Since my older son’s birth, I’ve kept a blog for family and friends where I try to share a few photos of the kids every day. Like most parents these days, I’ve taken thousands of photos of my kids – at least. But there’s one thing I do differently.
I never tell my children to smile for the camera. Of course I love to capture images of my beautiful, beaming children, but I much prefer to capture genuine, engaging images of them.
I was at the bookstore with August when he was still a baby, and I took up conversation with another mom who was there with her mother and her 3-year old daughter. The little girl picked up a book from the shelf, walked over to a cozy chair, and started reading. Mom and Grandma both whipped out their cameras and starting taking pictures, but immediately stopped when the daughter just kept reading.
“Smile!” the mom coaxed her daughter. The daughter, content with her story, kept reading (or looking at pictures).
“Lily, smile!” she said again.
“Put on your happy face!” Grandma said. The two kept trying to get the girl, who was absorbed in her book, to smile. Eventually she looked up and gave them what they wanted – a big, empty smile.
You know what I mean by “empty”, right? That smile kids give us when they aren’t necessarily happy and don’t really want to smile, but they know doing so will make us happy. You can usually see the blankness in their eyes.
A few years ago we were at a play space in Stockholm when a girl, maybe five or six, jumped onto a big play horse. It took her some effort to climb up, and when she got to the top she was happy and proud. She had this gorgeous look about her – fierce, proud, satisfied. She wasn’t smiling, she was glowing.
Her dad got his phone out and started to take a picture.
“Smile, Johanna” he ordered.
“Smile!” She maintained her fierce expression.
“Johanna, if you don’t smile right now I’m NOT going to take your picture!”
At which point that fierce look disappeared, she gave him the smile he wanted, and she climbed down off the horse.
What are we telling our kids when we tell them to smile – or refuse to take a picture if they don’t? Is it possible that we’re letting them know that they aren’t quite okay as they are, however they are? That being absorbed in reading isn’t enough, they have to show others that they’re having fun while doing it? That accomplishing something difficult and feeling proud isn’t acceptable, they should instead try to look happy or pretty?
I’m not against having happy, smiling photos of my kids: I love happy, smiling photos of my kids. But I only want them if they are genuine, internally-motivated smiles. I also love broody, moody, calm, absorbed, or angry photos of my kids. I get out my camera because I want to capture who they are in that moment, not who I want them to be. Sometimes a family member will ask them to smile for a photo, and that’s fine – I don’t go overboard with my never-say-smile philosophy. When I have the camera, though, they have free reign to be themselves.
Tell me about your favorite photo of your kid/s. Have you ever caught a “perfect” moment that wasn’t a smile? Do your kids like being photographed?
Color photos by me; black and white photos by the amazing Sandra Jolly.