Smile! We’d All Love to Have Your Job

This is a slight revisit to a topic I dwelled on years ago. I don’t think I wrote an entire post about it, but I probably devoted a couple of paragraphs to it. I’ll admit that I have a lot of pet-peeves, but this is one that had always bothered me. The NTT IndyCar Series was one of the worst offenders of this topic and I was complaining about them whenever it was I last rambled on about it. I don’t claim that they listened to me and reversed course, but they are no longer an offender as some sporting leagues are.

What am I talking about? The contrived scowl that sports entities and TV networks force athletes to wear I the headshot that will follow them an entire season.

I commented on this a few years ago, when IndyCar was guilty of having still head-shots of drivers with menacing scowls on their faces. The TV shots were even more ridiculous looking, as they were all looking down at the floor and then they would slowly raise their head up and glare at the camera as if someone had just questioned their ancestry.

I was reminded of the practice of mean faces the other day, when I saw the photo being used to promote the fact that the NFL’s JJ Watt had signed with the Arizona Cardinals.


I know that a football player wants to exude toughness, but this doesn’t look tough. It looks like an eight year-old pouting because he had to get dressed up in church clothes for a family picture. I can say that because I was that petulant eight year-old in the photo below. I came home from school one day in the fall of 1966, and was told I had to get dressed up for a family photo. My mother was going to surprise my father with a family portrait for Christmas. I was totally against getting dressed up and was literally dragged to the photography studio, kicking and screaming by my two older brothers. There was no way on earth I was going to smile, once I got there. So here we are over fifty-four years later and I’m still the only one in the picture not smiling, but I digress…


That aside, why has it become cool to scowl for official photos, like you’re posing for a prison mugshot? Is it a sign of weakness to look happy or pleasant? I know I didn’t smile for the family portrait, but I was eight – not even close to being an adult.

If you scrolled through the IndyCar website just a few years ago, you saw what looked like a lot of unhappy drivers. I would look at these head-shots and think; “You’ve got a job that we would all kill for. Can’t you at least look happy about it”?

I’ve included a few headshots of prominent drivers from the IndyCar website from four or five years ago – Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi. They all look like they are headed for a root canal. (All photos:

Dixon 15

Helio 15


This always bothered me that some art director or photographer thought it was appealing for all of their subjects to scowl. Do sponsors like this look? Does it help sell more products if someone’s face says they have a severe case of hemorrhoids?

Yesterday and today, the NTT IndyCar Series is holding Content Days. This used to be called Media Days, but I guess since they’ve gone mostly virtual they are now calling the event Content Days. Besides all of the interviews each driver goes through, this is also when they pose for their stock photos for the season, for the IndyCar website and NBC’s TV coverage. I’m happy to say that I saw everyone smiling in the shots that I saw.

In fact, they were all smiling for their 2020 shots last year. Here are the same three drivers that had such dour looking faces just a few years ago, on the IndyCar website as they appeared last year. You’ll notice Helio is wearing an Arrow McLaren SP fire suit, representing his stint with the team in the Harvest Classic at IMS.




You will also notice the stark contrast in their demeanor compared to just a few years ago. I’m glad that someone within IndyCar has wised up and gotten rid of the grumpy look and made each driver look like they are actually happy to be here, instead of looking as if they just bit into a persimmon.

Now someone needs to let the NFL in on this secret.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “Smile! We’d All Love to Have Your Job”

  1. The driver shots in Formula 1 are the worst. They glare with their arms folded across their chest. They don’t look happy to be there at all. yesterday’s interviews were pretty light hearted.

  2. One philosophy of photography is to get a picture that allows for the fullest view of the subject come through. As I’m married to a photojournalist, I tend to hear more about this subject than most and like you, she cringes at some of the things seen in sports head shots with good reason.

    The smiling photo of Dixon you posted seems equally ‘off’ to me as the Iceman typically seems rather reserved, whereas the photo adds a hint of unnatural, maniacal flavor to his visage. Helio smiling effusively means all is right in the world however.

    In general, I agree that rather than trying to push narratives (PR), I think letting fans feel they are more seeing the actual person is far more engaging and welcome.

    • billytheskink Says:

      A good point. Capturing a driver’s personality in a headshot rather than pushing for an unnatural smile or scowl would seem to be a wise move and I’m surprised that is not prevailing wisdom in these situations. Most drivers would seem to fall somewhere between an outright scowl (remember Carlos Huertas?) and a big broad smile (Helio). Even with drivers in the past, a reserved but workmanlike Michael Andretti or Al Unser never looked comfortable smiling while a reserved but wry Bobby Rahal did. Tough and ornery as he is, AJ Foyt is a natural smiler (well, when things are going well) because he is very emotional. Gregarious Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford looked odd not smiling while intense Danny Ongais looked well out of place when asked to smile.

      I recall in the late 90s that Winston and the NHRA used to put together videos introducing the top 10 in points to play on the video boards during their national events, everyone was frowning/scowling, seemingly instructed to look tough (or were Tony Schumacher and never smiled anyways). Well, everyone except for John Force, who I guess insisted that he look like himself with his sunglasses and big toothy grin. I recall that I got a kick out of that.

  3. IndyCar Complainer Says:

    I don’t really have an opinion on driver headshots. Their smiling or scowling has never been something that I would care about. However, as a Hoosier I’d be willing to fight anyone that says anything derogatory about persimmons. They are delightful.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I recall during one of the CART Houston races at the downtown course, the video boards introduced the starting lineup with similar “driver lifts their head up and frowns” headshots to the ones IndyCar used on TV a while back… except some of the drivers turned their head from the side instead of just picking it up, which looked even more ridiculous.

  5. I don’t know if that look is supposed to be focused, intimidating, or whatever, but I’ve never cared for it. I remember when they made the always smiling Simona pose with a scowl on her face. She didn’t pull it off very well.

  6. Yannick Says:

    Yes, you did write an entire posting about that topic years ago. I remember because it was after having read that very article when I bookmarked your site back in the day. I couldn’t agree more.

  7. And I thought it was just me. I hate those photos. Many look like their photo is up on the FBI’s most wanted list. Although I do agree that not everyone needs to smile like Helio, tho his photo did make me smile too.

  8. Google the photography practice of Squinching.
    it is The Thing for portrait pictures.
    a Scowl is the sports version of it.
    regarding using a Smile, it is used primarily
    when someone wants to sell something.

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