“Fake happiness is the worst kind of sadness.”
Early on in my journey as a photographer, I decided that I would never ask people to smile in my photographs. It came down to seeking authenticity. A life without joy is no life at all but in pursuit of this happiness, we have created a culture that looks the part but rarely lives it out.
Put it in this perspective:
If we did a survey and asked people how they were actually feeling in a particular photograph, how many would actually list “happiness.”
It begs the question: what’s the value in a smile?
When it comes to life, I consider myself to be a pretty happy person. I naturally smile a lot because I am genuinely content with the day is going. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I have used a smile once or twice to cover up what is really going on. Over the past year, I’ve been learning what it means to live authentically; meaning that I make space for my own feelings. The good, the bad and the ugly. I haven’t always given myself permission to feel anger, express worry or show sadness. Photography opened that door for me to express these less-than-desired emotions.
This decision also came as I learned more about my husband’s culture. For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve been married for 5 years. My husband, Francois, is French. When we first started dating, I noticed that Francois rarely smiled in pictures with a big cheesy grin. I would always ask him—”why can’t you show those pearly whites, aren’t you happy?” He would respond that it wasn’t because he wasn’t happy, he just didn’t feel the need to overexaggerate his happiness. Huh. It really opened my eyes to a worldview wherein one instant, we can throw a smile on to convince people we are doing just fine. Such as:
Families arguing over dinner until someone pulls out their phone and says, “get in the picture.” The annoyance is set aside for a split second as everyone huddles together for a good ‘ol family picture.
A young woman battling depression but can muster up the strength to smile for a selfie that she posts in search of affirmation.
I often wonder how we can seek pure joy when we are too busy mimicking it. Where is the line drawn between social custom and self-denial? If we are so quick to convince everyone else that we are happy, how is anyone supposed to know how we are doing, really? In my mind, it’s along the same lines of the classic, “Hey how are you doing?” People rarely respond with anything but “good” and yet in truth, there is stress, anxiety, and discontent brewing beneath the surface.
As a storyteller, I decided that in a time where anxiety is on the rise by 40% in just the last couple of years, picture perfect people with perfect smiles just isn’t going to speak to anyone. At least not in the way that I intend. I want my work to tell people that it’s okay to not be okay, just as long as you don’t stay here. Give weight to how you are feeling and take the steps to grow.
We are complex beings with an array of emotions. This is something I like to explore.
What is sadness without tears shed?
Anger without tightened fists?
Happiness without a smile?
It’s emotions like boredom, peace, and wonder that I gravitate towards in my work. I did not give myself this rule to avoid smiles or expressions of happiness; I only desire for it to be genuine. I want to capture who a person is at that moment. If it’s exuberant joy, then that’s perfect; if it’s indifference, even better.
So, if a smile is what I am after, how can I evoke it out of my subject?
The answer is simple: get to know the person. What makes them happy? What makes them laugh? All of my favorite cheesy photos were taken in a moment where I either embarrassed myself and made them laugh or the fewer times when someone actually found my joke funny. But more times than not when I look back at these portraits, I feel as if they radiate happiness, not imitate it.