The other day, a man who runs what used to be Europe’s most valuable private company had a conniption on Twitter about the media coverage of his business.
The report was wrong and trying to correct it was like “calling on a storm”, cried Sebastian Siemiatkowski, whose payments service Klarna has plunged in value and had just revealed a set of heavy losses.
This caught my attention because Siemiatkowski has been a person of interest ever since I came across his fascinating cover photo. In it, he somehow manages to do a vertical version of the splits by standing on his right leg while holding his left leg without bending at the foot. He looks like a gymnast in a jacket. Or a ballet dancer. Or the letter ‘Y’.
Either way, it’s an amazing display of flexibility, and rightly so, Siemiatkowski won the top spot in an animated ranking of strange photos of tech founders produced by tech news site Sifted last year.
But some of his boldness would be welcome in the rest of the business world, where there are disturbing signs that the headshot is being taken far more seriously than it should be.
More than a million people update their profile pictures on LinkedIn every week, the site says, and the hunger for the perfect photo has grown to the point where people pay more than $1,000 for those photos.
Typical prices are lower, says Doren Gabriel, founder of London-based DG Corporate studio, where individual headshot rates start from £99. But he confirms that business is taking off, partly because of pent-up pandemic demand and partly because of the pace at which the business world is moving online.
Companies that deal with customers through chatbots and online forms, rather than people on the phone, want to make their human staff more visible than ever, he says. Many companies also want to show their inclusion and diversity. The result: Employees who were previously “hidden and unseen” are now displayed on company websites. Some organizations now use mass brainstorming sessions as team building events.
Fortunately, the headshots are less gray and firm than before. Another London photographer told me that 90 percent of men now go strapless. The remaining 10% are usually bankers, senior insurance executives and lawyers who support them.
But the pursuit of photographic perfection can be demanding. A friend told me last week that her hairdresser was seeing clients coming in for a blow dry because they were about to have their picture taken for a staff building pass.
This is unfortunate. But as someone whose daily job requires a headshot, I can say that a poor photo carries professional risks.
“I was going to promote your column on the front page,” an editor once told me. “But your headshot is so bad I decided against it.” This was brutal news but, unfortunately, justified. I arranged to get a new photo, which led to another set of concerns.
Should you heed internet advice to pose with a “smize” (smiling eyes) or a “squinch” (a slight squint or pinched lower eyelid)? Or better yet go for the beaming, eye-crinkled “Duchenne smile,” named after a French neurologist credited with discovering the source of a genuinely happy smile.
Duchenne is indeed the “gold standard of facial expressions” in Western culture, two former LinkedIn employees write in their book, Linked, a guide to job search success. Sober expressions seem “less authentic”, they warn.
This is bad news for people like me, the eyes disappear in full Duchenne. Another Duchenne avoider, my FT colleague Stephen Bush, correctly adds that a smiling headshot looks inappropriate above a column on, say, world poverty. Also, she says, “when I smile it feels like I’ve been hit with a heavy object.”
Ultimately, headshots, like much of life, shouldn’t be subject to too many rules or taken too seriously. Also, context matters.
“I want to look dead-eyed, like a shark,” a headshot client recently told London-based photographer Mark Grey. Gray complied, especially after the client revealed what he did for a living: negotiating the release of hostages from pirates in the Indian Ocean.