The Strangeness of Smiling in Photographs


“Hey, do you remember the time we smiled at that party?”

Scroll through Facebook feeds, Instagram accounts, Flickr profiles, possibly Photobucket since that’s still around, and other photo sharing services, and you’re bound to find countless photos of groups of people smiling and staring directly into the lens. Well, the idea is that everyone’s staring directly into the lens. It’s more likely that at least one person is looking off to the side. Maybe somebody blinked. Maybe the photographer’s hands shook and the image is slightly blurry. Maybe I’m just bitter, but standing three, four, or five abreast and smiling for several seconds has always been a strange experience.

Your friend grabs you and says, “Hey, get in this picture.” You oblige, but not fully. Hopefully, the camera’s got a wide lens with a flash so that everything’s in focus. Otherwise, someone’s bound to be out of focus, but that image, along with so many others will get uploaded to any number of websites, where they will live in perpetuity until the demise of the internet.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony QX10 QX100 for mobile phones (7 of 15)ISO 8001-40 sec at f - 4.0

Good hygiene and digital photography is largely responsible for the boom in snapshots, in the stand & smile images. Hygiene is an important one because if you look at old portraits from the late 19th century, you’ll notice no teeth. Part of that has to do with exposure time. Long exposure times meant you had to be incredibly still. The other part of it has to do with the fact modern dentistry hadn’t really taken shape yet, so folks might not have been inclined to show their chompers.

Unless it’s a smiling convention, these repetitive images where everyone says or pretends to say cheese are isolated moments apart from what was going on. They’re sort of a happy roll call, in which the memory isn’t readily clear. The memory is outsourced to a display of enamel, and when I look back at those images I’ve been wrangled into, I can’t readily remember what happened. That’s not to say I wasn’t happy, but that happiness isn’t properly represented by standing and smiling in the dark for five seconds.

What would help is a rethinking of these snapshots and how they’re regarded. Facebook is, in many ways, a digital graveyard for albums that have a very short half life. Interaction isn’t guaranteed. The recalling of memory has largely been outsourced to the digital space. Prints, albums and gatherings around photography has spun into the occasional “like” and “comment”.

At Christmas, my grandparents arrived with boxes and envelopes full of photographs from the past 50 years, each batch relevant to a different member of the party. Photography goes back several generations in my family, so many of these images were qualitatively more than just snapshots. The house lit up with conversation as memories were being passed around. The idea of sharing something is more than just posting it online.

“Facebook is, in many ways, a digital graveyard for albums that have a very short half life.”

Sharing used to be, and still can be, handing a photograph to someone and saying, “Here, look at this.” Memories worth creating are memories worth sharing, and a more accurate representation of those memories means you’ll have an easier time recalling them later on.

This is not to say the stand & smile images don’t have value. They do, but there’s more to it than that. A visual recollection shouldn’t just be the sum of someone’s smiles, and I’m not saying everyone needs to be a photographer. Yet, if more thought goes into the creation of images for posterity, we might not see nearly as many posed smiling bonanzas.