In the midst of what feels like each day brings more challenges and unveiling more hard truths, our episode this week is dedicated to recharging through moments of hope, grace, and connection. Sometimes people add to our collective strength in completely unexpected and yet completely necessary ways, and we are thrilled to have found one of those people. Her name is Laura Fuchs, and she is a photographer living in New York City. We found her after her “Mask Smiles” project was featured in an article by BBC, which you can find here.
With a degree in psychology from Barnard, and about ten years of photography experience, Laura brings incredible empathy and connection into her art. She shares that she is completely in the moment when taking a photo of someone and how special it is to then give that person their photo. “Photography is 100% therapy for me. It’s my favorite thing.” She encourages everyone in her life to pick up a camera, “It’s an amazing way to document your life, seek comfort in other people or inanimate objects, connect with yourself, and have it reflected back to you.”
When the pandemic hit, Laura realized as she walked around New York City that not only did people seem scared, but they weren't even looking at each other anymore. In response to that, she found herself trying to smile at people through her own mask. One day with a passing stranger's returned "smize", she realized that despite masks, smiles could still be acknowledged, and returned, and that felt really special to her. She began trying it out on a few people by asking if she could photograph them smiling behind their masks and “Mask Smiles” was born.
“It’s so rewarding to feel as though I’ve kind of re-empowered people with their smile.”
Laura shares passionately that this project is not to make light of how hard this time is. Not everyone can smile right now, and she is aware of and respectful of that. Sometimes she meets rejection on the street and acknowledges that her positive energy is not always equal to where people are and explores the idea of how powerful it can be to plant seed for those people in this time. To help people understand, whether they are in a place of deep grief and fear, or whether they are afraid it’s inappropriate to smile at a time like this, that smiling is not an invalidation of how hard this time is. Reminding us “These are smiles of resilience, these are smiles of strength.” And that in the face of all this trauma, it can biologically change your state to even force a smile.
Laura shared some of her favorite moments of the project so far ranging from finding a woman in Chelsea who sits on a bench yelling expletives at people not wearing masks, to a day where she experienced the spectrum of first being turned down by an obviously grieving healthcare worker before going on to encounter a larger than life “fabulous” cross town bus driver who enthusiastically participated in the project. She shared a moment of finding a mother and daughter jumping in puddles and emphasized the beauty of seeing people doing regular things. She explored her wonder at the impact this is having on kids by sharing one last story about a family she photographed with young children. Upon approaching and explaining the project to the parents, the mom turned to the kids and said “Guys we were just talking about this, about how you can still see other people’s emotions through masks.”
Through all of this, self-care is also really important to Laura. Besides photography, bike rides are her therapy, she says, “It feels so good to move.” She’s also been cooking a lot and watching bad TV. Her confession of bad TV led her to stress how important it is right now to not judge ourselves, “Just do your own thing, don’t judge your progress or lack of productivity. Give yourself a pat on the back for even making it through this period.”
In her parting words she leaves us with a simple encouragement to smile. That a simple smile can give you a moment of feeling strong, in control, and centered. On top of that, she urges us to give someone else a smile. Reiterating that we never know what someone is going through, and that while we should be prepared for rejection, the potential for something positive is so much greater than any consequence of a rejection.
“It’s good for people to see that they’re allowed to smile right now, it’s good for people to see that they’re allowed to find joy. And more importantly, to me, I think it’s a time to dig deep to find joy. Find that joy.”
Laura’s story walks such a beautiful line of holding space for times when it just doesn’t seem possible to smile, and also acknowledge that it’s also ok to smile in darkness. That it is not an invalidation of tragedy or pain. Laura’s messages are clear. She has dedicated her project to encouraging emotional connection at a time of physical separation. Taking everything we are facing right now, finding ways to stay connected despite barriers, physical or otherwise, is paramount. And as she so beautifully proves, it's also possible.
Planting Seeds: The idea that impact of acts of kindness sometimes do not come into fruition until later is a powerful one. Laura has “planted seeds” throughout New York by encouraging laughter, smiling, and connection and it can be so energizing to remember that the simple act of smiling or saying hello from behind your mask can completely shift someone else’s day, whether they felt ready for it or not. Maybe in a few days time, they will even smile at someone and wouldn’t have if you hadn’t done so for them. We want to encourage our listeners to think of ways in which they can plant seeds of positivity. Whether through a smile, supportively reaching out to a friend, actively engaging in advocacy in your community, or even just practicing intentional kindness to yourself and others as you move through your day.
Masked Emotion Charades: Laura’s story of the family who had clearly sat down with their kids to explore expressing themselves and reading other people's emotions through masks, highlights how important it is that we include children and young people in this discussion. Childhood is a crucial period for the development of understanding how to read, respond to, and express emotions. Kids take cues from the people around them to learn about this, and when most people's faces are covered that can create a real stumbling block to this process.
That family inspired a game, kind of like charades, where all the players put their masks and try to act out emotions. For younger kids, you can start by calling out a group emotion and all making facial or body gestures to symbolize it. The next step, and for older children you can start here, is for each person to take a turn acting out a secret emotion which the other players have to guess. Eventually you could have two (or more) players act out interactions and others have to guess how the characters are feeling. As always, feel free to put your own spin on this. Keep it fun, keep it playful. The point is to teach these developing minds that emotions are still expressible and detectable through masks.
Art Masks: While the game offered above will help children understand how to connect to others in these sometimes closed off times, it’s also assuming they are willing to keep a mask on at all. Which can be a feat in and of itself sometimes. One way to help wearing a mask feel more normal, and possibly even a little exciting, is to invite children to create art on their masks. Please be sure to use non toxic materials, but other than that just let the creativity flow.
A few prompts could be:
Let’s help Laura teach people that we can connect through masks. Let’s find ways to stay connected in the face of such divisive times and lean into our innate creativity to bring hope. And let’s get behind this message that we are in this together. It’s our best way through it.
Thank you for your continued support. Find the full episode here, and please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have ideas for future podcasts. Lastly, please tag us in your masked smile photos this week on Instagram @playingtolive and keep smiling!
In Season 1 of Finding the Helpers, we are bringing personal stories of front line staff and families impacted by COVID-19. Our diverse guests will be invited to share their story of being on the front line, and in combination to their story, two expressive art therapists will provide art and creative activities that will support the challenges the individual and their family is facing. These could include ideas for short relaxation techniques to be done on the front line, creative ways to explain in kid friendly terms what is happening, ways to stay connected to family and children during long periods of isolation, etc. Throughout the podcast, conversation will include mental health insight related to the pandemic, anxiety and stress, grief and loss, resiliency, coping skills, and understanding the pandemic. Presented by the nonprofit Playing to Live's, whose history began in 2014 as a grassroots program focused on bringing play and creativity in the midst of the Ebola deadly viruses. Following our work in Ebola, we have continued our work as advocates and creators for play and expression across the globe in refugee settings, post war countries, and in the United States of America.
Lindsay Bingaman is the Regional Program Manager for Playing to Live, based in Nairobi, Kenya.