[Path to Publication] Headshots on the Farm

I figured the scariest part of publishing While the Gods Were Sleeping would be receiving critical feedback from editors or negotiating cover design. But, no. So far, the task that has filled me with the greatest dread has been the author headshot.

The request came from my publisher in mid-winter. I live 45 miles from a small town, several hours from mid-size towns (Pendleton, Walla Walla) and 8 hours from Portland or Seattle. So, enjoying the services of a professional photographer would require traveling icy roads and the expense of an overnight stay (unless I wanted to drive home on icy roads in the dark). Still, I considered it. I liked the idea of turning myself over to a professional who could advise me on wardrobe, makeup and somehow miraculously make my wrinkles disappear. Fashion has never been my forte, and it’s become even less so now that I live on a remote farm in northeastern Oregon.

My partner, J-, is a pretty good amateur photographer who captured great portraits of family and friends when we traveled to Nepal together in 2007. So, we tried some photo shoots. January at 3800 feet in eastern Oregon is not ideal. Wind tussles the hair, the vegetation is mostly brown, and the crisp air makes it unpleasant to be outside without a hat, gloves, and big jacket––not great for elegant headshots. But we were lucky with a few warm, sunny days. On the first try I took off my jacket for a few minutes and mustered some bravado. Here's what that looked like on camera.

We went back to work. For backdrops, we tried ponderosa pines and hip-laden rose bushes. We managed some truly terrible photos that I will never share anywhere. We finally got one I thought captured a bit of my spirit without making me look too awful. I posted it on Facebook to get some feedback. Friends advised nicer clothes, more hair-brushing and make-up, better front-lighting, taking long walks ahead of time to relax.

I had tried walking and many other relaxation techniques. My favorite: photo shoots near my three Tibetan yaks. Just looking at them makes me laugh. Problem was, the way they looked at our photo-taking antics made me laugh too much. We ended up with many bad photos of me cracking up over yaks.  I deleted them. But here's one of me loving up my yaks after the "official" photo shoot. The D-4 Caterpillar in the background adds a nice touch too, I think.

I pondered trips to just about anywhere to work with a professional photographer. Then came a glorious warm day. J- and I decided for one more try with our old barn as a backdrop. I modeled different outfits and worked harder on make-up. I practiced smiling for the mirror. Finally, we ventured forth in late afternoon just before the sun dipped behind a ridge to the west. We got more terrible photos, but for one moment in one spot, J- snapped a run of good ones. I sent several to the pre-publicity folks. They chose this one.


Of course, what the camera doesn't show is the wet grass I'm sitting on, the patchy snow all around, my clunky snow boots, the hairbrush and mirror beside me for last minute touch-ups. Nor does it show a fresh smear of mud on my ass from when I slipped on ice and fell on the quarter mile walk to the barn. But maybe it was the fall that took the edge of my attitude. And maybe it was the snow that made for perfect front-lighting.

I’d still rather spend weeks polishing a piece of writing than fifteen minutes posing for a camera, but I’m proud that we pulled this off. I may still pay for professional headshots next time I’m in a big city, but for now our DIY approach seems good enough.

What adventures or misadventures have you enjoyed with headshots? Any advice to offer?

Elizabeth Enslin is the author of While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal (Seal Press, September 2014) which won the 2013 She Writes to Seal Press Publishing Contract Contest.

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  • Elizabeth Enslin

    Doesn't sound too off the wall to me, Penny -- no more so than romping with yaks to relax before a photo shoot. I suspect role playing would work well for some people, though probably not for me. I slink away from parties when people starting role playing games like charades. Just thinking about it gives me the willies. But you may be on to something with your sense of how celebrities deal with cameras and how the rest of us could play with that. Great ideas!

  • Penny Taylor

    I know this is an off-the-wall shot, but has anyone just tried roll playing to get out of their safe zone?  Instead of getting all hung up with squinty eyes or double chins (I'm on my way to a third), just pretend you're already rich, famous and successful and you know they'll love whatever pictures someone captures and gossip mags will pay top dollar to get a candid of you any day.

    You know those companies like Celebrity for a Day where you can hire paparazzi to surprise a friend and they follow them around all day?  It occurs to me that one of the things celebrities are good at are ignoring the cameras or they play to them better... Why?  Because they get used to it.  They have practice.  If you set up a day of things to do - shopping, lunch with a friend, picking up the kids as school and had a friend or two (these are really, really, really good friends, mind you) follow you around with cameras, at someone point in the day you'd get used to it.  And with all the shots you can take digitally, they are bound to get a couple of good candids.  You'd also get more comfortable with the camera and be able to face embarrassment.  Go somewhere you aren't known.  Bet you anything people will start to think you're somebody and start taking pictures, too. (It's human nature.)  Play the roll.  It might bring you out of your shell to just play the part. -- Yes.  I'm a bit off the wall.

  • Elizabeth Enslin

    Well-said, Patricia. And practicing in front of a mirror probably makes me more anxious as I imagine all the horrible expressions that camera will capture.

  • I so agree! I hate getting my picture taken. I always squint my eyes and puff up my cheeks like a chipmunk. No amount of practice before a mirror helps--it just makes it worse. And my smile . . . Secret is to be caught off guard. Sometimes, much to my surprise, I can actually get a picture I like, but I would much rather spend weeks writing and editing than endure a photo shot.

  • Elizabeth Enslin

    Pam and Dana -- Thanks for making me feel not so alone in this. I love your stories. As you say, Dana, "being caught off guard" is the key for many of us.

    Robin - Thanks for giving us a sense of how a professional photographer approaches portraits. I actually love looking at good portraits and can now better appreciate the art and skill (both visual and social) that go into them.

  • Great post, Elizabeth.  I can relate, with around 200 shots that were taken.  After the photographer, also someone I knew that had done our family portraits and filtered the head shots, I received about 75 and asked,"Got anything else?" I hated all of them.  Not because he was a bad photographer, but because I'm not the least bit photogenic, except if I'm caught off guard. Primping and hoping I angle my head and shoulders just the right way is the most awkward thing in the world to me.  So, I'm in your boat and with no advice to offer.  But wonder when 'natural' head shots without posing will be considered more acceptable for our book promotions. By the way, each of the photos above show off your beautiful eyes and smile.

  • Robin Travis

    Hi, as a photographer I take many portraits of people, they are usually nervous when they arrive, but I just have fun, take a lot of different poses and make them feel at ease. Eventually, everyone is relaxed and they chose one from a large selection. You are beautiful, I like the second photo, you look very relaxed, bright and happy.

  • Pamela Olson

    My head shot was a huge hassle, too! We took over 100 shots in at least three locations (New York, New Mexico), and none of them seemed right at all. Finally my husband snapped an acceptable shot of me in a park in Turkey. (We didn't go to Turkey to shoot photos... he just got stuck there with visa issues, and I followed. Long story.) Which is nice, because he got a credit in my book!

  • Elizabeth Enslin

    Thank you, Marta! How lovely of you to say all that.

    And Penny: Ha! They are adorable and very friendly too. The horns, however, would make posing for that kind of shot a bit scary.

  • Penny Taylor

    I'd like to see one with you looking up at a Yak who's looking over your shoulder at you. (But then I'm a little quirky.) They've got such cute faces.

  • Ps, lovely!

  • This is such a heart-warming and sincere post, not everyone has the courageous ego to get this naked. Loved reading your article and because of that I would love reading your book.