You truly understand the power of a smile when you have what is popularly known as a ‘resting bitch face,’ and no one exemplifies this more than Jay Weinstein in his photo-series titled ‘So I Asked Them To Smile.’ This smile-inducing series began when Weinstein made a trip to Bikaner, Rajasthan, back in December 2013. After a day of wandering in search for subjects for his travel project, he spotted a man standing near the train station whom he wanted to photograph. Being approached by a foreign stranger didn’t exactly put this man at ease, and his stern look stopped Weinstein from approaching him any further, thinking he would object to having his picture taken by an unknown man. Instead he turned towards the man’s friends who, as Weinstein tells me, were definitely a lot more approachable and were more than willing to being photographed; “I approached his more jovial friends in the shop he was lurking near. As I photographed them, he called out in Hindi ‘take a picture of me too.’ Happily I turned to face him, camera in hand, and asked him to smile. His face transformed, he was a different person with that grin!” says Weinstein. “I realised then that most of us are strangers, and we read and project a set of values based, in most cases, on a single facial expression — the smile. We also don’t take much time to jump to conclusions and move on. Thus, we miss out on meeting some really interesting people,” he added, and I couldn’t agree more. Having inherited a general look of disdain from my father, the point that Weinstein makes really does hold true for a lot of people.
“I thought it would be fun to capture a smiling and un-smiling version of some of the people I met on my photography walks. I wanted to recreate the experience of meeting strangers, no names, no stories — just two versions of a human face,” says Weinstein.
SH: For those unfamiliar with your work, can you tell us a bit about your background.
JW: “My parents are from Australia and America, respectively, they were teachers. I first visited India when I was 3, I stayed for more or less the next 13 years. After studying Sports Coaching in Australia, I decided I wanted to be an actor! That led me to Los Angeles and then Mumbai in 2004. As my interest in acting waned, I got into film production. Next I adventured into advertising which rekindled my love for what I do now, travel and photography. Yes, very random.
But those random threads granted me insights into so many careers, and have somehow bundled together into a love and appreciation for where I am at now.
My interest in photography began on a journey to the Himalayas with my dad when I was 15. I learnt that my dad was right, yet again, when he told a trigger-happy me, that the mountain images would all look the same, without greater context. I was shooting slides, which made for a very boring slideshow for mum! It was all uphill from there as I graduated cameras and used my travels to hone my skills.”
SH: Is there anyone in your journey so far that has really stood out to you?
JW: “Countless! India is full of characters and travel is the perfect opportunity to meet them. One of my favorite people was this man near the Mahakaleshwar temple in Ujjain that I instinctively started photographing. I generally avoid photographing beggars or people who I think may feel disrespected by my images (a very subjective call!). So in the midst of shooting him, I notice the dirt caked on his face, the thick Nehru hat he had balanced on his head, the bamboo stick he has slung on his back like a rifle, and his torn blue jacket.
I was confused for a second. So I stopped and showed him the images. Soon I realized, form his words and the look in his eye, that he may be a little insane. I shake his hand, still unsure of what I should do, and then we have the sanest conversation I had with anyone on the trip!
He started telling me, calmly, how I am far from friends and family and that I should be careful. How people like one when one owns possessions and wealth and then disappear when the money does.
I am listening intently!
And then he turns to me, looks me in the eye, and says, “ I am in charge of this whole area”, his hand waving in a big circle, ‘if anyone gives you trouble, come and tell me.’
I stayed for another week, and never saw him again. But that memory, and my images, are treasured.”
SH: What difference does a smile make, as seen through the lens?
JW: “Well, it transforms a face immensely, but more importantly the perceptions of that person. A smile makes most people seem approachable in a manner I think no other single change could. It is incredibly instant.”
SH: Is this an ongoing project? What does the future hold in store for the series?
JW: “Yes, the project is actually in its early stages. It is designed to travel the world and highlight people from many countries and socio-economic spaces. It is impactful both online and in physical spaces like art galleries. A part of the plan is also to just be open and see where it evolves.”
SH: What would you like viewers to take away from the series?
JW: “My hope is that it changes, for the better, the way we interact and view each other.
I would love viewers to look inwards at their own thoughts and assumptions when faced with these images. There is no overt message by design. I want people to discover, share and discuss whatever they see in the project. It is way more interesting that way!
What I take away from ‘…so I asked them to smile.’ is that we are all fundamentally the same regardless of nationality, gender, religion, or age. It humanizes, making people more approachable, and that is what I love most about it.”
SH: Can you tells us a bit about some upcoming projects you’re working on that readers can look forward to.
JW: “Well I am actively traveling and photographing at the moment, currently in Australia, and planning to head towards the mountains of India on my return.
I have a couple of beginner-intermediary North-Indian photography tours that I will facilitate. One is coming up in November 2016 and then February 2017. All are with the lovely people at Touch of Spirit Tours.
I am also developing intimate and customizable India adventures. Trips will be flexible, lots of walking and mingling with people and the culture, seeking to find the sweet spot between planned and unplanned. That seems to be where the magic lives. India is great like that. It will take a little longer to set up but I am very excited about that project.
I also work closely with The Sacred India Gallery in Perth, Australia. They commission me to document different sacred towns in India as well as present my images to their members. My next presentation is on August 13th, 2016 in Perth.”
[All photographs and captions have been published with permission from the photographer. All images have been photographed by and are copyrighted by Jay Weinstein. They cannot be reproduced without permission, and any such illegal use of these images is in violation of copyright terms.]