Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Smiles That Shelter and Shine

"Every time you smile at someone," Mother Teresa said, "it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing." By that measure, there is surely no more loving and generous purveyor of the human smile than Koji Mizutani.

Mizutani, a native of Nagoya, Japan, decided in his mid-40's to cut back on his work as an art director for a large ad agency and dedicate his life to unleashing the unreasonable power of smiling. The Merry Project was born.

I noticed Mizutani's work in a recent article in the Daily Yomiuri, which featured the Merry Project's display of 100 "smiling umbrellas" at the sites of the atomic blasts that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki 65 years ago. The umbrellas feature just a fraction of the 40,000 smiling faces Mizutani has captured across 26 countries. If the images seem familiar, it may be because 1000 of his spectacular umbrellas featured in the Opening Ceremony at the Beijing Olympics.

Mizutani seeks out happiness in less hospitable places, too. He made a trip to New York in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and to China's Sichuan Province after the destructive 1998 earthquake. For an artist whose subject is human happiness, it is surely in these places that he finds his most precious and powerful subjects.

His website features a searchable database that allows you to enjoy a wide and varied catalog of beaming faces from around the world. As a photographer, he has a gift for prompting moments of unalloyed joy from his subjects -- and it is impossible not to smile back at the screen as you scan through them.

I love Mizutani's philosophy, which is summed up in an interview with the Japan Times: "Making people happy is what designing should be about." Now, that’s something to smile about.