More Than Smiles

In The Craft, Thoughts & Theory, Travel by David18 Comments

For years I chased smiles. I still do. I love a great laugh for the spark and openness it brings to a subject. But laughter and smiles, universal as they are, do not tell the whole story or express the full emotional gamut of the human race (riddling, perplexed, labrynthical soul, as John Donne so well expressed it.) I use laughter often to get to those other expressions of personality and soul. People come to the camera often quite nervous, unsure of what to do, and they hold back. They lock some key part of them behind a steely gaze or an awkward pose. We all do. Look at all those selfies out there – so many of them a pose, a mask. Pictures of ourselves, but not about ourselves. No revelation. No vulnerability. But there are many smiles. I wonder if there’s anything so good in the world as a smile to hide and conceal.

This is one of the reasons I’ve been working on my On White series the way I have over the last few years in Kenya. I often present a couple images of the same person side by side, one with genuine laughter and the other without, with some other expression – worry, concern, thoughtfulness, strength. To get this range of emotion is simple but not easy.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me how I do my portrait work in Kenya and it’s simple, if not easy. I use a couple collapsible white scrims, 5ft x 5ft, I think, with a diffusion panel on each. One for backdrop, the other to soften the light. And then I stand or sit with my subject, my translator close at my side and we just ask them to tell us their story. We ask about their kids, their lives, their challenges. Once in a while I ask them to stop what they’re saying and look at me. Sometimes I ask them to smile. Sometimes we ask them to laugh, which of course is an absurd request. You get forced smiles and insincere laughter. But you know what happens then? They see the ruse for what it is. They see how silly it is. And they smile. They laugh. Something genuine comes to the surface. That’s all I’m after. I know they’ll go home talking about this lunatic mzungu (swahili for stranger, white man) and how he’s obviously not a very good photographer because he took a hundred photographs and 10 minutes of their time. It’s a win/win.

What I’m really after is to show the humanity behind the stereotype. These women, and I occasionally photograph the men too, mostly the elders, are traditional nomads. Many of them are dressed heavily in beads and have large expanded earlobes from a lifetime of heavy piercings. They lead a hard life in a hard place. But what makes them human is the same as what makes us human, and any way that I can move people to empathy and compassion is better than moving them to pity, because it would be very easy to show these people, the poorest of the poor, many of them, with dirt and flies and all the various stereotypes that we bring to our notions of poverty. This isn’t about that. It’s about who they are, not merely the context in which they live, which is why I do what I can to show them without that context on front of the white. I want my photographs to be about them, not merely of them. And that requires more than the easy visual cues about poverty. But I also want not to romanticize the poverty, and that requires more than just smiles.


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  1. Pingback: The Deeper Meaning – Looking through the Lens

  2. I love the images. They are so revealing of the subjects’ personalities and moods. Congrats. I’m also very interested in the particulars of the scrims and supports you use. The challenge for me always comes down to size, weight and portability. Can you provide the specifics of your equipment – the scrims and related frames and/or supports and stands? What supplier(s) do you use for these items and how do you transport them in the field? Thanks so much.

  3. Hi David, what a stunning piece of art! I look forward to joining you one day on your trips to Kenya where I live, am an upcoming photographer and your work is such an inspiration to me!

  4. Great post David! I’m wondering if you have any behind the scenes photos of your setup. I’m looking at buying some scrims for this kind of photography, and wondering how you set it all up. Thanks!

  5. These portraits are so good, their faces are so genuine. I think it is more difficult to get a genuine expression of feeling out of a western-culture person, than other cultures.

  6. Hard life or no, these people are so beautiful, so full of life and spirit. You manage to bring it forth in your images. All these shots are remarkable, so forgive me for having a favorite, but the yound woman in the second image down just captures my heart…

  7. Hi David,

    I love the lighting and expressions of these photos. You definitely have a part of their soul captured in the images. Can you tell us more about the use of the scrims, please? I get the background, but it looks like some of the photos the other panel is behind you, sometimes it’s on the side… does it matter where the panels are relative the sun? Or do they just diffuse so much light that it doesn’t matter?

    Thanks again for sharing your amazing images with us!

    1. Author

      Hi Ron – Placement matters but beggars don’t get to be choosers. Most of the time I place the background between the subject and the sun and use the other to flag problem spots – sometimes above, sometimes to the side. But never behind me as I shoot because there is always plenty of reflected light coming of the sand and sky. And sometimes I get lucky and shoot inside a covered shed or under a roof of some kind in which case I can be a little pickier but it’s almost always one in back and one on the side.

  8. Hey David,

    Beautiful words from a beautiful soul! Photographs aren’t bad either 🙂 So inspiring to see how you tie words and photographs together so eloquently. Simply BEAUTIFUL!!



  9. Whoa. As always, you cut straight to the heart of it. Your words are as wonderful as your photographs and I can not thank you enough for sharing your insight and creativity with all of us.

  10. Really great photos. I admire how you are able to break through the awkwardness that sometimes goes along with portrait photography, and get to the heart of these people.

    1. Author

      Hi Elizabeth – I like your energy! Thanks for being part of this little community. I’m not sure I’ve got a favourite image – so many of them are connected to a lifetime of memories and experiences that it would be hard to choose one. But the first photograph I remember making and seeing in it the spark of “OMG, I can’t believe I made this!” was a piece of driftwood on the sand on a beach in Canada. It was black and white, beautifully textured, and the composition was balanced and tidy. I remember being thrilled by it, and while it was hardly an iconic image it called to something in me, gave me hope, and was probably the first time the image itself matched my vision. That was probably the day I felt I’d gone from a camera guy to a photographer, though don’t ask me how to delineate those two – one was what I did, perhaps, while the other was a state of mind and something in which I found myself.

  11. Gosh, every one of those photos are so full of soul! But the second to the last one just speaks volumes!! You’re so incredibly talented and your words really inspire me to go for it as that’s exactly the kinds of feelings/reactions I’d love to capture! Thanks for always being so unselfish with your insights!!

  12. Great post David, thank you for sharing. You can feel the connection transcending through those images. Also I really like the feather like quality of light, which is bringing your portraits to life.

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