We do it a lot of times. When a camera sets in, we have the automatic response of showing our pearly whites, sometimes preceded with a “Say cheese.” Well it can also be “Say pizza,” donuts, sweets or maybe even bacon. Err.. Whatever word you prefer and is classified under the food category that’ll surely make you grin with excitement is acceptable.

But what is really in smiling that we do it whenever our picture is taken? Why do we smile in front of the camera? And what is in your smile that makes you think it’s picture-worthy? Oh, forgive me. Sheez.

I have been wondering why medieval people were unsmiling or stern-looking in their portraits. Perhaps they weren’t happy about their outfit? But recently I learned that photography at those times required a very long exposure in capturing their subjects. It would take at least eight hours for a single photo to be captured by the very first camera invented (some historians say it would have actually taken days), which must be the probable reason why people couldn’t stand to smile. History also tells us that there were even head rests to support them as they did their poses. Talk about being already stressed out before the camera clicks- hence the plausible cause of Victorian people’s almost angry demeanor. Certainly no cheese moments for them.

Technology back in the 1800s was still underdeveloped. Until years later, another inventor came up with a more improved camera, the Daguerreotype camera, which only required 60-90 seconds to keep the subject motionless. And, at least hold a smile.

Another reason why people in the Middle Ages couldn’t manage to smile for portraits and photographs is that, they didn’t have proper dental hygiene. Unlike today, anyone who dreams of having perfect white teeth can wear dentures and voilà, can flaunt their captivating smiles!

Years passed and there came the inexpensive and efficient photography that had shorter exposure time. Not only the nobles were able to afford to have their pictures taken, but also the middle class and peasants at the time. Children were also a lovely subject for photographers too, and there are old photos showing smiling children during the Middle Ages.

Media and Hollywood are also a reason why we believe a smile and a happy countenance looks attractive when we are being photographed. Actors and actresses on TV were always being candidly captured smiling, laughing, or with their mouth open. Hence, the start of photos with smiling people!

So, that was the history of smiling in pictures. On a personal level, there linger questions such as: Why do we really smile for it? Is it because it’s the norm? Or, do we see ourselves beautiful when we actually smile? Is it because we’re commanded to say cheese, or we’re being told of a funny joke by the photographer perhaps? Does smiling in photographs make us appear happy? And I mean truthfully happy?

We can always have the choice to just frown, pout, or make a poker face or show an unforgiving look. Or even make a duck face if you please! (Ughhh.)

When I was five, I held a Kodak camera in my hand. I took pictures of just about everything at the mall. Only to find out afterwards that I won the competition of some sort of young photographers. I mean, I was just so little and didn’t know anything about photography and the only scenario that I can remember is when my dad and mom were smiling for the camera that I was playing with using. Now I don’t know if they were grinning at my smallness (because I was so tiny as a child) and like, “Aww look at her! She’s so cute and little and she’s acting like a real photographer,” or something like that. Or maybe they were beaming ’cause I actually joined that contest, the timid and tiny me. Whatever their reason was, their wide smile at the photograph was clearly evident. And hey, that particular shot was my winning entry!

I reckoned that putting a smile on my face would make me look jovial and look like I’m enjoying my life! But dear fellas, I also realised years ago that smiling doesn’t mean being happy. Sometimes there’s no connection at all! Smiling doesn’t equate to the person’s real life disposition.

We can always smile in front of people but we can never fake our smile to ourselves.

We know the truth. A smile does not mask out our despair, sorrow, and sadness. It can never masquerade true happiness. Some say, “Fake it ’til you make it.” But I believe it doesn’t apply to a person’s expression of his/her own happiness. We can never fake a smile. Yes, we can smile to a friend, to a stranger, to our loved ones but we can never smile at the fact that we are hurting or unhappy deep inside.

We can’t fake happiness, for the truth is written all over our faces.

Truth is, it’s not only our smile that’s the basis of our true spirit. It’s our eyes that give us away. Our eyes hold the truth that can never be defied and denied, for

Our eyes are the windows to our soul.

The eyes also know how to smile, likewise. When we’re happy and we smile, that smile radiates brightness to our countenance; it gives sparkle to our eyes. It shows. And it impacts the people who come close to us.

Smiling in photographs has become a tradition. It has become the norm. Nonetheless, who could say that the medieval people who looked sullen in their portraits weren’t happy and fulfilled in their lives? That was their norm. And it’s the same with us today. Who could say that we can’t smile even if we feel the otherwise? Or we can’t cry when we’re happy? Crying when one is actually overjoyed is called gratitude or thankfulness. Tears of joy, as what they say.

Painting a smile on our face entails different meanings. Whatever our reasons for smiling might be, the expression that we bear says a lot about who we are.

So, the next time you prep up for the camera, you have the options of expressions that you can make. Seriously, who cares?! If you want to look somber or unfriendly or rather frivolous or merry, go ahead! Breaking the norms is fun. And the next time a camera clicks and you’re not ready for the shot, you can say “Hey!” unsolicitedly. You’ll be surprised afterwards to see yourself almost smiling in the photo, with mouth open, though unintentionally. But at least it’s close to smiling. Though not that pretty. But then again, who cares?

Daguerrotype of author Henry David Thoreau
Dutch painting of a smiling woman
from “The Smiling Victorian”
from “The Smiling Victorian”
Ambrotype of a smiling man, 1860s
from “The Smiling Victorian”



Photo credits: All photos are grabbed from the internet.

Author’s note:

This article was shared 26 times on Facebook with its old domain name. Too bad for the author, those “appreciation badges” were gone with the old blog name. BLNT.


© Camille de Pano, 2016


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