In the United States we say “cheese.” In Italy, they say formaggio. The Spanish chorus patata (potato), the Bulgarians chime zele (cabbage), and the Chinese beam with茄子 (eggplant), while most Latin American countries diga “Whiskeyyyyy!” The French grin at the sound of ouistiti (which ironically isn’t cheese at all, but the marmoset monkey). Among the students of Hyderabad, there doesn’t seem to a Hindi or Telegu word to prompt a smile before the camera. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much precedent for smiling in front of the camera at all.
This occurred to me my very first day at Railway Girls’ High School. After unfurling a bag of coloring materials, the students of 8B set to work writing their name on a half sheet of colored card stock and decorating it. Some drew Mehndi designs while others dotted their nametag with stars, chattering all the while, bartering for more markers, and scrunching their faces in intense concentration. There are few joys as universal as coloring (in my high school, the most popular organization was the coloring book club) and their delight over broken crayons and doodles raised my hopes for the next six months. If coloring could transcend linguistic and cultural difference, maybe cameras could to.
One by one, I asked each girl to hold up her nametag. And one by one, the bubble of excitement would burst the moment I raised the camera and trained the lens on their face. Their smiles would fall. Their mouths would clamp shut and their jaws would stiffen, as if bracing themselves for something painful. When taking their pictures, I was struck by the distinct feeling I was intruding on their privacy. That I was a member of some foreign paparazzi, freezing them atop a pedestal and forcing them into the limelight. These pictures would be put on the TMS website after all, into blog posts and videos, and liable to be seen by anyone. “Just one more moment teacher, I’m not ready,” they would say. The camera seemed to rob them of something they weren’t ready to give. “Don’t be afraid, it’s not going to hurt you,” I found myself consoling. “It’s just a camera.”
But wasn’t just a camera, not to them.
Though no more than a few scraps of metal, plastic, and glass, the camera is also an instrument of self-surveillance, enabling us to freeze frame our lives in excess. It often begins in utero. A report from the security company AVG revealed that 34 percent of American parents upload their prenatal sonogram to the Internet. And once this child is born, it’s only a matter of time until he or she is the subject of some blissful relation’s camera and his or her lifetime of digital documentation has begun.
Your life has most likely been documented ad infinitum. Think about how many pictures you’ve posed for. Think about how many pictures you haven’t posed for: candid shots, sleeping shots, atmospheric shots. Hundreds. Thousands. Maybe tens of thousands of pictures. We take pictures of our vacations, our pets, of that time we ran a marathon, and that time we did absolutely nothing and took a picture of it anyway. The camera chastens us to leave no party unattended, no ice cream sundae eaten, and no muscle unmoved without visual proof. Bonus points if said ice cream is rendered in Instagram. And although our snap-happy love affair with the digital camera allows us to share our lives, it also encourages our vanity and cavalier attitude towards the camera. Who cares if I botch this picture when another opportunity is just around the corner?
As I clicked through the pictures of 8B, passing sullen portrait after sullen portrait, I wondered if these students had the same luxury. I wondered how many had ever had their picture taken before. All of them come from working class families, father who drive buses and autos, mothers who are housewives, as one of many children in houses where a camera was an unlikely possession (costing upwards of Rs. 5000). Was it possible that this was their very first? That this hasty, two-second snapshot of Sim Rani, of Ruhi, of Rubeena in front of a peeling blue door was one of the few that had ever been taken?
In the weeks to come, the girls began to bring in pictures of themselves as children. All of them were taken inside professional studios and staged by the invisible hand of the photographer. Baby Divya is adorned with flower gardens, gold bangles stacked around her tiny wrists, and gazing with bright eyes into the camera (or at some toy bird shaken for her attention). T. Sushma’s brother is donning a plaid vest and matching trousers, his arms hanging slackly from hands in stuffed pockets, arranged by an adult with blithe indifference for the oddity of this pose on a two-year-old.
You can make out the features of Nelofor inside the round face of her young self, as her mother, dressed in a beautiful red and gold sari, cups her protectively by the shoulders. Her father stands next to her mother in grey suit with a Winsor knot. His expression bears an uncanny resemblance to the frowns of my students. Solemn. Sullen. But filled with an emotion buried seven layers deep. It was the expression of a man who could not waste taking a picture of his family. Who couldn’t afford to pose with abandon because he wasn’t sure when another opportunity would come.
And in this way, the camera isn’t just a camera. It’s a looking glass—a medium that allows us to see ourselves as other see us with undoctored honesty. Growing up without a camera only intensifies its power, rendering you especially vulnerable if caught unawares. It’s little wonder why the students of 8B were poker-faced their first day in TMS class. To be on the receiving end of such an unflinching gaze, without a lifetime of instruction on how to pose and project some ready-made emotion, smiling must have been the last thing on their minds.
To encourage their confidence in front of the camera, we made a “practice” photo story to complement our “Girls Around the World” unit. Each team was asked to “tell a story about a girl” in relation to one of four assigned themes: friendship, a party, nature, and religion. Not only did this cement their technical understanding of the camera, but it also invited them to explore a range of emotion within the confines of a fictional character. Tapping into their inner Tollywood actresses (the Hollywood of the Telegu language), they could emote in a way befitting the heroine, father figure, friend, and villain of their story without the pressure to “be themselves.” Because let’s face it – being “yourself” in front of the camera is a performance of its own kind.
And so instead of soliciting a smile, Neha and I have been asking the students of 8B to simply let their guard down. We’ve told them its okay to look goofy, to be spontaneous, and to allow their personality to take precedence over their appearance, pulling whatever facial stunts feel right at the time and not worrying whether it flatters them.
In exchanging “cheese” for emotional honesty, the photographs for 8B’s “Story of Girl” ran the gamut of facial expressions: smirks, scowls, and twinkles, protruding tongues, blurred limbs, and raised eyebrows, gazes of burning intensity, of incredulity, of amusement, glares and glances that radiate their absorption in the present moment. 8B has a word for this now, borrowed from the life of the Hawaiian “soul surfer” Bethany Hamilton.
In 8B, we are striving to become “soul photographers.”