THE HUMAN CONDITION: WHY WE'RE CAMERA-SHY : Flinching at Every Shot : We go rigid. We grit our teeth--and smile . And through it all, we just know we look awful.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This probably happened to you just recently: You were at a family gathering, chatting up Grandma or Uncle Merl.

You were enjoying yourself when, without warning, somebody called out: "Scoot closer together!" Suddenly, you were staring into the pitiless black eye of posterity. The photographer fiddled with the focus.

Smile, for heaven's sake. You have such a nice smile.

Trying to be a good sport, you bared your teeth. But looking into the lens, you felt like a deer caught in headlights. And just as your intrepid photographer depressed the shutter button, you flinched.

Why?

It's not as if this was the first time somebody had taken your picture. You've had cameras aimed at you since you were a few hours old, cone-headed and squinty.

So why do we hate to have our picture taken?

Maybe it's because we know that the infamous flinching photo--complete with uncombed hair, spinach between the teeth and those devilishly red "camera flash" eyes--will end up in a scrapbook, right next to a snapshot of the holiday ham.

Maybe we know that the camera strips us of charm, leaving the unvarnished fact of our faces, our imperfect bodies, on heavy sheets of color paper. Leaving us to count flaws at our leisure.

"Most people never get used to the startling reality that they don't look like they think they look," says Kelly McAlister, a 33-year-old biochemist and former actress, who had to learn to stare the camera down. "Our faces aren't symmetrical like models, but that's what we compare ourselves to."

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At this point in the story, we usually introduce a psychologist to tell you this is all in your head. Not this time. Instead, please meet Lt. Verne King of the Los Angeles Police Department, who says there may be something to this fear of photos thing--especially if police are behind the camera.

King has watched hundreds flinch for the camera, from gang members on the street to the newly arrested, posing for a mug shot. In this case, they fear the camera mostly because they know someone could recognize their pictures, King says. Sometimes their concern is well-founded.

King's favorite story involves a robbery suspect and a photo lineup. A couple years ago, King asked a jailer to assemble a lineup of the suspect and five other men, then take a picture so King could show it to the victim for identification.

"Well, you know how these lineups are supposed to be fair and everyone looking somewhat alike?" King says. "This jailer took my suspect and put him under a spotlight, facing straight ahead. Then he lined up three guys on either side of him and had all of them turned and facing my suspect.

"Of course, I couldn't use it, but it was funny. I had it hanging up in my cubicle."

The photo stayed there until one day when King was interviewing another robbery victim at his desk. She looked at the picture. She looked again.

"Then she points at one of the other guys in the lineup, one who was looking at my suspect, and she says, 'That's him. That's the guy who robbed me!' And sure enough, it was. We convicted him," King says.

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L.A. photographer Ann Summa's favorite stories involve the Very Powerful and Well-Known who end up on the wrong side of her Hasselblad. Almost all of them--business tycoons, rock stars and artists--squirm.

Since getting subjects to relax can be a full-time job, Summa has learned the art of chatting. She laughs easily.

But even old friends fear Summa once she's picked up her camera.

Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons," and Summa have been friends for 15 years, ever since they both worked at an alternative weekly newspaper. They visit each other's homes, go to the same parties. They are usually happy to see each other.

But when Summa says that when she shows up at Groening's office--lugging a backdrop, lights, camera equipment and an assistant for publicity shots--the smile drops from his face.

"Last time, I think he groaned," Summa says.

Summa understands her friends' reactions. She doesn't particularly like having a camera trained on her either. Why do you think they call it shooting ?

"I think it's hard for most people to be the center of that kind of attention. It makes them self-conscious to be focused on," Summa says.

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Academia has actually studied this recoiling we do.

About three years ago, USC professor T. Shelley Duval, of the Psychology and Human Behavior Department, concocted a study that would be considered nightmarish by photophobes.

Duval took two groups of 20 people and set them about a particular task. One group was allowed to work unmolested. The others performed while photographers recorded their every move. Not surprisingly, Duval found that mood and self-esteem plummeted in the photographed group.

"Photographs really cause us to focus on the gap between the true self and the idealized self," Duval says. "It makes us overly self-conscious. And self-consciousness is a bummer."

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Personally, I'm convinced there is an uncharted gene somewhere in the DNA strand labeled "photogenic."

There must be. Think of the people you know who don't try but still look good on film. Somehow, they catch the right light, always have a perky tilt to their chins.

My three sisters are like that--the older one in particular. She can wear a bulky sweater and paint-stained overalls and, seen in person, you think, "There's a person in a sweater and overalls."

But take a picture. The Venetian red and gold paint splashes become . . . cosmetic. She never flinches. And she doesn't seem to mind the presence of a camera. She got the gene; I didn't.

If you believe in a survival-of-the-fittest scenario, this could be bad. Think of how important photographs are today. Far-away relatives may know us only on film. We are remembered by how we looked on a certain day. And with the strangely continuing popularity of video-dating, some people pick--or discard--future mates based on celluloid.

If you don't look good on film, you could end up in the slush pile.

But that's probably paranoid. And any good photographer will tell you that paranoia is the worst thing you can take with you in front of a camera. Your attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: You get nervous, you flinch. You flinch, you look bad. You think you're unphotogenic and the next time, you make that face again.

Professional photographers will tell you that the least photogenic people are those who believe that they look terrible in pictures. It is our vanity that derails our faces, makes us flinch and count the flaws.

The best subjects, photographers say, are the people who look past the camera--relate to the person instead of the awful black box they hold in front of their faces. Super models know this, and they get a lot of money for it. Maybe we can learn from them.

So, the next time somebody aims a camera at me, I'm going to forget it's there. I will blithely ignore its presence, and when the photographer's finger is making its final plunge onto that little black button . . .

Oh, hell, I'll probably flinch.

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