“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. twitter@photospice
Q: What is VII? (When and why was it formed originally?)
A: VII Photo was originally formed in September 2001 in France, just three days before the 9/11 attacks. There were seven original photographers who decided to form this photographic cooperative as a way to bring together their talents and passions for covering conflict and social issues into one group that could report on the world and create a larger impact by banding together.
Q: How has the mission statement of VII evolved from when the collective was first formed in 2001?
A: What has changed since then is an expansion of the scope of our photographic styles, and the use of more video and audio in our visual storytelling, working in the most up-to-the moment platforms to disseminate our work, and a broadening of the types of subjects and stories we cover. We now cover all aspects of our world, but our vision and purpose remain the same, to use visual storytelling and our artistic visions to make the world a better place and help open people’s minds to stories they might not otherwise see.
Q: What is the genesis of “Smile! A Photo Anthology by VII”? Why now?
A: Pride powers a smile, power emboldens a smile, we smile to seduce or be seduced. But we also smile when we lie, when we’re scared or anxious. In fact, just one variant of the 18 different smiles recognizes enjoyment, and it’s this universal variant that unites us as human beings.
This anthology explores how a seemingly simple action manifests in our world; from the most depressing, violent, dysfunctional and poverty-stricken conditions to the warmth and security of joy, affection, love and home. And between those two worlds – of fear and contentment – is the smile we give to the cameras.
A cursory search of the images by the photographers of the VII Photo Agency seems to show we often frown upon smiles in our photographs. There is something about a smiling subject that could suggest inauthenticity or a lack of gravitas in the moment; the very act of smiling seems to soften the drama of an otherwise weighty situation.
After all–smiling is contagious, outwardly carefree, and may remove sentiments of objectivity or hard-hitting news value. And yet, compiled as a group, this volume of photographs reveals the astonishing range of human behavior that smiles represent.
The 80-plus photographs of people smiling included in this show cover a 30-year span and include almost every major news event, upheaval, revolution and conflict, as well as the simpler moments of joy and lightness of daily life found throughout the world. They are produced by the 18 photographers of VII Photo who have collectively been awarded–multiple times in most cases–the highest honors by the photographic and journalistic communities; including the World Press Photo, the Polk Awards, the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa Gold Medal, among many others. Their work is included in the exhibitions and collections of dozens of major museums including the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art and the Louvre.
Days of celebration of victory against the Georgians in 1993 and recognition of independence by Russia. A wedding in the countryside of Ochinchira. Photograph by Davide Monteleone / VII
During an editing session in 2011, I was looking through my archives to find an image from the Niger Delta. I came across various pictures of people smiling either at my camera or within my camera’s frame, and I realized I had edited these out of the initial sequences to avoid casting a cheerful light on a heavy and dramatic story. A few months later, at our agency’s annual meeting, I discussed this discovery with photographers Gary Knight and Ron Haviv. They decided there was a concept that needed to be explored and examined. The idea for this project was formed with the notion of going through VII’s complete archive, known for conflict and serious social documentary work, to explore the meanings and contexts behind this universal expression. Through this body of work, the smile, often rejected in the world of photojournalism, is reassessed.
The purpose of this work is to fill a major hole in our visual understanding of the world around us and break down a canon of photojournalism that ultimately denies the medium a greater depth. As photojournalists, we are branded as experts in reflecting people’s sadness, anger, surprise or fear. Sometimes, by our own choice or that of editors — selecting our photographs for newspapers and magazines — we sometimes overlook the optimistic human spirit represented in the nuances of our images.
Sometimes it makes sense–an image in today’s paper of a child laughing and joking in the ruined streets of downtown Aleppo, Syria, might appear gauche as Syria’s death toll climbs beyond 100,000. Though in time, that image becomes an alternative representation of life in a war zone–while fighting and war ravaged that country, life will go on.
And that’s the premise for one of the single most inspiring tenets we as photographers experience in our day to day: that no matter how bad things may be, humanity always finds a reason to continue and to fight for a better day. Sometimes that day is as major as newfound independence, as it was in Kosovo, and sometimes it’s as simple as being able to make your child, or yourself, smile when all else seems lost.
While a smile is rightly recognized as one of life’s most basic and simple reactions–the first interactive communication between mother and infant, for example–smiling changes as we age. No longer does this facial contortion represent solely a visceral conveyance of pleasure, but it can represent malice — anxiety, discomfort, chagrin, deceit.
“Smiling is one of the simplest, most easily recognized, and yet confusing of facial expressions,” wrote Paul Ekman in a 1982 issue of The Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. Ekman’s contention was that the smiling action is opposite to every expressed negative emotion and is therefore most recognizable; but that the intent behind the smile is more difficult to read than any other facial expression.
Real estate businessman Donald Trump is seen at the Trump International Golf Course in West Palm Beach, Fla., April 16, 2011. Photograph by Ron Haviv / VII
Of 18 different smile types defined by Ekman, only one particular smile, known as the “enjoyment smile,” is associated with happiness, pleasure or enjoyment. In fact, a 1924 study showed people smiling when they heard a joke, when they listened to popular music and when a rat was decapitated in front of them. We smile to express surprise, wonder, embarrassment, discomfort, contempt, incredulity, affection and as a social greeting. We can wear a smile as a mask as easily as we would an expression of joy.
The images herewith represent not only the complexities of a seemingly simple emotion, but also the ambiguous nature of photography itself. According to Ekman, one measure of a smile’s meaning is by the longevity of the emotion on one’s face. A short smile likely indicates anxiety; a smile held for a longer period, happiness. A photograph by nature represents just a split second of this experience, making this fleeting expression even more difficult to decipher.
A mouthwash company likes to cite a study that we smile 50 times per day, which is an uplifting campaign to market their product on – but who’s to say that these smiles mean happiness? Just as in this collection of pictures, the most honest interpretation is left to the reader.
Q: What do you hope people will learn from this exhibit?
A: My hope is that people will reconsider the meaning of a smile both in human terms and in how they “read” photographs. That they will think more deeply about what their own smiles mean and how complex this gesture is. I also want people to feel a sense of community with people all over the world and as with so much of the work VII Photo does, to bridge the gaps of human understanding and empathy.
Q: The images in this exhibit were culled from VII work produced over a 30-year span. How did you and Ron Haviv go about selecting the images and curating the show?
A: We first worked with Gary Knight’s students at Tufts University near Boston to cull thousands of images out of the VII archive. We then asked each photographer to pull images from their personal archives. We then went about reviewing everything and over a one-year period reduced the edit from 5,000 images to approximately 350. It was an exhilarating experience and only made me more proud to be a part of this group of image-makers, visual journalists and storytellers.
Q: Will this exhibit be traveling to other cities? Is there a book in the works?
A: This exhibit has already been shown in New York and there are plans for it to travel to China, Europe and hopefully to other cities in North America and beyond. VII Photo is in the process of finding a book publisher to make this unique and expressive set of images into a book.
Q: What is the VII Evolution Tour which is coming to in L.A. May 16-17, 2015?
A: This dynamic, educational program will examine the tools, mindset and business practices of today’s successful visual storytellers. A combination of seminars, panel discussions, hands-on workshops, and social gatherings, the VII Evolution Tour is geared toward attendees with a wide array of interests, roles, and levels of experience. May 16 is devoted to a series of seminars and panel discussions that will cover subjects such as advocacy journalism and funding projects, the transition from stills to motion in visual storytelling today, the evolution of equipment for today’s photographer, how to work safely in an ever more dangerous world and how to get your work to the new markets that are evolving today.
Sunday will be a series of short workshops with VII photographers that will be a combination of shooting in the field, discussion and review.
Links: Smile! exhibition, Cocktail party, VII Evolution Tour
“Smile! A Photo Anthology by VII” is presented by Arts Brookfield.
Location: Bank of America Plaza, 333 South Hope St., Los Angeles.
Hours: Monday-Friday, 8am-6pm. May 6 – July 17, 2015