This is Jaidev. He is a senior at Mount Vernon High School.
Jaidev expressed a common sentiment when he arrived for his senior portrait session. He told me, "I don't smile." I remember being his age, and the uncertainty which came from being in front of the camera. There is something ubiquitous amongst teenage guys, they are never taught how to look good for photos.
I understand where he was coming from. It's totally natural to feel uncomfortable with something you have no experience in. As a man, you are in front of the camera only a few times a year. Family get-togethers, Christmas, homecoming, a wedding, these are the times where you may be forced into an uncomfortable situation where you have to smile awkwardly at your aunt with her new DSLR.
Other than a few outliers, most guys don't sit in front of their mirrors for an hour attempting to find the best pose for their next Instagram post. We don't know how we look when we smile naturally, and we certainly don't know how to recreate it on demand. When someone says "cheese" we freeze.
I understand these feelings, even though photography is a huge part of my daily life. When I'm caught on the other side of a camera, I also wonder what to do with my face. That is where I've learned how to overcome these natural misgivings. I'm never going to pose a guy and ask him to smile for the camera. All I will receive is an awkward grin with fear in my subject's eyes. Instead, I get to know the individuals I am photographing.
You can teach someone to smile, but it will never be genuine unless they are actually having fun. You can see it in their eyes, and in the natural tension in their body-language. I never ask a subject to smile, I simply ensure that they can't help but let a grin slip through. Even if it's at my own expense.
Some of Jaidev's first words to me were that he didn't smile, and he was right. If I had asked him to smile he would have stared blankly at the camera and his mother never would have received the amazing portraits she desired. I didn't ask him to smile though, I just asked him to be himself. After a few stupid jokes and actually taking the time to get to know him, his personality shone through. Photography isn't about having the best equipment or knowing the best way to light a subject. It's about connecting with people and allowing them to feel comfortable enough to be themselves. Judging from how much they liked their photos, I think that Jaidev and his mom would both agree.