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Tuesday, June 06, 2017

What are you smiling at?


There's this photograph in an article in The New York Times, a group of people taking a selfie, smiling (some more enthusiastically than others) at the phone held up to their faces. It makes me wonder, as we sometimes do, in completely random ways, about completely pointless things, about that selfie smile.

Who are we smiling at?
What makes us smile?
What does the smile say?
What do we hope the smile achieves?

Or...are we thinking at all? Has smiling for a selfie become one of those automatic responses that we can put down to our internet-enabled consciousness?

Image result for cheshire catOur smiles then populate our social media feeds and personal digital albums, toothsome, reluctant, wistful, joyous, sometimes a bit embarrassed, crimson-lipsticked or quickly plumped and moistened, a bit crooked or self-consciously straight, even forgetful and resentful...or just automatic. Like Carroll's Cheshire Cat, they waft around to be looked at and thought about, dismissed or dwelt upon, acquiring meaning in memory even if they were nothing at the time, other than the perking up of facial muscles in the face of an upheld phone ("Hey, let's take a picture!"). The context and the body of presence disappears, and the smiles remain, to become the core of remembering. Most often we can't even figure out what we were feeling so that we can footnote TFW.

Is this any different than the smiles we produced for that old-fashioned camera stuffed with film to be exposed in the darkness of a studio and then cornered into the pages of a photo album and left to yellow and fray and come unstuck? Photographs that we knew we would pore over in family gatherings and cohort reunions, calling together the contexts from which those images arose?

Is there something different about the enthusiastically called upon image that poses for itself, that becomes one of hundreds (and over our networked lifetimes, thousands) of moments that find themselves floating in binary space, that can be rearranged chronologically to pop up, five years later, on a Facebook feed asking you to share your memory, yet again?

But back to that smile. It must be different when we smile for our own cameras, holding those not-quite-mirrors up to see for ourselves what we look like, and when we smile for another's high-handed phone, with or without a selfie-stick (they have become quite the opposite of de rigueur!). The smile in the first instance is a reminder to ourselves about who we are or who we hope to be/become, to ourselves and to our various relational circles. In the second maybe it is something like a badge of belonging, to a place, a moment, a community, a marking of our occupancy of a point in a shared timeline.

When we look back at old photographs, whether on a screen or paper, we search for those de-familiarised portraits of our selves, our eyes linger just a bit longer on the face which used to be ours, whether it is framed solo or in a group. It's as if we can read ourselves by looking into those captive eyes. To be sure, we also try to read others the same way, but there is an additional interest in trying to figure out the person we once were, within that moment that caught the smile.

So perhaps that's what we mean to do, all along. To smile at that future self, transmitting something like hope and its fulfillment in that instant... we're banking that smile, in a sense, and for a moment of pleasure in return.

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