Smile – and the rest will follow
Fotografiska For Life/Jörgen Hildebrandt
22 November – 3 February 2019 Fotografiska
Face the world with a smile and it smiles back at you. Smile and the rest will follow… But what if your face is seen as a sign that you've been cursed – and instead you're faced with fear, ridicule and ostracism? This is the reality for many children born with cleft lip and cleft palate (CLP). A simple operation that can take less than an hour completely change someone's life. 22th November will see the opening of Smile – and the rest will follow, a new Fotografiska For Life exhibition wherein Jörgen Hildebrandt has followed Operation Smile's work, using his emotionally moving photography to portray the lives of nine people before and after their operations.
Operations, free of charge for the families, that can only be carried out with the help of donations from companies and individuals willing to make a difference and stand up for human equality.
Since being founded in 1982, the medical humanitarian relief organisation Operation Smile has collected money for, and performed, more than 290,000 operations worldwide to help people born with cleft lip and cleft palate (CLP). This is a facial birth defect that in Sweden is surgically corrected shortly after birth.
November 22th will see the opening of the Fotografiska For Life exhibition Smile – and the rest will follow in partnership with Operation Smile, wherein photographer Jörgen Hildebrandt has documented the organisation's work in three countries on three continents in the space of a year. Through his images from Ghana, Mexico and the Philippines, we get to follow nine children and adults before, during and after their operations, which give them new lives overnight. An astonishing journey that completely changes these individuals' opportunities to enjoy dignity, community and happiness – and one totally dependent on donations and humanitarian efforts.
Ten year old Mary Atta from Ghana, one of the patients photographer Jörgen Hildebrandt followed before and after her operation. Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt
All surgery is performed by Operation Smile's medical volunteers, who come from many different countries, in cooperation with local healthcare professionals. The aim is to develop and improve local healthcare provision so that eventually they can take care of such patients without external help. In this way, local personnel learn to work in accordance with the WHO Guidelines for Safe Surgery, a strategy for achieving safer surgery around the world.
"For me personally, it's been incredibly interesting to see how the stigma varies between cultures, but yet how these people suffer similar fates. You can see the pride and dignity in their faces afterwards, something they simply couldn't express before. A person's face is so important in determining how they're defined by others, and a simple smile can change so much in the communication between people," says Hildebrandt.
The operation is relatively simple and in most cases leaves little trace, simply a small, discreet scar. In countries with fewer resources, however, these children and their families are left to fend for themselves under health care systems that do not offer free operations. It's not uncommon for these birth defects to result in the children being hidden away and left isolated in their homes, with no opportunity to attend school, go outside to play or even visit the local market. Simply because these are places where people stare, ridicule and throw stones.
Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt
The boy who was close to wasting away, because he couldn't drink the milk from his mother's breast. The girl who never got to eat with her family, because they were disgusted by her. The woman who spent her entire life being treated by her mother as if she had a learning disability, because it's difficult to understand what she says. These stories and more are told in Smile – and the rest will follow.
"It feels very important to us to in partnership with Operation Smile bring these life stories to the public's attention, to inspire solidarity and generosity towards the vulnerable among us. Our Fotografiska For Life exhibitions often provide a voice to those who would otherwise not be heard, which in this case holds true both literally and figuratively in a positive way," says Johan Vikner, Exhibition Manager Fotografiska Stockholm.
Fotografiska For Life exhibitions such as Smile – and the rest will follow enable Fotografiska to engage visitors, share knowledge and inspire action. Photography is a powerful medium for conveying emotions and providing new perspectives, and in this way our exhibitions and partnerships can encourage discussion and debate on important social issues.
Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt
"Operation Smile helps make life easier for many children with the misfortune to be born with cleft lip and cleft palate. No one should have to live life as an outcast because of a birth defect that can be corrected by surgery in less than an hour. With the Fotografiska For Life exhibition Smile – and the rest will follow, we're using the power of photography to raise awareness of how easy it is to make a difference to the life of a vulnerable person. The difference in quality of life before and after the operation is so incredibly apparent and absolutely fantastic," says Susanne Edmark, Director of Communications at Operation Smile Sweden.
Mary Atta six months after her cleft was operated, a young girl with a future who now dares to go to the beach and is allowed to eat with her family. Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt
Smile – and the rest will follow is about not only those who receive, but also those who give, whether that be by volunteering time or donating money. There's a longstanding tradition in Sweden, among companies and individuals alike, to not speak of charitable donations, a tradition that originates from both the Lutheran yoke and the Law of Jante: you bedevil yourself if you openly profess your wishes to do good deeds for others.
This, together with the fallacy long assumed by many that human equality is a given cornerstone of our democratic societies, is a deadly combination. It's time we stopped staying silent about the acts of solidarity we perform to help make the world a better place, especially now when opposing forces are making their voices heard increasingly loudly and often. It's time to start showing all the amazing things that both businesses and individuals do for their fellow humans and society in general – to forge a clear and inspiring movement that stands up for human equality.
"It's great to have the opportunity to change the living conditions of these vulnerable children. My hope is for the operations to result in the children being able to go to school and thereby improve their chances to shape their futures, which are otherwise extremely bleak," says Malin Hakelius, a plastic surgeon at Uppsala University Hospital and one of Operation Smile's many volunteers who without compensation spend ten days helping change lives.
Operation Smile's work is a shining example of the gift of being able to give. Smile – and the rest will follow!
Footnote: Humans communicate with each other continuously and wordlessly to ensure the survival of both the individual and the group. Not being allowed to participate in the group is distressing for pack animals such as ourselves. We're equipped from birth with a range of abilities to help us live together. Everything from mirror neurons – which mean that if you see someone smile, your facial muscles automatically move to mirror that smile – to the more surprisingly smart vagus nerve. This is a nerve that regulates stress so efficiently that as soon as we smile or openly lock eyes with another person, it lowers the stress levels in our body. Or the fact that yawning is 'infectious', so that the entire group will feel tired at the same time and lay down to rest in their cave…
These are just a few examples of how we're all connected and dependent on one another. We can all make a difference.
Quick facts: Every three minutes, a child is born with cleft lip and cleft palate (CLP), about one in every 650 births. This means that each year some 200,000 children are born with CLP, of which 200 in Sweden. Here in Sweden, such babies are operated on when only a few weeks old, but in many other countries such surgery is not an option. Instead, provided the child doesn't die of malnutrition, they live a very vulnerable and often very solitary life.
Operation Smile collects money for, and performs, this life-changing operation in more than 30 countries with the help of 6,000 unpaid volunteers participating in some 150 humanitarian missions each year. The founders are Bill Magee, plastic surgeon, and Kathy Magee, nurse and social worker. Since the organisation's humble beginnings in 1982 in the Philippines, more than 290,000 operations have been performed around the world by volunteers, who spend ten days performing operations that often take less than an hour per patient. The aim is to develop and improve local healthcare provision while also teaching local personnel how to work in accordance with the WHO Guidelines for Safe Surgery, a strategy for achieving safer surgery around the world.
CLP is roughly equally widespread throughout the world, but is slightly more common in Asia and arises in the early stages of pregnancy, when the bones of the skull fail to join properly.