…And the Whole World Smiles with You

I remember the day I saw this picture.

It was a few years ago, around 2017/18. I was scrolling through Pinterest searching posts about Asperger’s in women when I stopped at this picture of a young girl smiling.

That smile… It was like looking at the younger version of me. The top lip curled inwards, the bared teeth, the little areas of tension in the lower half of the face while the rest is relaxed, what others might call ’emotionless’.

Now I know kids pull faces, especially if there’s a camera in front of them. It’s a strange thing we do in the modern age; someone takes a camera out, to be motionless and show a happy emotion towards a mechanical eye. Say cheese! Snap. Preservation of happy moment achieved!

As I said, a modern pose is smiling for the camera, and not familiar to all the places in the world. My mum actually reminded me of this when she sent me a picture a few days ago of my grandma – her mum – as a pre-teen, with her mother, father and sister. While everyone else stares into the camera lens with neutral (some could say, Slavic stoicness), my grandma smiles the sweetest and cutest smile. It’s pretty rare for her to not smile at a photo or video, even now.
The 50+ year-old photo wasn’t taken with an old, wet-plate camera or processed like daguerreotype, or even one with a slow shutter speed where people had to hold poses and keeping a smile on your face was too tiring; it was taken with a (vintage.. modern? Modern vintage?) camera that just had a slower shutter and speed.
The non-smiling faces just came from the simpleness of having a photo as a memory. “This is us, this is where we were, this is how I looked.” A smile wasn’t thought of (unless something amusing was happening at that moment candidly) or was just down to being a weird thing to do.

My grandma, the smiley one.

I guess what I was getting at there is smiling for a photo, while almost an involuntary reflex now, doesn’t exclude how weird it can be, and kids in a way know this, at least in a subconscious way.
A smile is hardwired into many, many of us to express joy, happiness, sometimes contentment and pride, but it’s not something that we know as kids to do for something unrelated to those emotions. In that way it isn’t an instinct, it’s taught. You hold a bunny up to a kid, you play peek-a-boo with a baby. You coerce the response. You smile at a baby and hope it mirrors one back.

And you teach them that they smile for the camera.

But. It’s. WEIRD!

I was quite a happy child and naturally smiled like a “normal” child would but I was really shy, and having my photo taken seemed to really bring that on. I knew how to smile, but being in front of the camera was like a spotlight. I think felt vulnerable in a way, sitting by myself and being told to smile – and if there was more than one person behind the camera asking me to smile I felt so much more anxious about it. I can’t be certain, but I think I had noticed by that point that it wasn’t just a smile that goes into a photo; there was usually body posing (hello, K-Mart kids photos!) and it all seemed.. staged.
I know I felt like this because I still feel the same now. Even when I get a headshot done to a selfie with my sister, it all feels fake if I try to get the right body angle or try to tilt my head in a way that accentuates my jaw.

It’s weird!!!

One thing that helped bring my smile out though was having my photo with others. My mum, dad, sister, anyone else in the shot and I felt better about it because the focus wasn’t solely on me. Even today I still feel better being with someone else in the photo. And preferable not a selfie.

So I guess if you’re reading this and can identify with any of this in any way, I hope you know you’re not alone. If you’re a parent I think you need to – in the nicest way I can say it – calm down. Cut your kid some slack. Pressuring them about photos and what they might look like when they smile will only make your child associate photos with negative feelings. I know it might get frustrating because you want a nice photo of your kid, maybe just even one photo, but if I can give you any tips it would be:

  1. Recognise how strange smiling could be to your kid when taking a photo. The younger, the more confused but teenagers could also feel this way too.
  2. Try to have some in a photo with someone else. And not just anyone – someone they actually like.
  3. Maybe keep the things they like (toys, etc) around if you want to try having a photo done. Remember that seeing them engaged in something they enjoy can be a valuable photo as well.
  4. Give them sunglasses or a half-mask. Sure, you won’t see their whole face, but it will make them more comfortable if they do want to smile.
  5. Have them take a photo of you. Do a whole photoshoot of funny faces then slowly turning it down to a little lip curl, or vice-versa. Sometimes kids don’t want it to be all about them, and also touch them of “my go, your go”.
  6. Sometimes kids (and people to that extend) can actually forget to smile for a photo especially if they’re thinking of something else. If they look towards the camera with a neutral face, take it as another achievement.
  7. Never bully or guilt-trip your kid into a photo or tell them in any way they’re not trying hard enough. Never point out how ‘different’ their smile is. That’s really, really shitty.

So, how am I with photos now? I can smile genuinely for a photo, solo photos are still weird, I still feel uncomfortable and don’t like my photo taken. If I have to pose or do anything that makes me feel like I’m “putting it on” anymore than that I feel so strangely fake still. Selfies are a nightmare!

Also, in case you want to know about the girl in the photo, her name is Nadia Bloom, and that picture was actually the official photo used when she went missing in 2010 – but don’t worry! She was found safe and well after an apparent bike ride and curiosity to “see nature and take pictures.” Latest updates said she planned on becoming an artist [I haven’t been able to find any contact details for Nadia to officially ask for her permission to use these photos but Nadia if you see this and want them taken down let me know]!

Some good additional reads:


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