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The Empty Smile

If I invented a ray gun that would rob you of your personality, leaving in its place only the phoniest of Cheshire Cat grins, would you want me to point it at you? What if my invention were called a camera? That, after all, is what happens when we humans are caught in the instrument’s hypnotic beam. Instantly, the light fades from our eyes, our bodies stiffen, and our faces contort into the deadly photographic smile. It’s an attitude that conceals all the deeper elements of our nature, letting us make believe that we are currently thinking only happy thoughts. Maybe cameras really do steal souls.

From birth, we are told to abandon our natural facial expression, whatever it might be, and smile for the camera. Of course, telling a child to smile is like saying, “Here, Honey. Put on this mask.” The resulting slideshows of Stepford kids make me wonder what, besides the faint ectoplasm of obedience, the camera has really captured.

In the Brittan household, we try to take real photos. But the world is so full of smile-demanding picture takers that my children can’t not smile, in spite of my pleading. I’ll quote Ansel Adams at them: “To photograph truthfully and effectively is to see beneath the surfaces and record the qualities of nature and humanity which live or are latent in all things,” I’ll say. “Now throw me a bone!” Then I’ll raise the camera, and they’ll flash the usual robotic smile, all surface and no humanity. And so on into adulthood.

There ought to be a law against the photographic smile, but I doubt the current Supreme Court would uphold it. I’m looking at a photo of the Warren Court, from the good old days (bit.ly/warren_court). Now there was a serious bunch of jurists, sober as judges, you might say—striking just the right tone for the highest court in the land. Sadly, the Warren Court has been overturned by the Roberts Court, which in a recent group portrait (bit.ly/roberts_court) decided, six to three, in favor of the fake smile (Justices Thomas, Kennedy, and Ginsburg dissenting). The newest members in particular—the beaming Sotomayor and Kagan—appear to be trapped in the pages of their high school yearbooks, jockeying for Most Outgoing. My guess is that the smilers know how goofy they look, know that Supreme Court justices shouldn’t model themselves after American Idol judges—and yet they just can’t help themselves.

Even Tufts Magazine, with its demanding designers and dour editors, is not immune from the effects of this impulse. We’ll hire the best photographers, instruct them to slap anyone whose smile is less than heartfelt, yet still end up with the occasional vapid grin. And consider the enigmatic half-smile on the scarecrow above. What does it mean? Is he trying too hard to follow his own advice? Not hard enough? Alas, we may never know.

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