Em's place

Writing, anxiety-wrangling, tea.

The fear of being seen

By Emma on June 29, 2015

When I first started my life online – and by that I mean blogging and having actual conversations using Twitter instead of just staring at it, confused – I had a stormy sky and a single lightning bolt as my avatar. It was a miniature version of the big stormy sky and single bolt that was at the top of my website for quite some time.

I was hiding.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I loved that picture and it really spoke to me back then. But it wasn’t my face. No-one online that I chatted with knew what I looked like. And that was just the way I liked it.

Then things started to change. I was commissioned to write a short story for an anthology that led to another and then I had a short story collection published. I got my debut book deal and all of a sudden people asked for a picture of me.

I was mystified and horrified in equal measure. Why would anyone want a picture of me? I was there, right there, in the gaps between those words. Wasn’t that enough?

My first photo shoot

You have to understand, I was recovering from pretty severe post-natal depression and trying to carve a new space for myself in the world. I was heavier than I’d ever been in my life and my body was stretched and distressed in ways that I still can’t bear to think about. It no longer felt my own. It just felt like a flesh bag in which a terrible car crash had happened.

Emma NewmanI didn’t want anyone to see me, but there was a pressure to be seen. I went for my first photo shoot and the best picture that came out of it – and was my avatar for at least a couple of years afterwards – was one of me peeping over the top of a copy of The Kraken Wakes (my favourite John Wyndham novel).





I was still hiding.

Time ticked by. I landed a proper book deal for the Split Worlds series and then something happened that I never thought would: SFX wanted to do a two-page featured author spread about me.

Oh shit. That meant another picture had to be taken.

My second photo shoot

By that point I’d figured out that going to conventions was about three million times easier when I dressed up in fancy outfits of my own making. What better way to hide in plain sight than making a grand coat for everyone to look at instead of me?

I had discovered armour. I couldn’t remain unseen any more, not now I needed to be on panels and do launch events and all that stuff. So I donned said armour and went to Bath for the SFX shoot by Joby Sessions.

After about an hour and a half (I think, I was mostly traumatised by the whole pictures being taken for SFX magazine thing), poor Joby was faced with an author who just froze up every time the camera was pointed at her. We tried all sorts of poses in the fantastic Mr B’s bookshop. None were any good. So we went outside.

Taken by Joby Sessions for SFX magazine

Taken by Joby Sessions for SFX magazine

We took shot after shot. Time wore on. A man walked past us in a back street with the most beautiful huge velvety grey dog and we took a few shots with me and said dog which Joby liked more, but it wasn’t quite right. Then he said something along the lines of “come close to the camera and imagine there’s something inside it that you’re trying to touch” and that shot to the left was taken. I, of course, imagined there was an evil little faerie inside the camera that I had to get. He smiled straight away and said “That’s it. That’s the one.” I was relief incarnate. I bet he was too, poor chap.

It was the first photo taken since my wedding day that I actually don’t mind looking at. It’s still my Twitter avatar and I love the dramatic Doctor Who feel of it.

Then I got a book deal with Ace/Roc for two sci-fi novels and an email arrived from my (fabulous) editor, asking if I’d like to have my photo in the book.

Not again

My first response was, obviously: NO! Why on earth would I want that? Isn’t the book enough? Isn’t that the best part of me, right there, pressed between the covers? Why spoil it with my face?

But there’s more than that. I’m a woman who writes science-fiction. That is a massive negative modifier, despite the fact that it’s the 21st century. Because of my gender, my book is less likely to be reviewed, less likely to be displayed in book shops, more likely to be overlooked in general, and more likely to be left out of lists that fly around the internet. Just because I’m a woman. Did I want to put my face in there too?

Because when you’re a woman, you are judged by the way you look. I know everyone is, to some extent, but for women it’s taken to a whole new level of value judgements. I didn’t want people to make a judgement based on the way I look. I didn’t want my face to pollute my work.

But I also know I am screwed up about this

So I asked some friends who are professional authors what they think. They pretty much said “put a photo in, it shows you’re a real person and helps readers connect with you” and that’s a good thing, right? My editor wasn’t putting the pressure on at all, but I felt that if I didn’t put a picture forward I would be hiding again. I couldn’t win. And I couldn’t use my fantastical SFX picture because that belongs to them and it’s only because they are super lovely that I can use it informally online. Having it printed in thousands of books is different matter altogether.

And I didn’t want to end up going to conventions and having people do that “Oh wow you’re actually so much older than you look in your picture” face at me. It was time for a new one.

My third photo shoot

My husband had his first proper author pictures taken by Lou Abercrombie, as did several other author pals – and all were brilliant – so she was my first choice. I freaked out at the prospect of just booking it. I talked on Twitter about it and people gave great advice. So I put on my brave trousers and booked a shoot to be done at home, in the hope it would minimise the anxiety.

You have to understand, this was agonisingly hard. So hard, in fact, that I broke out into the most awful rash all over my face (of course it was my face) that very morning. But Lou was brilliant. She calmed me (and my stupid scaredy skin) down. She reassured me. She told me what to do and I laughed at myself and my ineptitude. I wore my armour, but I didn’t feel I was hiding so much.

Here are the new photos.


Picture by Lou Abercrombie

Picture by Lou Abercrombie

Picture by Lou Abercrombie















I know I have my hands over my face in both, but they were just my favourites. I feel like they are actually showing… me. And that’s why it’s taken me weeks to write this damn post. Because I was afraid of showing them. Of showing me.

I don’t know if that will ever stop being frightening. But the day I don’t do something because it scares me is the day the Fear has won. So if nothing else, that picture in the back of Planetfall this November will be a tiny personal victory over the fear of being seen.

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{ 7 comments... read them below, or add one }

  1. Hisham says:

    For the record, all of the above photos are wonderful. That you still have anxiety over having and sharing photos – but still found the courage to do so demonstrates that you are brave!

    Thank you for this blog post.

    • sticky penguin says:

      This makes so very much sense to me – I hide from corporate photos (ugh), from being tagged in awful shots on Facebook, from selfies and on a bad day even from my own reflection. Like you in the SFX shoot, going uber-dramatic offers some respite. Were I to be *published* however, and so fabulous in Tardis blue, I’d like to think it would be different. But that evil faerie is inside so very many cameras, just waiting to catch you looking at her… Thanks for sharing your self.

  2. Jo Hall says:

    You are so beautiful 🙂 And so brave xxx

  3. Chris W. says:

    Oh, well done! The pictures are lovely, all of them. I especially like the top of the two new ones.

  4. Janet says:

    Well done, have some of the same issues re comfort in my own body post PND. It’s not easy but you did it 😀

  5. Ray says:

    Well done to you Emma. I remember your excitement at having found a U.S. publisher for 20 years later. How long ago was that? You blogged a little about your discomfort of being photographed, and this sequel shows us all just how difficult the challenge has been for you. For me this blog is what I can only describe as a watershed for you. You have grown both, as a writer or should that be author, and as an individual of amazing talent.
    You have shown us your humanity and diversity.

    I am in some respects your opposite.
    I, though not very photogenic, have no qualms with putting my profile picture “out there” . The action I am unwilling-not unable- to take, is to put the finishing touches of me in the “gaps between the words” I cannot quantify it, nor really do I want to,

    This post is inspirational. I’m sure not just for me, and it’s been great to follow your ( and now Hubby’s ) achievements

    Wish you continued success and health.


  6. Icy Sedgwick says:

    They’re lovely photos, Emma!!

    And having met you in person I can say you’re gorgeous 🙂 But I do love that Dr Who photo of you, that coat is amazing.
    Icy Sedgwick recently posted..Should authors be paid per page?

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