“Hey you, there! Smile for your daddy!” You surprise your daughter with a camera pointed at her and, quicker than light and thought, a purity of joy erupts across her face and click—got it, happiness, digitized. How do they do that? I like to believe that it’s bigger than classical conditioning, stimulus and response, a camera equals time for a big fake smile. No. The little ones. I imagine them having a direct pipeline to unblemished joy, immediate access to the original thrill of Being, so when they see a camera, the veneer of their surface concerns immediately give way to a religious-like sense of aesthetic pleasure in the fact of just being little beings. Like tiny Zen Masters, they seem to gasp “AH!” and then chuckle wise and true. Here we are again. Little kids are the best subjects of pictures. Still happy about their relatively new status of being subjects at all, they revel in being photographed. They smile like ecstatic sunrises.
But then they turn 10 and who knows what the hell happens? Of course the age may differ for your kids (or it may never happen to your kids), but both my kids turned 10 and somehow lost their ability to summon instant access to a delighted face in the presence of a camera. Is 10 the year when self-consciousness reaches such a magnificent pitch that its hands wrap around their necks and choke them half to death the moment a camera flashes? Their tongues fly out, their eyes cross, and they even make goofy noises to underscore that this is a game they are no longer willing to play. Or is it a fall from grace? Do they perhaps themselves sense that their unencumbered path to unadulterated, spontaneous joy has, for reasons unknown, become blocked so that they, bewildered, make distorted and goofy faces to compensate for this loss?
Or are they maybe just trying to drive me insane? Smile, dammit! This picture is for your Nana!
Does their reasoning capacity, at age 10, reach a level of sophistication that realizes the flawed nature of our culture’s emphasis on physical appearance so, in a defiant effort to subvert this emphasis, they suddenly go all punk rock and ram their fingers up their noses? On another cultural note, there’s a traditional Native American aversion to being photographed due to the belief that their reproduction (either in a mirror or a photograph) produces a loss of soul. The soul is actually stolen by the image. Are the kids’ distorted and contorted faces maybe ways of shunning the activity of photography itself as a means to protect and cultivate their spiritual lives?
Then again, funny faces are just, you know, funny.
I remember being 10 and the precaution to look both ways before I crossed the street took on heightened importance. In fact, I began to look both ways twice! Anyway, what I’m driving at here is the possibility that the child’s grotesque face in the presence of the camera might in some way signify his or her more fully developed relationship to the fact that they will one day perish. This knowledge is certainly worthy of a really gross and twisted face.
Finally, maybe the goofy picture face phenomenon represents the child’s first real steps toward the direction of escaping who they are on the way to becoming who they’ll be. Until now, they have been satisfied with the roles of being our enthusiastic babies, hungry for our love, eager for our approval, and ready to smile every time we chime SMILE! But when middle school looms and they begin to sense that impossible place between childhood and adulthood, who can blame them for shunning the camera, closing their eyes, snarling, and sticking out their tongues? To thwart our desires by refusing to make the camera faces we crave and filling our scrapbooks with monsters and punk rockers is the way a self undoes itself on the path toward sketching the outlines of their own worldly countenance.
And to that I say cheese.