In 2013, the Australian traveler and photographer Jay Weinstein met a smile that changed everything. While wandering the streets in Bikaner, India, Jay spotted a man leaning against a row of motorbikes. The photographer was immediately drawn to the stranger, but felt it was best to avoid him. “Take my picture too!" the man shouted at Jay, who was shooting nearby objects, and Jay replied with a simple “Smile!”
This encounter started an almost decade-long mission of capturing strangers on the streets of the world, before and after them smiling. The simple act, sometimes genuine, other times forced, bears the transformative powers that lighten up the face and seemingly open up the soul within.
So let’s take a look at Jay’s captivating portraits from his ongoing “so I asked them to smile” series that, according to the author, documents the very universal side of smiling: that which “overcomes religion, ethnicity, class, gender, and language.”
He was standing one morning, outside the open door to a home in an old Hutong neighborhood, near the forbidden city in Beijing, China... So I asked him to smile
To find out more about his captivating project, Bored Panda reached out to its author, the photographer and traveller Jay Weinstein. Jay, who spent most of his life and most years in India, started his “so I asked them to smile” photography series in 2013 and has never stopped. While most of his images come from India, the project has also travelled to China, Singapore, Australia, Kenya, and Nepal.
“so i asked them to smile (SIATS) was always a minimalist project with no overt message. This pandemic, and the way it has taken an already divided world and created even more distance, has made it even more relevant. In much of the world, the common smile we took for granted is now covered. I have also not had the opportunity to travel and add new countries to the project.”
Jay has spent this time going through the images he has made and reflecting on the lessons learned. “This has crystallized the value of positive unifying projects like SIATS. The long-term solutions to our challenges will need to be built on conversations and spaces that bring people together rather than tear them apart.”
He was walking down the street lined with cafes and bars, as the sun set over colorful Fitzroy, in Melbourne, Australia... So I asked him to smile
Jay has also been imagining new ways to share the SIATS experience when the world goes back to ‘normal.’ “I would love to share how rewarding it is to challenge our assumptions, approach strangers, see other perspectives, and start conversations,” the photographer said and added that he and his team are now developing corporate workshops, public activations, and eventually a SIATS book.
“However, I am most excited about the India travel show idea where I return to places I visited, see if I can find the strangers I photographed, and finally get to know them and hear their stories. Lets see what the post-pandemic future holds!”
She was with a group of dancers, taking a break from recording a church choir music video on the helipad of the Kenyatta international convention center, while the sun set over Nairobi, Kenya... So I asked her to smile
When asked what he learned through all this time making complete strangers smile for his camera, Jay said the journey has given him an opportunity to learn from his project with no overt message but much to share. “When SIATS was created, we were already surrounded by so much well-intentioned, as well as exploitative, messaging. There seemed a need to self-reflect and hear enough silence to observe our own thoughts, fears, and assumptions. Thus SIATS has no message (and plenty to say). This seems to be even more valuable now."
He was standing at his stall, in front of the train station one afternoon, as the entire city of Thiruvananthapuram went on a three-day strike in Kerela, India... So I asked him to smile
”Moreover, Jay has told us that “from this mindful space I have learned that my assumptions about people are mostly inaccurate as are their assumptions about me.” “I have learned that we as humans have so much more in common than we are constantly told. That so many of our global challenges can only truly be resolved when we go beyond our superficial differences and see the deeper levels that we all share.”
She was with a her family, outside their simple home in the village of Gaudium, one rainy afternoon in west Bengal, India... So I asked her to smile
In Jay’s powerful portraits of strangers, a simple act of smiling becomes transformative. It crosses religion, ethnicity, class, gender, and language in a way that’s universally human. Jay believes that smiling is a way to reveal who we already are and a glimpse into a sacred space. “Though a smile can also be a shield against the world, this project is more interested in the smile that reveals a person rather than protects them.”
“There is something beautifully connecting, vulnerable, and even spiritual when two strangers smile at each other. Those moments seem to transcend prejudice. Differences of language, gender, race, class, ethnicity, religion, politics, education, and culture suddenly seem much more like created narratives rather than the insurmountable problems we are told they are.”
He was sitting outside a shop one afternoon as I explored the the vibrant and colorful shops and homes on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya... So I asked him to smile
The photographer believes that a smile has the power to “lead to insight, dialogue, and the unifying conversations so many of us long for. It seems that these loving conversations are the foundation for all our long-term solutions. I believe that the loudest voices we hear, often divisive and offering only skin-deep, short-term solutions, do not represent the majority of us.”
She was playing with a friend one evening outside the family house in the village of Turtuk, Ladakh, India... So I asked her to smile
“What if we can see each other as humans first? What if our similarities were more important than our differences? What if we dialogue with the people we fear, judge, demonize, feel superior to, or plain just don’t understand? What if we ignore the ‘solutions’ that seek to cement our differences and silence our voices?”
Most importantly, Jay sees the smile in this context as “a spark for soul-level connection and a superpower we all have access to.”
He was walking down a street with a group of pilgrims one morning, as I wandered the ancient pilgrimage town of Dwarka in Gujarat, India... So I asked him to smile
When not photographing beautiful strangers on the streets, Jay is leading small group tours where he offers a fresh perspective on India which challenges the biggest misconceptions about the country.
“I ask participants what their biggest misconception was about India, before leaving home. The most common answer is, 'I was worried I would feel unsafe.' Participants are astounded not only by how wrong they were, but instead by how connected they felt,” the author writes in his blog “A Wanderer's Eye.”
He was waiting for the traffic light to turn green one evening, as I walked across a busy traffic intersection in Koramangala, Bengaluru, Karnataka... So I asked him to smile