“Just give me a tiny smile, and then we’re done.” I cringed as I heard myself saying this last week to a particularly unhappy and stressed-out little girl. Of course, this wasn’t a random occasion, this was this child’s first communion, and I’d been hired by her parents to take portraits of her and the family so they could remember this special day.
Most of us as portrait and wedding photographers have found ourselves in such a position from time to time, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be this way. One portrait photographer has broken the mould and has received a lot of praise for her portraits of young girls that allow them to be in whatever mood they wish.
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Photographer Brooke Light shared her images of girls in more neutral or thoughtful expressions on her TikTok account @bdlighted. “When your photoshoots allow girls to show up, take up space, and not smile if they don’t want to,” she writes.
Comments flooded in from people remembering their own family portrait traumas, the humour presumably masking a hint of truth. “I love how they are not trying to be anything ‘extra’ just their own raw and savage selves,” one person wrote.
In fact, this smile for the camera thing didn’t used to be an issue. Victorian portraits are full of serious expressions, largely because people had to hold an expression for longer exposures. It was very unusual to come across a period photograph with someone smiling.
The results are powerful, and it sends an important message. We don’t tend to expect little boys to people please in the same way that we do girls. This behaviour to be ‘good’ and smile for the sake of other people’s feelings is learnt at a young age. Generally, it doesn’t serve us well throughout life and comes with a lot of complicated connotations.
Any young woman probably knows the feeling of being told to smile by a complete stranger (usually male). At best, it’s intrusive, presumptive, and annoying. At worst, it’s harassment.
Fortunately, I am now of the age where I can enjoy the luxury of being ignored by strangers and can arrange my face in exactly the way it feels without being told how it should look in order to make other people feel more comfortable.
So back to the first communion shoot (they are a big deal in Spain, similar to weddings, if you were wondering). Honestly, I felt very guilty, cajoling this poor child into pretending to be happy purely because her parents and grandparents demanded it.
She was clearly uncomfortable and apparently hadn’t been able to sleep the night before because of the pressure she was feeling to perform in the correct way. In the end, I told her she didn’t have to smile; she could just ‘be’ in the photographs in whatever way she felt. We got through it. The photographs are beautiful, and her parents and grandparents are, of course, proud no matter what expression she has.
Perhaps as photographers, we need to also feel less pressure to perform and just be prepared to roll with the punches on the day of the shoot. Smiles or no smiles, we can still create beautiful portraits that will be cherished. And maybe in the process, we can send an important message that little girls are valued no matter what mood they are in.