Why Do We Smile in Photographs?

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


An Eruption from the Past

This is an article I wrote five years ago that I would like to share here. Hope you get inspired (and convicted) upon reading it!

Fourteen years ago, I happened to read a story from an academic magazine. I was a first grader by then and I remember being fascinated and moved by a true story entitled, “The Dog of Pompeii”. I can’t recall the exact events except that it was about a dog and a poor, blind young boy who lived in Pompeii, Italy. That dog was very intelligent and loyal to its master that every morning that the boy woke up, food was already served in front of him. The climax of the story was when Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano at that time in 79 A.D. erupted, killing both of the protagonists in the story.

These details came up to me again (after 14 years, yes) when I accidentally saw one of the yahoo news entitled “Incredible photos show inside of world’s ‘most dangerous’ volcano” in Congo. I looked into it and later saw a video suggestion on the site. I was then led to YouTube and suddenly saw that familiar place again- Pompeii.

Different pictures stirred up my memory as I stumbled upon the gallery of photos that show the ancient bodies of victims of Mt. Vesuvius’ catastrophic eruption in 79 A.D. They are now preserved using plaster of Paris that the archaeologists used to fill up the air holes that occupied the dead bodies under the 25 feet mounds of earth and rock after the eruption. These plastered forms of bodies are now displayed and serve as memorabilia of history.
cast of a man as he was trying to support himself on his elbows

As I continued checking into the photos and after some time contemplating, I came upon an excellent documentary film by the BBC in YouTube entitled, “Pompeii: The Last Day”, that shows the details of one of the dramatic, tragic, and disastrous wrath of nature ever recorded in history.

One thing that made me hooked on that six-part film: All of the people at that time had no any idea that an apocalyptic eruption was about to occur (In fact people of Pompeii had not seen anything like it before then). They did not even know that a volcano exists. On a lighter note, some even enjoyed watching the formation of clouds of super-heated rocks and gas, as if they were having a sightseeing experience.

And so they continued living their normal lives. As I was watching, I discovered the unusual practices of the ancient Romans. Of course, the master-slave manifesto dominated Rome. The slaves were coerced to wash their master’s clothes in fulleries using urine, since the acidity removed the stains. Women slaves were also forced to sleep with their masters. Authorities and Roman gladiators abused their positions. Money and gold were very much important to them. Anyone can conclude that they lived the lives of immorality and corruption. They all ignored what was happening until…

Mt. Vesuvius eruption
Mount Vesuvius spewing out super-heated gas that darkened the sky over Pompeii
Hours passed and the conflict unfolded. It was daytime and plethora of pebbles rained down the city and the thick, dense clouds of gas covered the sky which created darkness. The day became night. Earthquake shook the whole city and even larger rocks fell from the raging volcano.
“The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” Matthew 24:29

Those who ran into the coast were chased by the searing heat and instantaneous death came to pass. As the narrator describes it, “The people on the beach did not just burn, they turned to charcoal.”

Some of the people stayed and prayed to their god, Jupiter, and offered foods and sacrifices in the midst of the disaster. But as they prayed to their gods, foundations of their houses toppled down.

“Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” John 17:3

They even committed suicide by drinking poisons because for them, “it is quick and painless”. To the ancient Romans, committing suicide was acceptable and necessary when the situation became so critical.

Thousands of people died in those tragic days of August 24 and 25, 79 A.D. The remains of a dog was even found during the discovery of the buried city of Pompeii and excavation of bodies in the 1600s- perhaps the same dog that is in the story that I read when I was six years old.

So what’s my purpose of sharing this to you? Simple- that this same event in the past is possible to happen anytime in our generation. It may or may not be caused by a volcanic eruption, though. But who knows?

“Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” James 4:14

This entails us that we should be wakeful and mindful enough to interpret the signs of the times. Open your eyes. I believe that I happened to watch those documentaries in order for God to reveal something to us. This is not a threat, nor a made-up story, and not a baloney. This is the TRUTH that is contained in the Bible.

Like the people of Pompeii thousands of years ago, they had no any idea that an ordinary day would actually be an apocalyptic day. They even ignored it and were complacent. They continued living their Godless lives… until everyone was wiped out over the face of the earth.

“The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” 1 Thessalonians 5:2-3

“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” Matthew 24:37-39

Just observe everything that is happening in the world right now. Endless incidence of crimes, wars, sexual immoralities, corruption of minds, wayward lives; everything has its foundation on sin. No wonder that disasters strike us- typhoons, earthquakes, killer tsunami and nuclear disaster, the chaotic situation stirring up in the Middle East, and the destructive wars in the different parts of the world. Let me remind you: God is never the author of disasters. We are the ones who open the gates for the devil to sow destruction and killings. God is merciful. All we need is to humble down ourselves and ask for His forgiveness for our sins. No, you cannot escape; you cannot hide yourself from the Truth. Everyone is a sinner and the only way to be saved is to believe in Him, surrender to Him for no one can ever save himself except through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Let’s not be like the ancient Pompeiians, who were ignorant of the saving power of Jesus. It is only through Him that we may be spared from the works of the devil.

“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Matthew 24:36