Harriet Walker: 'Can I really be as ugly as that?''

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The Independent Online

Many people start to fear "bikini season" at this time of year. I don't – but only as I refuse to wear a bikini in public. No, my fear as the weather gets better is of "photo season". Come summer, everyone gets their legs out and with them, their cameras.

A quick snap outside the pub of an evening; the mandatory line-up at a festival; the mid-picnic ambush shot of you slurping hummus off a carrot. All of these pile up, montage-like, to convince me year after year that I do not make a good photo. Just look up there on the right – I don't even look like that! In real life I have only one chin and it doesn't curl up towards my nose. But I'm aware that being unphotogenic must have something to do with having a bad face, which I'm coming to terms with.

"Gosh, it doesn't even look like you," says my boyfriend of the hideous stills supposedly documenting the existence we share, but which mostly feature him with an arm round some moon-faced hag with a pronounced underbite. "You really, really don't look like that," he says on occasion. "Your face works really well in motion," he adds, aware that film is a medium I haven't yet entered into, so we don't yet know how bad I look.

He's allowed to say this, of course, as he knows how ugly I really am, both inside and out. But my inability to smile and say cheese has recently become an issue of wider debate, which makes me wonder how photo etiquette really works.

Last weekend, I found myself caught in the crossfire of a summer snapshot on someone's cameraphone and demanded afterwards to see the picture. It wasn't half bad, I thought – a bit chinny, but that's to be expected, and besides, who doesn't look chinny drinking gin and tonic straight from the bottle? (The tonic bottle, that is.) "Urghhh! Harry, you look terrible!" said the would-be David Bailey, swiftly erasing the evidence with a swipe of his thumb. "How embarrassing!" Laughter all round. I sulked gently for a while, before realising that the high standards of good looks in my circle of friends means they will never understand this particular handicap, like a group of snooty Yorkshire Terriers with bows in their hair puzzling over the fact they might be related to some mongrel with bald patches and a wheeze.

It was the same at a dinner I hosted recently. I remember being blinded by several flashbulbs that evening, so was surprised when I featured in none of the photos. I had been edited out! My insides coalesced into a gloopy puddle of shame as I realised the covert decision that had been taken to stop me and my face spoiling the glossy aide-mémoires.

So when I received an email about a photography exhibition that I was starring in, you can imagine my slack-jawed, angsty delight. Last year, I had the downright annoying task of coming into the office one Saturday morning to collect my bike (which I had been too drunk to ride home on the night before). While I was resplendent in my Bedouin-tribesman chic – the only sort of clothing you want to wear with a hangover – my bike was shiny and new, recently purchased, and gleaming in the autumnal sunshine.

"Can I take your picture?" shouted a man in a fluorescent tabard, as I failed to negotiate a simple turn on to the main road and screeched to a halt in front of him. "It's for a council initiative to encourage cycling, pictures of real people enjoying their bikes."

Now, I may not look nice in photographs, but I do at least look "real". And that particular morning, I was displaying all the visual clues of a real person who had survived a real night out drinking. So I posed with my bike.

And last week, I got an invitation to the private view of the exhibition, which I tritely cycled to on the same bike that got me snapped. I gazed at walls and walls of smiling children, smouldering couriers, laughing mums with basketfuls of organic veg, all proudly astride their two-wheeled steeds. I was nowhere to be seen.

"Is this, um, all of the photographs?" I squeaked at the curator. "Oh no," he said, biting his lip. "There were hundreds but some, y'know, just weren't really up to it." This time it wasn't my friends' fun that my face had spoiled, but my bike's.

"Is that your bike?" the curator continued, pointing outside. "Pretty clunky isn't it? Huge! And heavy too, I bet, how do you manage?"

"We get by fine, thanks," I grumped. It's one thing to openly criticise my lumpy face, quite another to question the aesthetic prowess of my bike. Which is, I'll add, a beaut. I'm thinking of making it my byline picture instead.