Unsmiling Is Good

When aliens arrive from outer space, a million years hence, they’ll find traces of us in the trillions of selfies we leave behind. “What a cheerful species they were!” the aliens will exclaim. “They grin from ear to ear in every picture. Whatever were they laughing at?”

It’s true. People have fallen into the habit of smiling for the camera whether or not they really feel like doing so. It’s become a formality, a way of saying: “This is how I want you to see me. I’m saying ‘hello’ to you with a smile.”

But who are we greeting? Is it our friends and family? Is it the world at large? Or the aliens a million years hence?

All the Extras
To the smile has been added the “rabbit ears,” the ubiquitous victory sign originated by Winston Churchill in World War Two. It’s hard to escape from this one, even if you take candid photos on the street. If someone sees you taking their picture you’ll get the rabbit ears, unless they’re super-cool about it.

I read somewhere of a travel photographer who journeyed to a remote part of China to take portraits of people of exceptional age in a mountain village. After trekking for days, he arrived at the village and found the perfect subject: two ladies who were both well over a hundred years old. Their appearance of gravitas and wisdom must have prompted thoughts of the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize because he got to work immediately.

What happened? Well, like everyone else today, the two old ladies grinned from ear to ear (showing their toothless gums) and raised their arms in a double “rabbit ears” salute. Forget the Taylor Wessing; this one ended up on Facebook.

Good and Bad Dentistry
Back in the early twentieth century hardly anyone smiled at the camera. My friend Ken Chambers ARPS (himself a fine candid portraitist) tells me this is because people were self-conscious about their teeth. In the absence of good dentistry, no one wanted to smile. I’m not so sure. Certainly in the Victorian era, the need for long exposures must have been a major factor. Only an accomplished liar can hold a convincing smile for more than a second or two.

It’s my belief that the street photographer can use the prevailing climate of grinning to produce pictures which, in stark contrast, show a wider range of emotion.

Two girls looking moody

How about impatience, annoyance, surprise, horror, boredom, fed-up-ness, wistfulness, gloom, dejection, desolation, bewilderment, mystification, wonder, astonishment, embarrassment, panic, beguilement…and I could go on, page after page, listing emotions and reactions that can never be represented by a simple grin.

The Sinister Grin
It’s possible to see the grin as something sinister, rather like the way in which we’ve started to view clowns. Maybe clowns were always the stuff of nightmares, hiding behind painted grins and flopping around in oversized shoes. But it’s really their artificial smiles that frighten us the most.

In pre-Roman Sardinia during the Nuragic civilization (18th century BC to the 2nd century AD) the elderly were ritually killed off by being given the so-called the “sardonic herb.” This was a strong poison, probably hemlock water dropwort, which caused the victim’s face to contort into “risus sardonicus” or rictus grin, with raised eyebrows and a mirthless smile that seemed to be malevolent to onlookers.

Ughh! It sends shudders down your spine. When a smile lacks spontaneity and warmth it’s only a hair’s breadth away from the horror of “risus sardonicus.” I much prefer to see unsmiling people, caught on camera in unguarded moments, where passing moods are recorded forever in a way that’s rarely captured by a conventional portraitist and never in a selfie.

Completely Unaware
The subjects in the images I’m showing here were completely unaware of being photographed. I guess I’m gradually become invisible! Nonetheless, I still find it hard to photograph people who are lost in thought without provoking an unwanted reaction: a scowl, a look of recognition, or worst of all: a grin. The only time I can do it is when people are walking briskly past me, their thoughts fixed on something else. At those moments it’s possible to capture expressions that are so fleeting they become memorable when fixed as still images.

I wonder what the aliens will make of them?

2 thoughts on “Unsmiling Is Good”

    • That’s not a bad idea, Rob. Of course, the candid nature of the photo will be lost, but the result can still be a stunning picture.


Leave a Comment