Nothing expresses emotion as universally as a smile. It’s such simple gesture, yet a smile can have a transformative power to uplift and change the mood of almost any situation. This universality prompted French photographer Rhahn to explore the culture of smiles around the world through a portrait project he calls The Hidden Smile. Focusing his composites on the little details that give these displays their authenticity–like the wrinkles around the eyes that are “the traces of life left as an imprint on their body”–his series captures the simple beauty of these joyous facial expressions.
The project began when Rhahn was searching for a cover for his book titled Vietnam, Mosaic of Contrasts. He captured a woman named Bui Thi Xong as she covered her mouth while she smiled (pictured above). This is a natural reaction among Vietnamese elders, especially females who instinctually cover their faces as they giggle or speak. This mysterious smile dates back hundreds of years, to a time when a common belief was that only evil spirits, savages, and wild animals possessed long, white teeth. A beauty ritual evolved so that females blackened their teeth with betel quid (a type of nut that stains the teeth) and filed them down, to prevent being mistaken for evil spirits. As traditions and cultures have changed over time this practise has become outdated, however it is still a natural reaction to cover up ones teeth upon meeting new people or taking a photo in certain areas.
Through his project, Rhahn found that peoples’ smiles still radiated, despite being covered. His beautiful series of hidden smiles, features people from all ages and genders, highlighting the never-changing eyes behind the grinning mouths. His final project is set to exhibit 100 Hidden Smiles by the end of 2016.