With all the talk about vaccines and contagious disease lately, I'm surprised that a very serious syndrome has been so grossly overlooked. I am, of course, referring to Camera Face: that painfully fake smile seen in school photos and drivers licenses across the country.
While many adults are stricken with this condition, it has become pandemic among children born in the 21st century. I’ve photographed kids who paste a phony smile on their face every time a camera points their direction. I’ve tried tricking them into looking at something else or distracting them with conversation or a joke but the moment I raise my camera, the face turns directly to the camera and on goes that smile. Once I asked a kid to close his eyes and relax his face and then, like he had a magic third eye, he somehow knew exactly when I was about to release the shutter and Boom! Eyes pop open, hello Camera Face.
Of course, parents (including me) are the root cause of this malignant condition. Camera Face is exacerbated by the photo-mill establishment (I mean you, Lifetouch) who get their corporate hooks into our kids as early as preschool. Well-meaning relatives, teachers, and caregivers are culpable too, rushing Sally through the photo line and reminding her to smile for the camera and telling her mommy will be very unhappy if she doesn’t smile.
Then one day you hire a professional photographer. When the photographer arrives you say to Sally “don’t do that fake smile”. The fake smile that up until today you virtually insisted Sally do every time she saw a camera. Why is family and portrait photography so stuck on the concept of the smile? Look through any fashion magazine. Count the number of models smiling at the camera. Think of photographs you’ve seen of people in art galleries or National Geographic. Think of the photos that have really gripped you, twisted your heart. How many of those have contrived, fake smiles, or smiles at all? How many of those have anything even resembling Camera Face?
I take literally hundreds of photos during every portrait session. I click away knowing that while people chat and hug and laugh they eventually forget for a second that they’re supposed to be perfect and in that moment, that syncopated beat, I catch IT. That photo that makes you FEEL.
As a photographer and artist, Camera Face is one of the most difficult things to overcome. I can get captivating photos of kids who don’t smile, kids who squirm, kids who are uncooperative, kids who want to run around and turn their butt to the camera. I consider myself well-versed in signs of impending Camera Face and am generally expert at Camera Face mitigation, but a kid with a serious case of Camera Face can sometimes seem incurable. I can use all my best tricks and techniques and still get 200 photos with the exact same expression.
I work hard to get adults and children alike to have a natural expression. Camera Face never looks real. It never looks un-posed, authentic, or honest. The only emotion it captures is discomfort. It brings me no joy to deliver Camera Face photos to a client because I want my clients to have beautiful, emotionally compelling photos of their family.
So I beg you STOP saying “cheese”! STOP with the “smile”! Let us no longer train our children like Skinner rats that whenever they see a camera we must affect that bizarre arrangement of teeth and lips we thought was a sign of happiness. We can look loving and joyful and real without manufactured expressions. If you want your kid to smile, do something funny! Be entertaining! Play!
But here is the truth: kids and families are beautiful even if they’re not smiling. Maybe especially when they’re not smiling.