No Smiling

March 16, 2014

The first time I went to Ghana, everyone got excited when I pulled out my camera. I had my Grandma and cousins going away to change their outfits or comb their wigs and weaves all for a photo or two. It was really hard for them to control their excitement but the moment I said ‘One, two, three’ the smiles turn into serious looks, sometimes frowns as if someone had given them some bad news seconds before taking the photo. Once they heard the click of the camera or the sight of the flash, their joy came back.

The first time this happened was with one of my older cousins (who has now passed away). She was a hyper person, always smiling, joking around and so forth. I thought that would have been reflected in the photos she took. I took the photo and she looked blank. I took it again, still blank. Then I said ‘Smile’, but she still looked blank. By this time she thought she was in a studio getting professional shot because I was taking so many photos. I stopped and said ‘Why aren’t you smiling?’. She looked at the photos and complimented her blank expression. I was baffled. I thought the photos look liked the photos you see in history books of people living in countries affected World War II. I went to show my Mum the photos and she said ‘Why does your cousin look so serious? Doesn’t she know how to smile?’. My cousin then showed me other photos she had paid to get taken at the front of the house. No smiles from either her or her children.

I took photos of other family members and their idea of a great photo wasn’t to smile either. Then I was mucking around with the children of another cousin and I captured amazing candid photos of them playing around and smiling. They were making faces, doing crazy poses and so forth. I thought I had captured the moment of the day. Showed my Mum and she loved it. Showed the rest of the family and they thought I had wasted the photos on my camera and taken juvenile photos. I was told to delete them and get the kids to take proper photos and change their shirts.

I had other incidences where neighbours would see me out and about with my camera and they would get excited and ask me to take a photo of them. They would all go inside their houses and come out with a new top or outfit ready to take the photo all happy. Once I started clicking, the same story applied. By this point my expectation of people smiling had diminished.

I read about ‘PLEASE DON’T SMILE‘ and it reminded me of the smiling dilemma in Ghana. PLEASE DON’T SMILE by Malte Wandel goes deeper than my smiling dilemma, but I felt like I was looking at the family album in Ghana. No smiling! This series captures moments of the present in West African towns, from which he highlights certain protagonists and tells their stories. Discreetly, he approaches passers-by, places eccentric individuals and representatives of unknown subcultures centre-frame and allows us an unusual view into life and personalities in today’s West Africa. Directly and unmodified, Wandel’s work deals with a wide variety of characters and the circumstances of their lives – during their hard daily work but also in their leisure time.

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