Make a Wish

Having fantasies and making images have collapsed into each other, changing how we do both

Full-text audio version of this essay.

When young children in America are diagnosed with a terminal illness, they sometimes get to “make a wish” through charity organizations. The Make-a-Wish Foundation, probably the most well-known of these, fulfills one blue-sky wish per sick child. I can recall conversations I had with other kids when I was growing up, before I was touched by death in my own life, about how amazingly lucky these kids were. The idea of getting “anything you want” is tantalizing at an age when the cost for such a prize cannot be properly calculated. 

Years later, during the latter 2000s when I worked briefly as a casting director, I hosted two young Make-a-Wish children — a boy and a girl, both about 11 or 12 — at a photo shoot for an Abercrombie & Fitch advertising campaign. The collective wish of these two kids, who didn’t know each other previously, was to become Abercrombie & Fitch models, then perceived as the pinnacle of desirability. We — a total cast and crew of approximately 80 people — were on Prince Edward Island in Canada, a bucolic place chosen months in advance for a seasonal advertising campaign. There were about 30 adult models in their late teens to mid-20s, who would be photographed frolicking in wheat fields, cuddling in hay lofts, and gazing moodily out over the sea. I worked for the campaign’s photographer, with duties that included chasing after male models with a bottle of sunscreen and lecturing them about not getting into fights with the locals at night. Sunburns and bruises take too much time to cover with makeup and tend to ruin pictures. 

In wanting to exist as this kind of image, the children were role-playing a notion of a mature adulthood

These productions were very costly and often very tense — there was a lot of pressure on underlings like myself to keep things on schedule and to get “the shot.” I spent a good bit of time trying to prevent the Make-a-Wish children and their nice, grateful parents from witnessing the adult models getting quickly dressed and undressed, a phenomenon that occurs at almost all fashion photo shoots. Not that this environment was sexual, or even sexy. But they did get to see the unglamorous work involved in staging an idealized semblance of sexiness. 

The children were like most well-mannered tween-aged kids, and it seemed highly unlikely that either had experienced their first kiss. Yet their fantasy was to be photographed — really, to be seen — the way these models were. This was something of a departure from most Make-a-Wish wishes; according to the foundation’s website, almost half the wishes it grants in the U.S. are visits to Disney parks. These children wanted something different: not to visit a special place or spend time in the company of special, charitable celebrities but to be seen as special, as desirable, themselves. Perhaps they understood implicitly there could be no fair trade for what they were poised to lose. In wanting to exist as this kind of image, they were role-playing a notion of a mature adulthood that they may never get a chance to experience. 

The reality of this wish fulfillment proved touchingly awkward. The kids were much more comfortable playing with the animals on the farm where we were working that day than in striking sultry poses in front of the camera. I remember the boy getting pounced on and smothered with licks by a friendly black-and-white farm dog. He laughed hysterically; it was the most relaxed I’d seen him all day. 

After the Make-a-Wish photo-shoot transpired, it sat in my mind as a discrete event, a moment in time. But then it began to resonate differently. It stayed with me not simply as a memory but as a recursive image, an event that was, at the same time, the pictures of an event. The children’s wish appeared to home in on this simultaneity. They seemed to intuit what adult life is now promised to be: the chance to steer oneself through a series of premeditated experiences to produce the most resonant images. Making a wish for them wasn’t a matter of being able to have a particular experience, of which there would be images as souvenirs. Instead, the wish was to seize control of the process of making wishes appear to come true. It was as though the children wanted not to have that particular experience of modeling firsthand but instead to LARP it. 

LARPing — the term for live-action role-playing — was once a fringe phenomenon associated with role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. It tended to evoke people dressed up like medieval warriors and running around in actual woods with fake swords. (The earliest known LARPing group, founded in 1977 in the U.S., was called Dagorhir, from the Tolkien Elvish term for “battle lord.”) But as with many activities outside mainstream culture, social media platforms have helped LARPers “find the others,” allowing international communities devoted to the practice to organize. These platforms have also provided virtual spaces in which similar kinds of role-play can occur and be normalized: One can develop multiple profiles and alter identities for open-ended narratives that transpire with different people across different media. According to game designer Tara Clapper, some people who begin by experimenting with text-based role-playing (for instance, composing alternative universe fanfiction on Twitter) move on to tabletop role-playing and eventually culminate by meeting up in physical space in group formation and LARPing. 

But not all LARPs are the same, nor are all created purely for purposes of play. Distinct from other forms of LARPing, the tradition of Nordic LARP (so-called because of its origins in Scandinavia) has broader ambitions. According to nordiclarp.org, “Nordic games are intended as more than entertainment — they make artistic or even political statements. The goal in these games is to affect the players long term, to perhaps change the way they see themselves or how they act in society.” Rather than merely mimicking what one might think of as “reality,” individuals immerse themselves in a predetermined narrative situation where they can safely experience events and emotions that might be too dangerous or uncomfortable to delve into otherwise. As game researcher Jaakko Stenros describes, Nordic LARPs often stage or re-enact complex scenarios (both historical and fictional) that have the potential to elicit a range of emotions from joy to boredom to devastation, demanding of the player a willingness to explore experiences that can be extremely disturbing. A well-known LARP in this genre, Just a Little Lovin’ (developed in Norway in 2011 but “played” internationally many times since) depicts “the coming of AIDS to the gay community in New York in the early ’80s through three consecutive Fourth of July parties.” While such LARP events are constructed, the emotional experiences they elicit are not. 

Images of cottagecore or dark academia or even the Capitol riot are not of a scene; they are the scene. To be serious about something is to be concerned with images

As LARPing has become more widely known, some commentators have taken to using the term pejoratively, to mock those perceived to be insincere or illegitimate. In this Wired piece from last year, for example, Emma Grey Ellis makes fun of herself for getting caught up in the cottagecore trend, describing how she was “LARPing an opossum” by gathering acorns to make flour. LARPing has even been adopted as a diagnosis of “the dominant mode of human behavior in contemporary life,” as Matthew Walther argues in this article for The Week, written in the wake of the January 6 insurrection. “For years now, my central thesis about American public life has been that it is fundamentally unreal, a kind of live action role-playing game augmented by digital technology,” he writes, citing the Capitol riot’s gallery of “bizarre” characters: “men in body paint and plastic Viking hats screaming in the faces of cops; a lone fanatic in a beanie making a Roman salute in the speaker’s chair while a journalist looks on from the gallery above; a congressman in some kind of spacesuit fleeing goodness knows where; bearded men waving as they make away with podiums emblazoned with public seals.” 

In a 2015, music critic Adam Harper argued that “these days there are no scenes or genres, only ‘aesthetics.’” This implies that the digital images that express these aesthetics and give them substance and circulation are somehow less “real” than the physical spaces that once gave home to scenes and genres in the past. To be a “LARPer,” this sort of analysis suggests, is to be what in earlier decades was called a “poser” (or, more pretentiously, “poseur”), a term meant to separate those who were serious from those who were involved just for “the image.” But it may be that those distinctions no longer hold. To be serious about something is to be concerned with images. 

We might instead see images as what sociologist Erving Goffman described as the “frame”: the space where one’s self and one’s role dynamically converge. Images, on this account, are not simply reference material or artifacts that document trends but the medium and occasion that makes them possible and allows them to be articulated. Images of cottagecore or dark academia or even the Capitol riot are not of a scene; they are the scene. Likewise, the self, as Goffman writes in Frame Analysis (1974), “is not an entity half-concealed behind events, but a changeable formula for managing oneself during them.” It does not precede image-making so much as emerge through it. 

“We no longer have time to search for an identity for ourselves in the archives, in a memory, in a project or a future,” Jean Baudrillard writes in The Transparency of Evil (1990). “Instead we are supposed to have an instant memory to which we can plug in directly for immediate access to a kind of public-relations identity.” For the Make-a-Wish children, this may have been all too obvious. “Since it is no longer possible to base any claim on one’s own existence,” Baudrillard continues, “there is nothing for it but to perform an appearing act without concerning oneself with being — or even with being seen. So it is not: I exist, I am here! but rather: I am visible, I am an image — look! look!”

To want to become a desirable — which is to say, recognizable — image reveals the self-reflexive, plastic nature of fantasy itself: Images can now be constructed and refined moment by moment to express and reflect the process of “becoming,” and this is ultimately more relevant than any particular end product. Expressing the self through images, communicating with images, commits us to continually photographing, to finding frames to put around experiences.  

“The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow,” Antonio, the protagonist of Italo Calvino’s 1958 short story The Adventure of a Photographer, declares. Anything, even another’s misery, he claims, can be frozen in an image that one could perceive as beautiful, and nothing can be beautiful unless it’s photographed:

If you take a picture of Pierluca because he’s building a sand castle, there is no reason not to take his picture while he’s crying because the castle has collapsed, and then while the nurse consoles him by helping him find a seashell in the sand. The minute you start saying something, “Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!” you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore, in order to really live, you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second to madness.

One might find these words eerily predictive. Or one might see Calvino as presenting a view of photography that no longer aligns with our technological capabilities, and how the image has shifted from a static “truthful” representation to a dynamic mode of expression, a flexible form of language. 

In Into the Universe of Technical Images (1985), philosopher Vilém Flusser argues that “when images supplant texts, we experience, perceive, and value the world and ourselves differently, no longer in a one-dimensional, linear, process-oriented, historical way but rather in a two-dimensional way, as surface, context, scene.” We are in the early stages of such image literacy and fluency, held back by a persistent belief that images are documentary rather than figurative or idiomatic. “Although they appear to do so, technical images don’t depict anything; they project something,” Flusser writes. 

Technical images must be decoded not from the signifier but from the signified, not from what they show but from what they show for. And the question appropriate to them is, to what end do technical images mean? To decode a technical image is not to decode what it shows but to read how it is programmed. 

This is similar to how Goffman, in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), distinguishes between the impression one “gives” and the impression one “gives off”: “The first involves … communication in the traditional and narrow sense. The second involves a wide range of action that others can treat as symptomatic of the actor, the expectation being that the action was performed for reasons other than the information conveyed in this way.” That is not to say the first is “fake” and the second is the “truth,” but that role-playing in everyday life renders such judgments moot. In any encounter, one can’t simply expect transparency but must instead navigate different levels of intentionality.  

Likewise, images are not merely surfaces but modes of expression. That is, they are not representational but rhetorical. Their “content” is not documentary but demands interpretation and context. When used for self-expression, they expand the possibilities for the self beyond the limits of documentary representation. The self is not what is seen on the surface of the image but the entirety of what was intended (or implied) and how it can variously be construed. When one, say, LARPs the life of a homesteader as cottagecore and posts the images of the effort, it serves as a way of interacting with as-yet-unexplored aspects of personal identity in a manner that takes into account how all interaction is mediated by some form of artifice. It is not simply playing pretend, it is making visible and “readable” the construction of a latent identity. Life is mediated through images now not because we wish to collapse our existence into the shallow pond of two dimensions, but because images project a reality that can be infinitely more nuanced while remaining comprehensible. 

Images can now be constructed and refined moment by moment to express and reflect the process of “becoming,” and this is ultimately more relevant than any particular end product

Calvino’s Antonio is trying to freeze reality to the point of insanity: At the end of the story, he moves beyond photographing humans and resorts to “photographing photographs” as “the only course that he had left — or, rather, the true course he had obscurely been seeking all this time.” Whether he is trying extract aesthetic value from this or imbue it to his existence becomes inconsequential — he is trapped inside an image. 

What Flusser (and Goffman) are suggesting is that this division between images and reality is illusory: We are always playing roles, i.e. making images — and now we have new forms of media to complement this process. These are not attempts to aestheticize what was or play pretend, but to convey our lives through images without becoming fixed within them, or swallowed up by them. 

Those who view “real life” as distinct from images and who interpret their month-long social media cleanse as a way to return to “reality” might prefer to believe that forms of experience that are not documented visually or that do not adhere to a predetermined aesthetic or a mediated narrative are the “truth.” They may claim that images are “fake” or argue that people who seem to photograph everything are living fake lives. They might suggest that experiences contrived to produce photogenic images are false, an “as-if” experience, LARPing in the pejorative sense. But it may be that the life they are describing — a way of being in the world that is untouched by performativity and projection — would itself require a LARP in order to be realized. 

While I was on the island where we were shooting the Abercrombie ad, I met an actor in his mid-20s who played the character Gilbert Blythe in a local production of Anne of Green Gables. Though he was not a professional model, I ended up casting him in the photo shoot, finding his face more photogenic than he seemed to know it to be. I remember watching him being photographed. He was nervous. I could feel it, but it was visible only in the way his upper chest moved and in an ever-so-slight mist of perspiration. 

After I left the island, we stayed in contact, and he revealed to me that he had been going through something of an identity crisis. His experience of being photographed was very disturbing to him. Was he who he thought he was — essentially a charming nerd — or was he collapsing into a two-dimensional image of sexiness? What did I do to him by having cast him? 

One could see his experience as a kind of LARP as well, an alternate universe where Gilbert Blythe becomes an Abercrombie & Fitch pinup. His aftershocks were like what some Nordic LARPers call bleed. In The Positive Negative Experience of Extreme Role Playing, Markus Montola cites a definition of bleed provided by Nordic LARP creators Vi åker jeep: It is what is “experienced by a player when her thoughts and feelings are influenced by those of her character, or vice versa. With increasing bleed, the border between player and character becomes more and more transparent.” Montola notes that a “classic example of bleed is when a player’s affection for another player carries over into the game or influences her character’s perception of the other’s character.” Bleed, in Nordic LARPing and beyond, is an experience that allows one to understand just how permeable the walls of the self truly are. It outlines a concept of self that those who denounce the idea of LARPing as fakery refuse to entertain: certain situations (be they contrived LARPs or, say, unexpected modeling opportunities) allow us to access other aspects of identity, which are located in the friction between the roles we inhabit comfortably and those that feel farther from the “truth” of who we might ordinarily believe ourselves to be. To avoid the discomfort of discovering a new existence in the same skin, the irresolvable difference within our sense of our own structured identity, one might try to live in such a way as to never bleed — a life against life.

When I watched the Make-a-Wish boy playing with the farm dog, it felt tender and bittersweet to see him in an adorable moment of childhood innocence. That was the image that comforted me, the observer. But the fact of his wish revealed that he had not come to this island to simply have that type of experience or be that type of boy, no matter how he might have enjoyed it or what it signified to the adults around him. He didn’t choose a day of playing with puppies. He chose an experience that would break the frame of his “normal” existence — that of the sick child — and transform him into the image of an idealized self. That he would endure the discomfort of his own shyness for this suggests just how deep the yearning was. To be seen as who he wanted to be made him, in that moment, all too human, all too real. 

Aimee Walleston is a writer and adjunct professor based in New York. She has contributed writing for publications including Art in America, T Magazine, and Mousse. She teaches at New York University, International Center of Photography, and Sotheby’s Institute of Art.