To Smile or Not To Smile

by Laura Pedrick
Recently, just before shooting a portrait session, my client expressed great anxiety and dread about being photographed. As I raised my camera for that first shot I swear I heard a sigh that silently seemed to say, “Go ahead, just shoot me and get it over with.” Not all portrait shoots begin so apprehensively, but many do and not surprisingly most especially with women. I’ve been around long enough to know that it’s nothing personal. I’m actually quite sympathetic to their discomfort at exposing themselves, and personally touched that they’ve trusted me to photograph them. So together, through these sessions, we take a journey that begins with fear and self-loathing and ends in empowerment, self-discovery and often a new-found friendship.

So why is a visit from a photographer such an ordeal? Like an achy tooth that needs a root canal or a moment of reckoning with an IRS agent it’s an appointment that has to be made – especially for anyone in business who needs an updated headshot or a more sophisticated business portrait. The public needs to know who we are and see what we look like if we’re to begin a relationship of trust. Revealing what we look like is that first step. And it’s a big one.

shla003I’d like to address this expectation to smile in one’s photos. I think we fear the inability to offer up an honest smile more than anything else. No doubt vanity (weight, age, beauty) hovers close behind expression but ultimately we want to be liked, show that we’re good people and hope our expression won’t betray that. A disingenuous smile, a forced smile, can seem like a mask hiding something unattractive about our personality, or reveal a vulnerability. We want to communicate with one picture that we can be trusted. That’s a tall order.

So let’s take some pressure off and drop that whole notion. That’s right, forget about smiling. When I told my client this she was unbelievable relieved. Her greatest dilemma was this pressure to smile – to create a happy state that somehow defined her business, and she felt that this just wasn’t who she was. It opened up a discussion about the ethics of true photojournalism and the mission of capturing an authentic portrait. In my twenty years of being assigned to photograph stories for the New York Times I never dreamed of asking my subjects to smile. If it happened, great, then it was an honest moment, but you don’t ask a subject to make an expression. My responsibility as a photojournalist is to follow my subject’s lead and be responsive enough to capture those moments as they reveal themselves.

And this brings me back to expectations. Sometimes the best pictures are simply unexpected. This is why I most prefer to capture my clients in the environment they feel most comfortable, where they can breathe, take a break, make changes in their wardrobe, invite their cat on their lap, make a cup of tea, whatever. It’s in this comfortable atmosphere that one can reveal the unexpected, expose their honest selves to a stranger: me. And yes, for my business clients the goal is a little different than that of a newspaper. I’m working for them, not an editor. But together we create their look, their authentic portrait.

Interestingly, when all that pressure was taken away and our session took us from a dramatic sitting on a sunny window sill to glamorous reclines on her favorite sofa, ending with whimsical barefoot poses in the backyard, my client began to reveal glimpses of who she was. Sometimes there was a thoughtful side, other times intenseness, but increasingly there were laughs and even smiles. And in those releases there was a lightness that exposed a side of herself that she felt best represented her and her business – a revelation that was unexpected.

Laura’s work can be seen at

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