My Most Memorable Photo Shoot

My most memorable photo shoot was the time my face started to swell shut. But first, a little background… Last fall I developed a condition called “Chronic Idiopathic Urticaria.” In English this means that you have chronic hives, the cause is entirely unknown to doctors, and that you will have them for either another few weeks or the rest of your life, we don’t know. Thousands of dolla-dolla-bills later and 78 pricks in my back for allergy testing, it was determined that yes, you have some food allergies, but unfortunately they are not the cause of your hives. They will trigger your hives, but you’ll still get them even if you avoid these foods. Let me tell you how excited I was to hear this news:

x = "I love hives!"
if x = "I love hives!"
  puts "Hell yeah!"
  puts "No. No I hate them."

=>"No. No I hate them."

What I’ve learned:

- being too hot will trigger my hives
- being too cold will trigger my hives
- being dehydrated will trigger my hives
- not being dehydrated will trigger my hives
- stress will trigger my hives
- laying in bed totally relaxed will trigger my hives
- clothes will trigger my hives
- not wearing clothes will trigger my hives
- alcohol basically always triggers my hives (the look on people’s faces when I tell them this is always quite amusing)
- bread will trigger my hives
- but you guessed it, sometimes bread will not trigger my hives 

What I did not know this one beautiful morning as I headed to a tech start up in San Francisco to take head shots for 11 of their employees is that NSAIDs most definitely, always, no matter what will trigger my hives, times ten. NSAIDs are non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, so when I popped two Advils that morning, I had no idea that in a few hours I would look like this:

 Please note, I write this purely out of the absurdity of the situation. There's no reason to feel sorry for me because it'll probably just stress me out and give me hives ;)
I've found in moments like this, the best thing to do is just laugh. So please, laugh. I am.

This has now happened to me three times in my hives-life. The first time wound me up in the hospital on Thanksgiving morning. Here’s what happened to me this last time:

I arrived at the tech space that morning and began setting up my lights and backdrop. I was pretty tired as I had been up late the previous night, but overall I felt generally good and only really needed a bit of a caffeine kick. I wasn’t sure why my eyes had a burning sensation, but again I equated it to the fact that I was probably just tired and my eyes were dry. I carried on, setting up light stands, putting the lights on the stands, opening soft boxes and securing them to the lights. I unraveled the grey back drop and lifted the backdrop stands as high as they’d go. I checked my arms. A few tiny red dots were present on my forearms, but again, nothing unusual. I had been taking medicine every day for months but it was still perfectly normal for me to get hives each day and for them to go away within 30-60 minutes. The itch and burn was minimal. The first person arrived for his head shot, and I began shooting. Twenty minutes later and my eyes were on fire. The felt kinda bulgy, too. I excused myself to go to the restroom and to my discovery I looked like this:

You have got to be kidding me! My entire body was covered in what I like to refer to as hulk hives. Not the dainty cute little hives that if they weren’t red could be mistaken for freckles and a sun kissed face. No, these were the HI MY NAME IS THE HULK AND I AM GOING TO DESTROY YOU hives. I panicked. I still had another 10 people to photograph, and had just spent the past two hours transporting all my equipment to their office and setting up. There was no way I was going to re-do all of this. But the question was, how could I continue? My eyes were swelling shut, my lips were, too, and I knew that if the swelling didn’t stop, I’d have to race to the hospital again. I nervously exited the restroom with my head down, popped a regular allergy pill, took a few deep breaths, and approached the CEO.

“Hey, pardon me, I just need to make a quick phone call outside. I’ll just be a few moments.”

He tilted his head to the side. “Are you okay?”

My face was now beat red. No cute hive freckles, just a really bad sun-burnt look. “Oh, yes, perfectly fine! I’ll be right back.”

I needed my hospital medication, the really, really strong stuff that would stop the swelling. The pill I had just popped would slow the process, but I had no idea how severe the reaction was going to be, and so it was important for me to get the other medication in my system as soon as possible. It is not normal for people with CUI to have their face swell, this I knew from my doctor the first time I was in the hospital. I was determined though to not postpone the rest of this photo shoot, but that was as long as I could see out of my still swelling eyes. I called a friend to see if she’d be able to go to my apartment and pick up my medicine and come deliver it to me. The phone rang and rang. I called another and another, but no one picked up. I paced and panicked and checked my appearance in my phone’s camera. Awful, I look awful, no, not even awful, I look down right scary. I decided to call a photographer friend.

“Casey!” I yelled into the phone. “Oh my god, are you busy right now?”

“Hey! Yeah, kind of. I’m in the middle of a photo project with another photographer right now, but we’re on a break right now. What’s up?”

“I need you to come shoot this photo shoot for me. Right now.”

“Sorry, what?” 

“My face is swelling. It’s my hives. I look like a #@$&* monster right now and I don’t know how bad the swelling is going to get. I have ten more people to photograph. Head shots, real simple. Everything is set up. Is there any way you can get here and finish the shoot for me? I can try shooting the next few people but at this point I’m a ticking time bomb before I may have to go to the hospital.”

“Oh my god, girl! I’m so sorry! Geez I can’t believe your hives, this is insane! I’m done here in an hour. I can be there by 12, but not until then.”

I thought about it. If I took another allergy pill, that would possibly help slow the swelling process even more, giving me enough time to shoot until she was here. Having her on stand by calmed my nerves. I was an anxious mess.

“You can do this! You can finish this shoot, I know you can!”

“I don’t know if I can! I seriously look like a lunatic, I’ll scare them and they’ll think I’m contagious or something. I don’t even know how to explain to them what’s happening to my face, I already feel too humiliated.”

“Who #@$&*ing cares what you look like. Seriously. You know how to do this. You know how to take photos. Just keep shooting. I’ll be there at 12.”


We hung up and I walked back in to take another allergy pill. I knew that I had to stay as calm as possible, as any added anxiety would make my hives worse. Knowing Casey was at least coming in an hour allowed me to relax a bit. I wasn’t alone, she’d be here and I’d be able to finish the shoot. Be professional, you’re on the job, you do not have time to freak out right now. I swallowed my pill and called the next person over to have his photo taken. I was just going to have to be honest, but I was also going to play it cool. I didn’t want to go into detail about what CUI was, but I did need to address the fact that my face now resembled a lumpy frogs. 

“Hey, I’m so sorry I look like this. I have really bad allergies, but I’m totally fine.” 

“Like cat allergies? I’m allergic to cats, too, but mine never get that bad.”

“Um yeah, you know, cats, dust, the air. It’s no big deal, though, really I’m fine. I took an allergy pill so I’ll be totally fine, but that is why my face looks like this.” 

I could tell he was quite stunned by my appearance, but he was polite, dismissing it and saying I didn’t look that bad. That bad. The shoot continued on, and as each person sat down, I explained again why I looked like such a freak. They all expressed concern, some saying that they weren’t wearing glasses so couldn’t even see me. That’s nice of them, I thought, and quickly put my camera back up to my face to cover my appearance. About 30 minutes later I could tell that the swelling has ceased. Though not going away, I could feel that it wasn’t going to get worse. I texted Casey and told her not to come, that I’d be fine, and thanked her profusely for being willing to come.

Two hours later I finished the shoot. Relieved, I quickly began packing up my stuff. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally. I collapsed into the Uber drivers car, tears streaming down my face. I was angry that I had to live like this, with no answers but to accept the fact that sometimes I was going to have sneak hulk hive attacks. I had already canceled a wilderness road trip with a friend the previous month because of fear of one of these sneak hulk hive attacks. I needed to be close to a hospital.

I arrived home, practically diving across my bed to the bottle of pills that sat on the other side. I clutched the bottle, carefully reading the label. These were emergency only pills. I texted a friend asking him to call me in forty minutes to make sure I was still conscious and okay (really, in case my throat closed and I had passed out). My hands shaking, I took a pill and fell asleep. Forty minutes later he called. I got up and looked in the mirror. 

“I’m fine, I’ll be fine, the swelling is going down, thank you. I have to go, though, I’m exhausted. Thank you.” We exchanged a few more words and I hung up.

Twelve hours later I awoke in a daze. My memory was foggy and I felt like I had been hit by a bus. Flu like symptoms, this was normal after a hulk-hive reaction. I rolled over and looked at my phone: a collection of text messages asking if I was okay. Was I okay, was I okay, yes, I was perfectly okay. The previous day faded into my consciousness and I began to laugh. Hysterically. I laughed hysterically remembering the look of the CEO’s face when he asked if I was okay. I laughed because I knew how ridiculous I must have looked. I laughed because I had blamed it on cats. I laughed because the entire situation had been so absurd and humiliating and embarrassing but I did it anyway. And I was okay. They got their photos and were very happy with them. I checked through my phone photos and laughed some more. 

That was my most memorable photo shoot, the day I took photos looking like a large lizard. No, I have not taken NSAIDs since that day and my face hasn’t swelled since then either. But yes, if we go to a bar together, my drinks will be virgin.  

Just your regular photographer available for hire.

My dear friend Casey. Proof that I do look normal most days, and that I'm not contagious.