Vanity? Perhaps. A lot of gay men I know tend to have the Barbie complex—you can never be too rich or too thin (or in this case, too fit)! But Lee and I have never really subscribed to that mentality. Sure, I’m probably just as vain as any other guy I know, but vanity only goes so far, there has to be a motivating factor that is deeper than what I see in the mirror. Some motivating factor to transform my Pilsbury Doughboy self-image into one a bit more along the lines of a maturing Ken doll. And that something was found at the Bootcamp shoot. People who had embraced fitness as part of their life and reminded me of that lifelong commitment to themselves.
Practically every summer over the last six years, I have photographed an annual forum in Seattle called the Pacific Health Summit. Here healthcare leaders from across the globe come together to discuss the major health issues confronting society across the globe. Two years ago the topic was nutrition. The forum focused on the problems of malnutrition in the developing world and the issue of over-nutrition in the developed world. One of the speakers shared an interaction he had with his own GP. As I was photographing the event and not responsible for the minutes of the event, my recollection of his exact words are a bit cloudy, but the message was quite clear. Will exercise, watching his diet and keeping consumption of alcohol to a minimum make him live longer? His GP’s response was, probably not, but it would help him live better.
The story got a number of chuckles across the audience of industry professionals, but the speaker’s message was loud and clear. We in the developed world have the choice to look after ourselves. We don’t have to worry where our next meal or snack or drink is going to come from. We have the choice to regulate or indulge ourselves, and have the luxury to choose to exercise or not. The net result of our choices, however, is perfectly clear. As a society, we are choosing that extra cookie and we are choosing that pint of beer over a run, and we are consistently choosing it on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Myself included.
So what’s the punchline? I’m still confronting this issue head on, and truthfully, I expect that I will continue to do so for as long as I have the will power. I’m back at a comfortable weight, but for how long? How long is a piece of string? I gain strength from the Rods in my world and accept that maintaining a healthy and balanced diet is an ongoing process. I also remind myself of the things in life I truly deserve: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A slice of chocolate cake may give me pleasure, but somehow that doesn’t fall into an unalienable rights. While nothing in life is ever set in stone, let’s hope that the next time I wish to indulge myself, I’ll simply add an extra mile to my run or do a few extra sit-ups to make my day. I may not live longer, but it will help me live better.