This American Life - March 20, 1998
Chris Buck was commissioned to photograph David Sedaris in the Spring of 1997, a year later this segment of This American Life was aired. Chris is the third photographer.
Death to Wacky, aired March 20, 1998
from the diaries of David Sedaris
I wore my new tie to this afternoon’s photo shoot. It was an extravagant purchase but I justified it thinking of all the money I would have spent on ties if I’d had a real job. I thought the magazine would want a picture of me standing with my book, so I packed a copy along with an extra shirt in case they had something against white.
I arrived at the studio where the photographer said, “I’m not loving that tie much at all.” He didn’t care for the shirt either and called out to his assistant, “Brian? Hey Brian, do we still have that t-shirt from last week?”
The t-shirt was produced and I explained that I am incapable of wearing anything with words on it, especially the words “Deliveries In Rear.”
“You are gay aren’t you?” the photographer asked. “It says right here in your press kit. Have I got the wrong person?”
When it came to wearing that t-shirt he most definitely had the wrong person.
“Well, maybe you can turn it inside out,” he said. “We won’t be seeing much of it anyway since I’d like to get you crouched down on your hands and knees. Seeing as you’re an author and all, I thought it might be fun if we shot you cleaning the bathroom floor. The black and white tiles are gonna look great. So what do you say you change out of that shirt and we get started?”
Then he called for his assistant to fill up a bucket of sudsy water, adding that the bubbles on top should be as fat as possible.
I told myself I’d try to be more aggressive and stand up to these photographers but so far it isn’t working. I’d like to ask if they’ve read, or even seen my new book but the question sounds snotty.
I understand that they’re busy people, I’d just like to know why they think I should be pictured drinking tea with a stuffed squirrel or cradling an over-sized can of fruit cocktail. I’ve never written about either of those things.
My theory is that if you’re good looking they’ll dress you up in embarrassingly trendy clothes that at least allow you to stand upright. If you happen to be on the plain side, they’ll come up with a gimmick designed to make you look even worse than you already do. To complain is to insist against all reason that you’re good looking, and that’s even more embarrassing than going along with the humiliating little scenarios these people only seem so proud of.
Today’s photographer studied me for a few moments before asking if I’d brought another change of clothes. With the help of his assistant he then proceeded to clamp a large sheet of glass to a standing metal frame. Once the window was securely in place he asked his assistant for a carton of milk. Then he looked at me, took a sip of the milk, and spat it out onto the glass. “What I want you to do,” he said, “is to press your face against that milk stain. Really smash it up against there as hard as you can.
When I hesitated he said, “don’t worry, the glass isn’t gonna fall. We’ve made sure of that.” In his mind this was my only concern, that the glass might break.
I always thought there was nothing worse than a tech rehearsal but that was before I met today’s photographer. Because we were busy trying to open this play, I asked if he wouldn’t mind coming to the theater.
He set up his lights in the basement and greeted me saying “you’re a smoker aren’t you? Do I have the right person?” I said, “yes, I smoke,” and he handed me a package of novelty cigarettes designed to look as though they were lit.
“I want you to put these in your mouth” he said. “Not the individual cigarettes but the whole package.”
There were maybe three cigarettes all together, but what with the cardboard backing and the plastic cover the package was the size of one of those soap carriers children sometimes take to camp.
It was a tight and nasty tasting fit, but whenever you complain the photographers act like you’re ruining not just their day but their entire life. This is their livelihood and here you are, spoiling it with your vanity.
The underlying message is that they are doing you a favor. Here, you’ll be in a magazine, people will read about you and maybe buy the book. Shouldn’t you be grateful? I thought of the people who might buy the book based on this picture and then I withdrew the package from my mouth, saying that it felt silly to me.
I thought I explained myself fairly well. The photographer crossed his arms and nodded in all of the right places before saying, “what if we get you lying on the ground with an extension cord in your mouth? That might be fun. What do you say?”