What If You Couldn't Just Say 'Cheese'?

Feb 21, 2013
Originally published on February 21, 2013 12:35 pm

Photographer Sage Sohier says she finds beauty in odd places. "I'm drawn to look at things many people would turn away from," she writes in our correspondence.

She also knows how to put things in perspective. Like: You may worry about wrinkles or complexion, she offers, but at least you have control over your facial expressions. Her portrait series About Face puts a frame around people who, for various reasons, lack that ability.

In 2007, Boston-based doctors Tessa Hadlock and Mack Cheney asked Sohier to make portraits of patients at their facial nerve clinic. Since then, Sohier has photographed people with Bell's palsy or congenital nerve damage, patients who have had tumors, strokes or accidents — people who may have trouble smiling for the camera.

At first she was ambivalent about the project, she explains in the introduction to her new book, a collection of 54 portraits. Her husband had just died of leukemia, and the prospect of spending more time around hospitals and suffering had little appeal.

"But the magic of photography is that once you get involved with people — listening to their stories, and engaged in photographing them — it transports you out of your own life, and your troubles tend to recede," she says.

Most of the portraits were made before the beginning of treatment at the clinic, when the patients were at their most vulnerable. And perhaps because they had trouble smiling, you can see that vulnerability. You can also see courage.

"When looking at someone with partial facial paralysis, we are in a sense seeing two versions of the same face at once, with each side conveying different emotions," her book reads. "Like gazing at a cubist painting, we observe multiple facets of someone in a single instant."

The irony is that faces with paralysis just might be the most complex. Perhaps it creates a more honest portrait than those of us who can simply just say "cheese."

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