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The Case For Real Smiles

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If people in the far future were to unearth troves of 20th and 21st-century photographs, the first thing they might ask is “Why are they always smiling?” It would look as though something happened around 1920 that made people perpetually giddy, or even loopy.

On closer inspection, though, the researchers would realize that most of those smiles weren’t genuine, and perhaps were the product of some kind of oppressive force in 20th century society. Maybe an eccentric monarch demanded everyone appear elated all the time, not unlike how North Koreans were clearly afraid to be seen not crying at Kim Jong-Il’s funeral.

Our compulsively smiley photo culture isn’t quite as totalitarian as North Korea, but if you ever assert your right not to smile in a group photo you will definitely be viewed as a subvert. The camera operator, and maybe your fellow subjects, will scold you for trying to ruin the photo by letting it capture your actual face.

My mother is always telling me to replace my unsmiling social media photos with smiling ones. It is a permanent point of contention between us. I’ve been told I look “psychotic” when I’m not smiling, but that’s just my everyday face, and I have faith that future archaeologists studying those photos will recognize me as the sane one.

I understand why people like smiles. I like them too. They’re pleasant, reassuring, and attractive. Smiling people are more approachable. Smiles have genuine social value.

And that’s exactly why I don’t like this custom of mandatory smiling: because I love smiles, and I love that they have meaning. A human smile is one of the most beautiful sights in nature.

Their naturalness is what makes them special, and natural smiles—real smiles—are fleeting. They’re a momentary, involuntary broadcast of intense joy, goodwill or gratitude. How great they are when they’re real. 

A smiling face without that welling of emotion is just a bad simulation, a gesture of conformity more than anything else, which nobody can mistake for real happiness.

Where this ridiculous custom came from

The question of why we always smile in photos is pretty simple to answer: because we’ve been explicitly told to since birth, and whenever we refused we were given a hard time.

But why did demanding people smile ever become normal? This is a history question, and like most history questions the answer is a murky and unsatisfying combination of factors.

We know a little more about why people used to never smile in photos. We often hear it’s because the exposure times for early cameras were really long, but that’s probably not it. Within a few decades of the camera’s invention, exposure times were down into the seconds-range, and people wouldn’t have had to hold their smiles for any longer than they do today when grandma is trying to take a group photo after Sunday brunch without having turned her camera on.

The lack of dental care standards may have been another factor. Until modern dentistry was widely available, it is understandable that nobody was particularly excited to display their brown, rotting teeth, and that nobody wanted to see them.

Most importantly, though, photographs were initially seen as a really fast way to make a painting, and painted portraits have always been serious otherkidaffairs. At first, photographed portraits were expensive vanity items for the rich, and the last thing a rich lord would want want immortalized is the scandalous smile of a drunkard or a trickster.

By the time photographs became accessible to the middle class, the custom of affecting sober, dignified faces had already been established by the rich. But that doesn’t mean everyone was dying to burst into grins the whole time.

Then the taboo against smiles turned on its head. Smiling at cameras came into fashion with the rise of Hollywood movies and consumer goods. It might be mostly Kodak’s fault, who marketed consumer cameras by emphasizing how they can capture life’s peak experiences forever—certain rare, ecstatic, genuinely smile-inducing moments that happen during our vacations, graduations, ribbon-cuttings and weddings.

Over the decades, the excitement of these genuinely special, photographable events somehow got confused with the increasingly ordinary (and often painful) event of taking a photo itself. This may have been the first inkling of the modern, “whose-life-is-happiest” one-upmanship that we all know from Facebook. Look, a camera! Capturing our joyous life! Smile immediately! Don’t let them think we’re not joyous!

Our brief age of fake smiles

Some people are naturals at creating a radiant, genuine (looking) smile at a moment’s notice. Our strange custom of enforced smiling probably doesn’t trouble these folks, because each photo is an opportunity to have one of their talents immortalized. For the rest of us, we’re aware that it’s often our worst qualities that are being immortalized: self-consciousness, uncertainty, pretentiousness and other forms of personal ugliness.

I don’t want to overstate my objection to affected smiling. Very often I do want to put on a smile, and I don’t mean to say photographed smiles are always vicious lies. I just think that the thing being demanded here becomes significantly more wonderful when there are fewer fake ones floating around.

The problem with real smiles is that they cannot be created on demand. But that’s okay, they do happen a lot, if you’re willing to take photos of people as they are. Saying “cheese” creates the illusion of smiling people, but that’s it.

The best portrait photographers have always known this anyway. Look at the work of people like Annie Liebovitz, Yousuf Karsh, or Richard Avedon—and one thing you will notice is that smiles are as uncommon in their photos as they are in real life. The subjects are overflowing with personality, even when they’re looking pensive, sad, concerned or aloof. And when they are smiling, it is—as in real life—magical.


Can you imagine if Karsh had refused to take the photo until Hemingway was smiling? It would have washed all the Hemingway out of the shot. We can’t all be Karsh or Leibovitz, but maybe we can still photograph our lives without telling the people in them that their ordinary faces are no good.

I suspect this little rant won’t change much for most people. Even if you appreciate how ridiculous this custom is, we’re already quite brainwashed and don’t know how else to go about things—I still tell people to say cheese without even really thinking about it, and I’m not sure how I would convince people not to smile, or what the result would be.

More than anything I just want to draw attention to how completely weird it is that this ever became normal. Through some haphazard combination of marketing, pop culture and peer pressure, we are living in the middle of a strange phase in history where we’re not allowed not to smile, at least at in moments when our faces are being captured for posterity. Maybe by the year 2100 this tradition will be dead, and will baffle 22nd-century people the way powdered wigs baffle us.

Like most anti-establishment rants, there is a broader point to all this. A human life seems long to the person having it, but compared to history it’s quite short. When something is fashionable throughout the short stretch our lives happen in, we’re in danger of believing it’s always been that way, and always should be. This narrow thinking is the seed of all oppression really.

So broaden your view of what’s natural and right. Don’t let your aunt tell you how you should look. Smile if you want to, but only if you want to.


Happy kid photo by calvin smith. Other kid by beverly & pack. Churchill and Hemingway by karsh. Lennon by Leibovitz. Monroe by Avedon.

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DiscoveredJoys April 11, 2016 at 2:31 am

On a slightly tangential note I’d recommend using a ‘smile to yourself’ as a way of making your own life more tranquil.

After retiring, when I found myself lacking purpose, I was looking for advice and I read that smiling could make yourself fell happy – because what the body feels the brain follows. So I tried it. All those odd memories where you said something inappropriate or something bad happened – you can usually find a distanced perspective when you smile gently at the lessons learned or how things turned out. Even when you remember losing loved ones you can find some aspect that makes you smile gently even if only at how your sense of loss has eased.

It worked. Now I smile a genuine smile quite often and *quite automatically*. My sad and awkward memories no longer bite, my joy at being able to walk around on a fine day bubbles over in a smile, and even concerns about future events are more cheerful.

I even smile during photographs because the whole idea of capturing a moment of time is… amusing.

David Cain April 11, 2016 at 8:31 am

That’s true, I do use deliberate self-smiling to alter my attitude a bit in certain situations. Some meditation teachers have recommended giving yourself a slight smile at the beginning of a session to remind yourself to soften up and be more open. So there’s a good case for an affected smile, although I’d argue it’s different when it’s not meant for others.

I also think it’s true that smiling is something we should get more comfortable with, because it does have social value. It’s just the photography-related totalitarianism that I find so strange.

Gail King April 16, 2016 at 8:59 am

When I was younger (am a 65 year young granny, now) I would often force a smile if I felt the situation warranted it … until I discovered I actually “liked” smiling and it DID uplift me at that moment. Whether I developed the ‘habit’ of smiling or I just decided to “do it”, I’ve been a smile-er ever since (see? I can even make up smiling words lol).
I’ve often realized I’m smiling during a situation that might normally incite a frown, but I have noticed that my smile oftentimes turns the situation ‘up’ and everyone begins to feel better.
To me, a smile is a magical and powerful thing…and if one can develop the habit of smiling, that ‘habit’, at least in my case, became a genuine response to – – – life.
Be blessed!

Anna April 11, 2016 at 4:09 am

I’m sorry David, I have to agree with your mother. Now you have a smiling portrait of yourself AND its in colour, I literally smile back at your picture when I look at it…. Which makes me feel like a weirdo but I can’t help it. I think it really does look like a genuine smile…. That’s what’s so attractive about it. I think a smiling face goes better with your optimistic website….which is thoughtful and serious…. But this thoughtful observation of life leads to a happier life.

My first child was not a smiler. She has bright white hair so she used to get a lot of people interested in her at the supermarket but she never smiled. I found myself feeling quite put out by this because I could feel people’s thought of…. Oh what a serious brat….especially as her frowns were combined with gruff short answers but it’s just that she was observing and didn’t feel like talking but people so want kids to do something cute. Some people made rude comments and judgements to try and shame her into smiling. I just used to say… She’s very thoughtful and observant.

David Cain April 11, 2016 at 8:34 am

I definitely don’t disagree that smiles are more attractive. But do the ends justify the means when we are basically not allowed not to do it? I am aware that a person’s expression has a lot to do with how they’re treated, which is quite unfair, and I think that mandatory smiling culture is at least part of the reason, no matter how much we like smiles.

Chris April 11, 2016 at 4:31 am

My 3 year old does the super fake smile. It’s cute but she hasn’t mastered the fake smile yet. A lot of times, when we take photos that have us smiling with our family and friends, I’m genuinely happy. You’re right though, I’m actively smiling, and just like when you notice your own breathing cadence, it’s not as natural when you’re in the driver’s seat.

David Cain April 11, 2016 at 8:37 am

Yes, I am often genuinely happy when I’m with my friends and family and smiling isn’t exactly inappropriate. But yeah, once you’re conscious of it, it’s no longer quite the real thing.

Ashwath April 11, 2016 at 5:31 am

That’s a very interesting perspective. And must say I second your opinion.

David Cain April 11, 2016 at 8:38 am

*high five*

It’s a weird tendril of The Man’s influence, this mandatory smiling trend.

Burak April 11, 2016 at 6:06 am

It’s an interesting read David. ‘Discovered Joys’ and ‘Anna’ touched upon good points too. Here is my 2 cents:

Ingenuity of fake smiles has invaded virtually all the photos of our digital age, especially with the introduction of selfies. I have been inexplicably feeling pushed away from having a photo at all anyway -unless I really feel like it. Maybe one of the many reasons is this feeling of ingenuity of a smile, who knows. Rejecting from being in a photo -especially a group photo- doesn’t stop ‘compulsively smiley photo culture’ to pinpoint you as a weirdo, though :)

Another side point is that fake smiles happen outside of the photography domain too for various reasons, each time giving a pinch in the heart. That should be enough of an evidence to avoid it flat-out.

P.S. To me, smiling without a reason or even without feeling like it is totally different than a fake smile.

David Cain April 11, 2016 at 8:40 am

Yes, fake smiling — fake expression-making of all kinds — is a much broader thing than just photography, but it is almost perfectly enforced in the culture around casual picture-taking.

Ronan April 11, 2016 at 6:51 am

Ironically, the image you chose to depict yourself in your sidebar mugshot shows a huge smile: http://www.raptitude.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/20141108-DSC_0057.jpg

David Cain April 11, 2016 at 8:41 am

Originally I addressed that photo in the post, but I cut that paragraph for length. The photo in the sidebar is a concession to my mother — totally a fake smile, and I know it looks good. But it’s a lie. There are pragmatic reasons for fake smiling, but that doesn’t mean it’s not totally strange that in many situations we have no real choice.

Henna April 11, 2016 at 2:48 pm

Haa, i have actually wondering why you changed it, liked much more the old one. I am always happy when i see especially young women not smiling in photos…. politicians or researchers or advocats, or anyone, who talk about their thing, and dont play the attractive woman role.

In Northen Europe I find not smiling is more common to men, but becoming more and more rare. Gotto be cool and happy and active.

Heather April 11, 2016 at 7:19 am

Agree. And now onto the subject of forced or automatic hugging, equally as exhausting and meaningless most of the time. Introverts unite…from a distance! Smiles optional.

David Cain April 11, 2016 at 8:42 am

Yeah, I’m happy that there are quite a few real hugs in my life, but there are fake ones going around too. What a weird animal we are.

Monika April 11, 2016 at 7:35 am

Thank you David, I would like to extend your observation beyong photography. When I came from Europe 25 years ago to live in Florida I spent a good amount of time to explain to people that when I did not smile constantly it die NOT mean I was angry, upset or just rude. In my culture you smile when you have a reason to smile; when I walk into a store I am polite, friendly but do not feel the immediate urge to break into a big smile at a total stranger.
Sending this with a smile because your blog has given me many, many reasons to smile in the past. Thank you for that. Monika

David Cain April 11, 2016 at 8:47 am

That sounds much better to me! I’ve heard more than a few Europeans having to adjust to the reality that in North America, you’re not supposed to answer the question “How are you?” honestly, unless the answer is “Good! You?” I can’t help but think we’d be better off it we were more straightforward with our facial expressions and our feelings.

Katia April 11, 2016 at 8:50 am

In childhood and adolescence, I was constantly told to smile. People observed that my natural facial expression was serious and felt uncomfortable with that image. Overtime, I started to smile more often, especially after moving to live in North America where, if we’re not smiling, we’re perceived as rude or unapproachable. I suppose my expression has naturally changed. David, your post is a great reminder to us to question our assumptions about people based on their natural expressions.

David Cain April 11, 2016 at 8:59 am

I have learned to smile more over time too, but I’m glad I never did it out of peer pressure. It’s unfortunate that we judge each other so quickly on the resting state of our faces, but I guess I accept that we do. If smiling weren’t enforced like it is in North America then we’d be more open to all expressions, and less prone to push people away when they don’t appear happy.

Tomek April 11, 2016 at 9:42 am

After I went to a summer-time dessert festival (hah…..yeah….please be skeptical, I really dont like starting with that line), I felt a very strong supporter of smiling in public more often. I had felt I had interacted with people for the first time in a long time that were willing and eager to act like that, and support such a culture.

Of course, the initial positive feeling has diminished over time, and I did acknowledge this even at the time when I first thought I should make a greater effort at smiling in public.

Something about it is really nice, being genuinely open and smiling even when the typical onslaught it to hunch shoulders, look down, and don’t interact. It’s a nice jarring experience and often reciprocated because a genuine smile is noticeable in this world of ‘smiling’ photos.

Of course, I still struggle to smile in the photo, and it takes everything for me to not think about smiling in order to actually smile for a photo. Perhaps my strength is that I never got the hang of fake smiles.

Sorry for the musing, but it’s just a tangential thought to your post, “and the cool thing is, genuine smiles are noticeable in this sea of artificial smiles. It can be nice to give them away to everyone you meet.”

David Cain April 12, 2016 at 11:16 am

Mmmm a dessert festival sounds delicious.

Smiling can be a gesture of goodwill and I definitely recognize the value of it. I just don’t know why it’s such a sin not to at least pretend to smile in a photograph. It doesn’t really fit with the spirit of goodwill or the real reasons people smile.

StephInIndy April 11, 2016 at 9:46 am

it’s hard not to comment on this one for me for some reason…

i smile a lot. when alone. when not alone. i had a hard time not smiling while reading the article. but i agree with it completely. and what’s made me want to comment is that i have a 6mo old and his smiles are still pretty hard won…his laughter even more rare. and i find myself aching for it, and occasionally wondering if he’s not terribly happy, especially when i try really hard to get one of said reactions only to get a blank stare. but, mostly i know that he is simply unaffected by expectation still, not aware of conformity and i think that is cooler than getting the reactions i crave. thanks for the topic ” ;-) ” —pun intended

David Cain April 12, 2016 at 11:19 am

That’s interesting… maybe there is something about parents genuinely wanting to see their children smile, and maybe that reinforces the strange cultural pressure to smile.

Karen April 11, 2016 at 10:02 am

I like using a long telephoto lens at gatherings to catch those real smiles when people (especially children) don’t know they are getting their photo taken. Those are the best!

David Cain April 12, 2016 at 11:20 am

Haha yes this is more like it. Candid photos are completely different animals from posed photos.

Phil April 11, 2016 at 10:03 am

David, actually you *can* create a genuine smile on demand. Just laugh. As a photographer, and as a photo subject, I’ve found this works reliably. Whatever you do, don’t ask people to “say cheese” which makes fake-looking grimaces. Just laugh. It can be a small inward chuckle or a big laugh, whatever is appropriate or feels right. And if you think there is no reason to laugh, well, just remember that you’re a monkey with another monkey pointing a picture-box at you in vast swirling cosmos. There’s always a reason to laugh.

David Cain April 12, 2016 at 11:21 am

Ah, I will try that. I need to think of some jokes to use instead of telling them to say cheese. Totally agree with you that the cosmic joke is always funny. But it’s hard to make a whole roomful of people get it at the same time :)

Duska Woods April 11, 2016 at 10:59 am

David, I totally agree with your analysis of out culture needs to try to look happy and more attractive when we smile.
This brings a memory of the time when my boss once the long time ago when I was particularly worried about something, to smile. I remember how annoyed I was, and how I told him ‘why should I smile when my heart and soul are sad”? He then said ‘because you look better when you smile’.
I remember getting furious and making an artificial smiling grin and saying ‘is this satisfactory’?
By the way, if you wondr=er how I could talk back to my boss like that, we had that kind of relationship in our office. We were all self-employed real estate agent with arts in the background, real characters, very professionally independent if not very eccentric. Our realtor was like a father to us and liked us because we were in his eyes the unique bunch of people.
Anyway, thank you for another great insight, be well.

David Cain April 12, 2016 at 11:24 am

That’s why I wonder if people who smile all the time aren’t the saddest among us.

Michele Kendzie April 11, 2016 at 11:16 am

I totally agree. I’m a photographer and I never ask people to smile. In fact, I don’t even like to pose people. I have come to refer to myself as a “family photojournalist” and if you look through my current Project 365 http://www.michelekendzie.com/Projects/2016-Project-365/ you will not find a single forced smile. :) Instead most of the people pictures are of them doing what they want to do, with their natural expressions. I like to capture real life. Furthermore, you may be happy to know that there are many photographers who feel the same way – even those who pose their clients – and this is a frequent discussion in my photographer community.

Tracy Bryant April 11, 2016 at 1:44 pm

I’m with you. It’s frustrating to hear, “what a terrible picture” simply because I caught someone not smiling.

I actually have a hard time getting the shots that I want, because the subjects are the ones who want to enforce the fake smile idea. I did a shoot once where I told (begged) the two subjects to look at each other, and I got one good shot out of 20 because they simply couldn’t turn off the instinct to smile into the camera. I find those shots are often boring, mostly because they aren’t doing anything but obviously waiting for the shutter.

Roger April 11, 2016 at 11:16 am

In a related matter, I object to constantly having to explain ‘how I’m doing today’. I’d much rather people would just say ‘I hope you’re having a good day’ than for folks I don’t even know to challenge me to share my life with them.

Steve April 11, 2016 at 11:25 am

I agree with your overall thesis – it’s weird we’re expected to smile all the time–as a society we definitely overvalue happiness and don’t value our other emotions enough. And I agree that you shouldn’t smile if you don’t want to. But this gets at a bigger question – if you don’t you want to smile, what are you doing there?

Most of the time, if someone’s taking a photo it’s because we’re having fun and they want to capture the moment. While I feel that more often than not, photos pull me out of the moment and cheapen it, they do give us an opportunity to reflect–even if its forced–to think about how much we love the people we’re with, to be thankful for where we are, and this usually makes me smile a real smile.

If you’re not happy to be where you are, a photo will make you realize this. And if you don’t feel like smiling, maybe you shouldn’t be there.

And I think there is an important difference here. It’s easy to see the people who use photos as an opportunity to reflect–because their smiles are real. The people who are smiling like a 7 year old in a school picture are most likely doing it because they think they have to.

And when I’m flipping through pictures on Tinder and I see a person with obviously fake smiles, I find it really unattractive. I’d much rather them just be stoic–at least its geniune.

But I’m really only talking about a specific type of photo here – more of a quick one, happening during something social and fun, where there’s not a lot of preparation.

Lots of photographs are superfluous and grueling (mom wants a picture cause you got a new haircut, getting 30 people to fit in one frame, etc.), and it is tough to muster a fake smile in these scenarios, and I agree that you shouldn’t have to.

Rob April 11, 2016 at 11:57 am

I saw that photo of Marilyn Monroe at an Avedon exhibit; he spent hours waiting for her to wear out and put her guard down and be real for a moment so he could capture it.


Luciana April 11, 2016 at 12:56 pm

Your article made me smile in relief two or three times, and these were original smiles. “When something is fashionable throughout the short stretch our lives happen in, we’re in danger of believing it’s always been that way, and always should be” is a precious statement carrying a jewel of truth rarely questioned.

Michael Baker April 11, 2016 at 1:02 pm

In photos where I’m genuinely smiling I can remember feeling joyful in that exact moment in time. My eyes have an unmistakable sparkle, and laugh lines are etched all over my face. Positive energy radiates from the image. But my forced smiles look much different—no sparkle in my eyes, no laugh lines, and it just looks like I’m thinking, “Click the damn button already.”

Because I’ve noticed this in myself, it’s easier for me to spot real and fake smiles from other people.

David Cain April 12, 2016 at 11:27 am

> no sparkle in my eyes, no laugh lines, and it just looks like I’m thinking, “Click the damn button already.”

I think I know that look! Our future archaeologists do too :)

EDIT: Wow my smiley emoticons are outta control in this comment section today

Dawid Wiacek April 11, 2016 at 1:19 pm

Great article for a Monday morning! I often find a reason to (genuinely) smile when a photo is being taken, either because the amateur photographer is fumbling hilariously with the phone/camera, or because someone in the group is making faces, etc. And, yes, I do not enjoy fake smiles. I’d rather see a flat affect than a fake smile… thanks for the lovely read. If you’re ever in NYC, let me treat you to coffee or lunch! It’s the least I could do as a token of my appreciation for the nearly two years of amazing articles… DW

David Cain April 12, 2016 at 11:32 am

We can always hope for some natural humor to arise from the photographer’s fumbling, or maybe something happening behind them.

I will actually be in NYC at the end of the month, but our time is really limited so I don’t think I’ll be able to meet up with anyone. But it’s my favorite place in the world and I’ll be coming back to it frequently.

Orda April 11, 2016 at 1:51 pm
David Cain April 12, 2016 at 11:33 am
Kathy April 11, 2016 at 2:05 pm

I recall hearing a story about photographing astronauts several years ago: the American astronauts smiled; the Russian astronauts did not want to smile – smiling all the time was perceived as idiocy.

And I agree about the forced/automatic hugging. It’s goofy, and an unwelcome intrusion into my space if I don’t know you that well.

David Cain April 12, 2016 at 11:33 am

Ah, the real reason for the Cold War

Elizabeth April 11, 2016 at 3:22 pm

I’m so glad you brought this up. I think those huge American toothy grins all over the Internet look ridiculous. And smiling is not enough — you HAVE TO show a lot of teeth! It’s very fake and superficial. And it’s definitely an American thing.

David Cain April 12, 2016 at 11:35 am

Yeah it definitely feels weird in my face when I’m doing it on purpose

Dan April 11, 2016 at 4:38 pm

27. The Voice of Happiness

After Bankei had passed away, a blind man who lived near the master’s temple told a friend:

“Since I am blind, I cannot watch a person’s face, so I must judge his character by the sound of his voice. Ordinarily when I hear someone congratulate another upon his happiness or success, I also hear a secret tone of envy. When condolence is expressed for the misfortune of another, I hear pleasure and satisfaction, as if the one condoling was really glad there was something left to gain in his own world.

“In all my experience, however, Bankei’s voice was always sincere. Whenever he expressed happiness, I heard nothing but happiness, and whenever he expressed sorrow, sorrow was all I heard.”

Dan April 11, 2016 at 4:45 pm

Also, on the “danger of believing it’s always been that way” front, there’s an interesting term I came across called Shifting Baseline Syndrom that I think describes that effect/phenomenon exactly. It was in environmentalist/journalist George Monboit’s latest book “Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life,” and was used to describe how our belief in what our environment should be like – and how we often direct our efforts to “restore” it back to that more “ideal”/”pristine” condition – is simply based on what we were exposed to in our youth and growing up…but I think it applies here in principle as well.

David Cain April 12, 2016 at 11:37 am

I’m glad to hear there’s a name for it, because it’s probably a prominent part of our experience in all kinds of areas. We can’t help but establish “normal” as what we’re used to, and then later on we discover it’s not like that elsewhere, or wasn’t at other times. It’s like we’re all in Plato’s cave.

Dan April 15, 2016 at 12:05 pm

That actually reminds me of one of my favorite essays of yours:

“Don’t Forget How Strange This All Is”

(link for those who haven’t had a chance to read it)

David Cain April 12, 2016 at 11:36 am

Ah, that’s really interesting. The blind must see through our lying faces easily.

Julie April 11, 2016 at 9:16 pm

Interesting commentary– as a portrait photog/journalist I go back and forth. People want those grip-and-grins, but the pics that end up on the mantelpiece (just showing how image obsessed we are in this culture) are typically the candids. More often than not, those brides and bridezillas end up ecstatic about what I call the stolen moment pics, where they’re not posing and grinning. The Dads who pay for the party (and who paid for the orthodontia) want the smiles, but real life happens in five seconds or less. Oh, and on your list of real photogs, don’t forget Diane Arbus. Sure, she went the way of Sylvia Plath, but the woman knew how to capture the good, bad, and beautifully imperfect world we live in.

David Cain April 12, 2016 at 11:46 am

Diane Arbus is great. I also loved Sally Mann’s family photos. And Nan Goldin is another who obviously wasn’t telling her subjects to say cheese :)

Tony April 11, 2016 at 9:28 pm

This reminds me of an experiment at the British comedy/educational show QI. I think it was series M, episode one where Bill Bailey asked the audience – hundred-and-some people – to say “LOL” in the least emotional way possible. The result was hilarious. Just imagine.

One could, then, subvert the pop culture a bit further by taking a group photograph of people otherwise showing signs of enjoying each other’s company, but with not a single smile on their face. A typical party photo with utterly straight faces. This ought to be good.

Thanks both for the narrow and the wider observation, David. It’s a pleasure reading what you have in mind.

Lisis April 12, 2016 at 5:56 am

I love this article. And I love your resting “psychotic” face… it’s the YOU I trust the most.

My favorite part: “So broaden your view of what’s natural and right. Don’t let your aunt tell you how you should look.” I would just add: don’t let anyone tell you how you should anything. :)

David Cain April 12, 2016 at 11:25 am

Hey look who it is! A real smile is on my face right now.

> don’t let anyone tell you how you should anything.

Yes, absolutely. I knew you were already on board with that philosophy :)

Lisis April 13, 2016 at 10:37 pm

I love that we both have our original Gravatar photos on this comment thread. Makes me feel like it’s 2009, and we’re just figuring out this whole new blogging world. D.D.Cain… that’s what Ali and I used to call you in our late night strategy sessions at Chateau Elan Winery. My, how time flies! (Don’t mind me… just reminiscing over here.)

David Cain April 14, 2016 at 10:37 am

Yeah I’m about due for another gravatar. This one is eight years old! Part of the reason I kept it is because I’m not smiling.

Lisis April 15, 2016 at 6:44 am

You CAN’T change it. This picture IS Raptitude. Besides, you still look just as young and spry as you did here. (And you’re not smiling… bonus!)

lostsoul24 April 12, 2016 at 6:54 am

I just stumbled upon your website and read a few of your articles. My life is about to change because of your work. Thank you in advance David.

Patrick Lahr April 12, 2016 at 7:17 am

I agree with your view point, the norm needs to be pushed. I’ll resist saying “Say cheese” and now say “Smile if necessary”. The point that made it for me was the fact that people are chastised for not smiling, and it’s only gotten worse with social media culture. I’ve seen people angry that someone didn’t smile and quote “ruined their photo” and I didn’t think much of it. I then dated someone who didn’t like smiling and she got that response often and it hurt her feelings. I’ll still use my patented Oh-I-Just-Laughed-And-It-Made-My-Face-Look-Happier-Than-Any-Of-You smile, but I’ll throw in some more casual faces from now on. Now I just need some people to take my picture more often.

Diane Justusson April 12, 2016 at 8:04 am

For another interesting cultural perspective on smiling see link.

I remember in college years ago, the professor, an older woman, was talking about “smiling too much”, especially as a woman, could lead to not being taken seriously. Two young women in the class, both African students recently arrived to USA, were baffled. Everyone, men and women, should smile they insisted. Otherwise they bring everyone else down. This idea of smile as a gift (and manipulation too) is interestingly reflected in this article.

Personal opinion, I agree with your mom! :-)


RJA April 12, 2016 at 11:45 am

There are a lot of hipsters recreating old time poses where they look serious, though. Smiling is seen as part of a stupid mainstream culture. You want to look like a 19th century intellectual, like Trotsky or someone.

Also, there is an interesting difference between (northern) Europe where I live and the US on this issue. We Europeans are pessimists, we see the tragedy of life, we as a collective have lived through centuries of war and atrocities. We know that the American dream is a lie, that not everyone is equal – paradoxically this makes us more likely to support a welfare state since we see most of the poor people as “undeserving”. We have open class differences in the shape of an aristocracy and monarchy instead of class differences hidden beneath the American talk of freedom and opportunities for all. We see Americans as hilariously naive, uninformed and superficial with their fake smiles, fake tans, fake tits, fake teeth, plastic culture, consumerism, strip malls, big cars, empty optimism, vulgar born again christianity and prosperity gospel. This is why Americans who consider themselves alternative (film makers like Todd Solondz, writers like Paul Auster) love us Europeans, they share our loathing of mainstream America. They love to expose the emptiness and naviety of it all.

Of course these are all stereotypes, but fun to play with nevertheless. I think they are somehow connected tp the theme of your post…

RJA April 12, 2016 at 11:46 am

There are a lot of hipsters recreating old time poses where they look serious, though. Smiling is seen as part of a stupid mainstream culture. You want to look like a 19th century intellectual, like Trotsky or someone.

Also, there is an interesting difference between (northern) Europe where I live and the US on this issue. We Europeans are pessimists, we see the tragedy of life, we as a collective have lived through centuries of war and atrocities. We know that the American dream is a lie, that not everyone is equal – paradoxically this makes us more likely to support a welfare state since we see most of the poor people as “undeserving”. We have open class differences in the shape of an aristocracy and monarchy instead of class differences hidden beneath the American talk of freedom and opportunities for all. We see Americans as hilariously naive, uninformed and superficial with their fake smiles, fake tans, fake tits, fake teeth, plastic culture, consumerism, strip malls, big cars, empty optimism, vulgar born again christianity and prosperity gospel. This is why Americans who consider themselves alternative (film makers like Todd Solondz, writers like Paul Auster) love us Europeans, they share our loathing of mainstream America. They love to expose the emptiness and naviety of it all.

Of course these are all stereotypes, but fun to play with nevertheless. I think they are somehow connected to the theme of your post…

Cecilia April 12, 2016 at 3:08 pm

One of the reasons the Mona Lisa is so famous is that she is … almost smiling. Before her, any women smiling in a painting were considered to be prostitutes.

Nienke Hinton April 12, 2016 at 7:38 pm

I have to say I prefer a fake smile over the now popular duck face and fish face that inundate the ‘get over your selfies’

Marcy April 12, 2016 at 11:09 pm

Women especially, at least in the US, are often told to smile by strangers. Or asked why they aren’t. Speaking of consumer culture…

yoob juegos April 13, 2016 at 3:27 am

To flee war, to protect the lives of themselves and their families, and must live with the rhythm of society, sometimes makes people feel comfortable smell. Be strong in the harshness of life, you will succeed.

Louisa April 13, 2016 at 7:05 am

Thanks for this fantastic and very original post. I’ll take it one step further. I’m sick of photography and our endless cultural preoccupation with documenting our lives. Frankly, we’re not that interesting– or only to ourselves!

Andrea April 15, 2016 at 3:42 pm

This post made me smile. The alternative to a smile is, at times, “resting bitchy face.”

Jennifer April 17, 2016 at 9:42 pm

Sometime I’m going to write an essay on smiling. I’ll link to yours in it.

In the last few years I got transferred into a public service job where I wait on angry/crying clientele a fair amount of the time. (Think like the DMV.) I got in whopping amounts of trouble when starting this job for well, being my normal self. Now when I serve, I’D BETTER BE GODDAMNED SMILING MY HEAD OFF and be perky and cheerful, or else the complaints roll in.

Yes, I do think this also has to do with the expectations we have of women, and of ones forced to be in a position of servitude. The more “female” and cheerful and submissive and apologetic I am (I’ll apologize for literally anything by now), the less trouble I get into. You’d better not rub anyone the wrong way because people who already come in loaded for bear want to take even the slightest thing wrong, like your being normal comes off as “angry and doesn’t want to help me.” It’s pretty well life and death in this job that I’d better be happy in public, period.

And it works. I hate to say it, but it works. Nobody so much as blinks at my fake smiles and fake cheer, they LOVE that I say I’m wonderful today, and it’s a lot easier to deliver bad news to someone–more specifically, they take the news better–when you’re cheerful about it.

Delson April 20, 2016 at 12:14 am

Those photos display so much emotion with such seemingly little on the face. Great photos! I tend to agree with most comments here regarding “self-smiling.” Making a smile an object of your meditation does wonders for that particular session – I find I’ve become my own internal happiness generator by just smiling to myself or laughing no reason at all – it might seem crazy, but then again, we’re all a little crazy in this world. It just depends on what we’re crazy for and about :)

Peggy April 20, 2016 at 8:59 pm

Whenever I don’t smile, my family members want to know what’s wrong. I’m like, “nothing, I wasn’t thinking anything”… resting b***h face again LOL

Curtis Smale April 24, 2016 at 4:18 am

I thought of the great photos of Toronto’s RUSH, by the late Karsh, when I read his name. I am almost certain those photos are in the Subdivisions album. I didn’t know that he also took that iconic Hemingway-in-a-sweater photograph. The boys of RUSH might have had slight smiles in those photos, when ironically, they were not big smilers in their album photos. And the mind wanders: I’ll bet that Neil Peart asked Karsh about photographing Hemingway, being that he is a huge reader and even quoted Hemingway: “the bell tolls for thee,” at the end of “Losing It.” Weird note: I am having deja vu writing this. Hmmm…

Daniela April 26, 2016 at 4:19 pm

Thank you for such a brilliant article David. As is often true, you’ve put into words what I know is instinctively true without even being totally aware of it and or even articulate half as well. Now I get why so many artists I know take self portraits
where they look heartbreakingly sad. They’re just expressing their truth and refusing to conform. Funny how they’re the ones history remembers.

ehsan April 27, 2016 at 12:46 am

so good and usefull tnx

Tabitha May 14, 2016 at 10:58 am

Today is the first time I’ve ever looked at your blog. I was happily surprised to see this post. Our “smile!” culture has been driving me nuts for a long time.

There was a time in my life that I was not at all happy and hearing people tell me to smile was both infuriating and heart breaking. As if I needed to paste a fake smile on to make THEM feel better.

It’s comforting knowing others recognize the absurdity of this custom. Thanks for the thoughtful article!

Hana May 20, 2016 at 11:11 pm

On the day to day I feel more affected by, “how are you?” because it’s an uncomfortable emotional intrusion. As someone who struggles to be happy that question functions like a doorbell to my dark side and then I feel pressure to complete the ritual, “good, you?”

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