I have seen albums full of old professional pictures taken in Haiti of my parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. in their younger days. All of these pictures have a few things in common: 1) they’re usually in black and white, 2) the subjects are well dressed and coiffed (for that time period anyway), and — 3) most notably (to me, anyway), they are never smiling in these photographs.
I’ve always found this to be so odd…why aren’t they smiling? Surely they have reason to smile and look happy. It seemed as if maybe smiling was not allowed. I’ve spent my life trying to perfect my “picture smile” — not too cheesy, not too fake looking, maintaining that perfect fabricated smile while awaiting the camera “click” — you know the drill, right? The “picture smile” is really an art that I’ve had to work on for years (and I swear I still haven’t perfected it!). But there’s a whole generation of Haitians who have not experienced this lifetime struggle. They simply stand/sit, look at the camera — and click! That’s it.
Naturally, I asked my mom (who, by the way, now smiles in pictures). I needed to understand what was the deal with all these straight faced back-in-the-day pictures. She basically told me that taking pictures in Haiti was serious business back then. Apparently, it sometimes took the photographer a while to set up the poses, then he had to go back under his camera cover to snap the shot…and they had to stay very still. Taking professional pictures was a big deal, and the idea was to capture what you looked like — there was no time for griyen dan teeth (“grinning teeth”). And honestly, they even didn’t think to smile. People just didn’t smile in professional pictures; that’s how things were typically done. So I suppose it’s a cultural thing as well as a generational thing. In the US — in my time — it never occurred to me NOT to smile; I was always focused on perfecting my smile for the shot.
Personally, I enjoy seeing old pictures of my family members — with or without the smile…but I definitely prefer to see smiles in pictures (even if it’s not a natural smile). Have you noticed this same thing in your old Haitian family pictures?
Ingrid Austin Daniels is a stationery designer, owner of Macaya, a Haitian-American apparel brand, and the founder of this Cornbread and Cremasse blog. Check her out at http://www.ingriddaniels.com.