Snapping smooches

Bonnie Fournier is on mission to collect photos of 10,000 kisses around the world

For Bonnie Fournier, The Smooch! Project has always been about a certain difficult-to-describe heart-lifting feeling. • In October 2004, Fournier purchased her first digital camera. She debuted her new gadget at an art show in downtown St. Paul featuring work by artists including herself and her sister Barb.

Excited by her newfound liberation from film and processing, Fournier was indiscriminately shooting just about everything she laid eyes on at the show — art, artists, the wall, Barb and Barb’s husband, to name a few. Finally, rotating the camera lens around to include herself in the shot, she attempted to capture a family portrait with her sister.

As Fournier snapped the shutter, Barb spontaneously turned toward her sister and, for lack of a better way of putting it, smooched her on the cheek.

The image she captured with the new camera is cutoff just below Barb’s nose. Barb is clearly giving her sister a smooch, but her lips cannot be seen. Although only about a quarter of her face is visible, it’s clear that Fournier was smiling at the moment the photo was taken — her right eye is happily squinted and the lines on her face indicate that the captured moment was undoubtedly a joyous one.

The portrait of sisterly love she shot on that October evening ended up inspiring her to create The Smooch! Project, an endeavor that has consumed the better part of the last half-decade of her life. The goal of the project is to capture 10,000 images of people showing affection by giving loved ones (including animals) a smooch on the cheek. Yet upon first glance, the photo that inspired the project appears to be nothing special. While the moment itself was a joyous one, the image of Barb smooching her sister is incomplete and the camerawork amateurish. Frankly, as Fournier admits, the photo looks like the sort of unremarkable image one quickly passes over when reviewing the contents of a digital camera’s memory card.

But Fournier just couldn’t get over the way looking at the photo made her feel. Regardless of her mood, every time she looked at it, without fail, her heart lifted.

“When I saw that photo, my heart went through the roof,” she said. “I love that photo. I printed it, framed it, and every time I looked at it for a year, or maybe two, the same thing happened. So that’s how this Smooch Project began.”

Fournier didn’t have words to describe the feeling evoked by the photo until she began studying Buddhism a few months after that fateful St. Paul art show. During her studies, she was introduced to the Buddhist concept of mudita (pronounced Moo-DEH-tah), a word that is often translated in English as meaning “appreciative joy.” Mudita’s meaning is roughly the opposite of schadenfreude — rather than pleasure derived from the misfortunate of others, it is pleasure derived from another’s happiness.

On her website, Fournier writes that she “learned that mudita is physically experienced as an energetic lifting of the heart” — a description that perfectly matched what she felt every time she looked at the photo of Barb smooching her.

Mudita is at the core of The Smooch! Project. Shortly after she began studying Buddhism, Fournier decided to pursue a photographic documentary project that is less about aesthetics and more about just feeling happy via the happiness of others. She began inviting people from around the Twin Cities to take part in photo shoots where she would snap 20 to 25 images of folks smooching loved ones or loved animals. Following the shoots, she’d go through the photos and select the best images out of the set, then enter those images into The Smooch! Project’s collection.

More than 1,200 photos and five years later, Fournier describes the project as her “very own personal ‘mudita-machine.’” Apparently, in this case, there is no such thing as too much of a good thing.

Fournier said that it makes no difference to her whether the people in the photos are loved ones or total strangers — the heart-lifting effect is the same. This realization, for her, served as confirmation of the Buddhist teaching that mudita is a universal feeling transcending our particular allegiances to family and friends.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Fournier will commemorate the first half-decade of The Smooch! Project with two events in Linden Hills. From Feb. 7–14, selected photos from the project will be projected on the gallery interior wall at Galleri M, 4404 Abbott Ave. S., from 7–9 p.m. each evening. And a free and open to the public Smooch! photo shoot will be held at the Linden Hills Co-op, 3815 Sunnyside Ave., on Feb. 12, 10 a.m.–6 p.m., and Feb. 13, noon–8 p.m.

The coming years may take The Smooch! Project in new and exciting directions. Bonnie said she’s been talking with an independent filmmaker abut expanding the project internationally, with the goal being to capture moments of affection between groups of people that have historically been at conflict in areas like Israel, South Africa and Northern Ireland.

Fournier says that if she’s learned anything during the past five years, it’s that events like the showing at Galleri M and the photo shoot at Linden Hills Co-op just make people feel good.

“When you see someone showing affection to someone they love, their happiness makes you feel happy,” she said. “If anything, all the people I’ve photographed for this project taught me how true that is. It’s like watching the sun rise over and over and over again.”

Reach Aaron Rupar at [email protected]