Say Cheese

Due to a few unscheduled detours during my college career (an unplanned pregnancy, marriage, divorce – you know, the usual) it took longer than originally planned to earn my degree.  Eight years passed after my high school graduation before I walked across the stage to claim my college diploma.  During that time I supported myself and my oldest child by working a variety of jobs.  One memorable employer was the Wal-Mart Portrait Studio.

My first position in the studio was that of lowly appointment scheduler.  I stood next to the Official Wal-Mart Greeter and handed out coupons for free 8 x 10 photographs, trying to strong arm harried moms into scheduling a family photo session.  At the end of an eight hour shift I would go home and soak my feet in hot water, while I sipped a glass of wine and contemplated the endless and unusual variety of people who passed daily through the front doors of Wal-Mart.

After a month of forcing unwanted coupons upon the consumer masses, I was promoted to pass (sell) pictures.  This was the early 1990’s and digital cameras weren’t the industry standard yet.  All the  pictures were taken on large rolls of film which were sent out to a central processing center for developing.  Three weeks later, the portraits were sent to us.  My job was to convince customers one free 8 x 10 wasn’t enough.  I’m not much of a salesperson, but most parents found it hard to resist buying extra photos of their special cherubs – especially when it always seemed the free photo wasn’t the cutest pose!  So, of course a purchase must be made, lest the perfect picture be lost forever…

At the end of my shift passing photos, I would place reminder calls to everyone scheduled for a session the next day.  Half would cancel on the spot, and another substantial percentage would fail to show up — unless the photographer called off.  On those days everyone showed up early.

This scenario played out all too often, prompting the studio manager to train me on the use of the camera.  Her decision had nothing to do with my abilities as a photographer — I had zero experience, other than taking snapshots with a point and shoot camera.

As it turned out, no photography knowledge was necessary.  There were a few standard poses to learn, easy tips regarding tripod height and placement of lights, and a brief lesson on the use of the camera itself.  The most desirable skills were the ability to put people at ease, and a knack for making children produce genuine smiles on cue – something I excelled at, if I do say so myself.

I did so well, in fact, I was promoted to studio manager.

Or was it because of the high staff turn-over rate?  Nah – must have been my natural talent.  Either way, I was excited to rise from entry level lackey to studio manager in a matter of months.

Still, mistakes were made.

Staff calling off was depressingly common, and it wasn’t unusual for me to be left in the studio, alone, from opening to closing.  One such day I ran myself ragged with a full day of sittings, selling several large portrait packages, and scheduling a record number of appointments.  When the studio closed that evening, I was beyond tired, but also pleased with my hard-working self — until I rewound the film and popped open the door of the camera.

I stared, shocked, at the place where the film should have been.

An empty hole stared back at me.

NO FILM.  There was no film in the camera!  I had forgotten to load it when I started my shift.  An entire day was spent taking photos with NO FILM in the camera.  Laughing babies, crying babies, engaged couples, squirmy children, family reunions  – all shot with NO FILM!

Even now, decades later, I find I can’t write about this occasion without the use of capital letters to convey the horror of the moment.


What to do?  I felt sick — physically sick.  I’m a resourceful person, but there was no way to fix this one.  I called my regional manager, expecting to get an earful – and possibly my walking papers.

Imagine my surprise when she laughed, saying, “That happens to all of us sooner or later!”

She assured me I still had a job which went a long way to alleviating the knot in my stomach.  Unfortunately, I also had a roster of people to contact, many of whom would be unhappy to learn they had wrestled their screaming toddler into a three piece suit for no reason.  I took a deep breath, and after practicing the speech my studio manager suggested I use, I picked up the phone to call my first customer.

“Hello?  Mrs. Smith?  This is Kristine calling from the portrait studio.  I regret to inform you we need to arrange a re-shoot of your sitting.  Unfortunately, there was a problem with the film, and it won’t be able to be developed….”

Bad film.  Yeah, let’s go with that.


8 thoughts on “Say Cheese

  1. Oh my…I was sick with, for you, but your boss was a champ. See, everything can be fixed. Everything. Whew.

    Good writing, as usual! Thanks for sharing.


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