Unflattering Photos Are Forever

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 25 2014 @ 8:35pm

Maureen O’Connor tried to remove every old, embarrassing photo of herself from the Cloud. She describes the experience as “the most arduous thing I have ever done on the Internet”:

More arduous than navigating Con Edison’s bill-pay website. More arduous than an Obamacare insurance exchange. (The fact that I had to request something like a dozen username reminders, then reset as many passwords, did not help. If Sisyphus lived today, he would be chained to a computer clicking hyperlinks to reset his password and sign back in, all day long.)

In the age of cloud-computing, deleting pictures is like slaying the hydra: Every time you kill one archive, you discover two more. Photos were hiding not just in my iPhone’s Camera Roll, but in every photo-editing, messaging, and dating app I’d ever downloaded. Photos were lingering in ancient text-message threads. Shared photo albums I’d forgotten had been updating without my knowledge. I felt like the Donald Rumsfeld of selfies: There were known knowns (caches I knew to review) and known unknowns (apps I suddenly realized might be saving photos) and unknown unknowns that I could not anticipate but will surely terrorize me later (a fear that the Xbox Kinect motion camera will someday unleash hours of clumsy Dance Central 3 footage keeps me up at night).

I long ago gave up any interest in controlling any aspect of my physical appearance in photographs. Like everything on the web, the only way to stay sane is to let it go. So there are photos of me with a big black beard, a big brown beard, a big grey beard, hunched over in a Subway, lolling about in Dupont Circle, wading into water looking like a fat-ass, and all those ghastly TV screen shots. One of the most popular was taken when I was at a libertarian conference in Amsterdam and got a weird beard-cut under the influence of God knows what, and presto! I was re-branded, even as my eyes could barely open. And then there’s the infamous butt scratch. At some point, I reminded myself that all of this was merely a minor form of mortification and it is good for the soul to endure it. The humiliation is particularly acute in my case because there are many photos of me from 20 years ago and in retrospect, most people would think I was way cuter back then. That 1993 Annie Leibovitz Gap-ad shot hangs over me like some reverse Dorian Gray – forever young, while my actual head turns into a mildly ravaged potato.

But every now and again, someone will say something, and I will even be flattered. It can still happen.