Maybe you opened the deluxe package of school photos and are now haunted by pages of hollow grins. Maybe it’s 7:35 on School Picture Day and you’re looking for the incantation to produce a great photo. Or maybe you’re gearing up for the holiday season and want to capture proof that your family actually likes being around each other, despite previous years’ of stiff photographic evidence.
You know what will happen when you ask a kid to say “Cheese!”—that dead-eyed fake smile best described as a “grinace”—but against all your better impulses you do it anyway.
Where did “Say ‘Cheese!’” come from, and what does saying cheese say about us?
Why do we “Say ‘Cheese’”?
Although the origins of the phrase are unknown, “Say ‘Cheese!’” is thought to have been popularized by Joseph Davies, who spoke to reporters from a photo shoot on the set of Mission to Moscow, the film based on his memoir of the same name about his time as U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union.
Davies, who was quoted in Texas’ Big Spring Daily Herald in October 1943, claimed to have learned the trick from “an astute politician, a very great politician. But of course, I cannot tell you who he was.” Given that he had just returned from his second mission to Moscow, that politician was probably FDR, who himself had some experience producing carefully curated images.
Maybe “cheese” was once funny. Maybe it caught people off guard. But now, asking photography subjects to say the word isn’t likely to surprise or delight as much as it is to annoy.
Of course, there are plenty of alternatives to cheese, as long as they form your mouth into the basic shape of a smile. This list from Oxford dictionaries features some of the smilemakers used in other languages. Of all of them, German’s ameisenscheisse (“ant shit”) gets the best smile out of me.
Why do we insist on smiles?
No matter what word we try, photographers and their subjects now know the game. Perhaps it once worked well, though Davies is sporting a pretty cheesy grin in that photo op with Stalin, taken in the same year he was giving smile advice.
A better answer to “How do I get my kid to smile for photographs?” might be “Why am I so concerned with getting a smile?” Christina Kotchemidova, Professor of Media and Communication at Spring Hill University, writes that although we can’t definitively know where “say cheese” came from, we know that is not a particularly long cultural phenomenon. Kotchemidova draws a sharp line between the serious, unsmiling Victorian photograph and our modern, smily genre. “Victorian families wishing to appear happy,” Kotchemidova writes, “simply posed in front of the family property.” The stuff in the photo—not the people in it—were markers of wealth and happiness, a phenomenon still present when your instagrams feature the wall from your favorite farm-to-fork restaurant.
Kotchemidova connects “say cheese” to multiple technological advances, including faster shutter speeds (which meant that portrait subjects didn’t have to sit still) and dental care (which meant that subjects’ mouths were nicer to look at). But these explanations don’t necessarily account for the toothy grin now considered de facto to photographs. For that, Kotchemidova turns to Kodak.
Kodak emerged as the producer of both cheap cameras and how-to manuals (not to mention film developing services). By becoming the industry-wide expert, Kotchemidova claims, Kodak “exercised cultural leadership and actively framed the way photography was to be used and conceptualized in the culture at large.” That frame was “fun.” Kodak used a three-pronged approach to associate photography with fun: making photography studios a destination, photographing people in the comfort of their homes, and linking photos with celebrations like holidays and birthdays.
In short, Kodak’s affordable camera, like the cameras we all now carry around in our pockets, transformed how we view not just photos, but the act of photography itself. Using cameras is fun, and photos provide evidence of all the fun we’re having.
What other stories could we tell with our photos?
Parents’ demand for smiles seems to reflect our general obsession with happiness. We want our children to be happy. We want them to appear happy in the photos that we post on Instagram so that everyone else we know knows our kids are happy. I would argue that nothing about this process of posing, cheese-ing, and posting is actually fun.
In There Are No Grown Ups, Pamela Druckerman offers an alternative. She generalizes French parenting as a sort of close reading: “Mothers say their main parenting technique is to observe their children carefully, to understand them.” American parents might wade into this parenting philosophy by adopting a new photography philosophy.
Asking our kids to face front and smile betrays how little we know them, or, rather, how little we consider their personalities and preferences when in pursuit of the frameable family photo. Demanding “Cheese!” produces an image of a compliant child performing for you. Instead of requesting a specific action, why not just watch your child? Watch how she bends down to squint at a bug. Watch how he gets bored and starts swinging his legs to the song in his head. Watch all the little gestures, that catalog of thoughts and emotions, and capture those gestures instead of grinaces.
I’m not saying that having a camera will make you a better parent, per se, but it might make you a more patient observer. That, in turn, might take some of the pressure off of making every minute a moment of family fun.