”Smile - and the rest will follow”
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 birth defect that in Sweden is operated when the baby is only a few weeks old. A simple operation, that can take less than an hour, completely changes someone's life. In low- and middle-income countries however, with health care systems that do not offer free operations, these children and their families are left to fend for themselves, and the birth defect influences their whole lives.
Some children are considered doomed – and their community isolates them out of fear that “the curse” can be transmitted simply by looking into their eyes. Others, who have problems with drinking, eating, and speaking are thought of as intellectually disabled or unworthy to belong to the community – or even family – only because of their looks. At times children are hidden away and left isolated in their homes, with no opportunity to attend school, go outside to play or even visit the local market, where they are being stared at, and even threatened. Their lives are the lives of outsiders, restricted and defined by the disability that can be removed within hours.
The ability to change people’s lives with a simple surgery was a motivation for the founders of the medical humanitarian relief organisation Operation Smile, Bill Magee, plastic surgeon, and Kathy Magee, nurse and social worker. Since the organisation was founded in 1982, it has collected money for, and performed, more than 290,000 free operations worldwide to help people born with cleft lip and cleft palate (CLP). Today Operation Smile is active in more than 40 countries and changes lives of people with the help of more than 6,000 medical volunteers.
For the Fotografiska For Life exhibition in partnership with Operation Smile, Jörgen Hildebrandt (b. 1966), an award-winning photojournalist with experience of working in conflict areas and humanitarian mission at heart, 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.
– "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 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.
Through the act of generosity, from being an object of curiosity, the children get assimilated and accepted in the play group, in their families, and rediscover their own beauty. The adults regain their self-confidence and place in society. It is a true transformation from a life of an outsider to a life full of hope.