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A Study of Happiness

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Portraits courtesy of Selena Davant (pictured center, photo by @ColorfulKierra). You can view more portraits at @smileaday on Instagram.

Anyone that has survived a bad breakup before knows that when you feel like you hit rock bottom, the only direction to go is up. For Selena Davant, a freelance creative and an Academy of Art University M.F.A. advertising alumna, her heartache gave birth to “Smile A Day,” an Instagram project where she photographs individuals and asks them what makes them happy. 

“My friends and family kept telling me to turn the breakup into a positive one,” she explained. “I wasn’t sure how to at first, so I started doing the little things: Listening to more positive music and being more present in the moment.” 

To date, Davant has snapped almost 500 smiles since the project’s start in 2015. She has photographed people of all colors, creeds, occupations and passions, and no two smiles are the same. When it comes to what makes her subjects happy, many responses relate to appreciating the small joys in life, discovering their passions or being around their loved ones. 

Within its short lifespan, the “Smile A Day” Instagram profile gained over 5,000 followers. This past February, Davant teamed up with HellaJawns, an Oakland DJ duo (Afrodjiak and DJ Red Corvette) experienced in producing and promoting parties. The collaborative event, “Pastries and Portraits,” gave “Smile A Day” supporters the opportunity to see Davant’s project in the physical, with some fans coming from as far as San Jose and Napa. The event was received so well that the two companies were able to host additional events, including one coming up in August.

“I came up with the idea of mixing my passion for portraitures and dancing into one simple experience,” she said. “The event created a new kind of entertaining experience that celebrates beautiful, local people and supports local artists and brands.” 

Davant attributes part of her creative instincts to her advertising instructors at the Academy, including Roland Young, Lance Anderson, Jim Wojtowicz, Laurel Stark, Vince Engel and Mark Edwards. Davant said all of her instructors challenged her constantly and were extremely blunt in their critiques; effective tactics that forced Davant to elevate her ideas and concepts.  

“I think that’s what you need, especially in the master’s program,” she explained. “You need someone that won’t bull---- you and will challenge you even when you think you’re already really good. [They] would always break you, but that also made you better.” 

While Davant thrived under the tough love approach, she said her instructors provided an equally uplifting support system, especially through the Young & Hungry creative agency. Ad students are often taught to work with brands they are unfamiliar with so that they become accustomed to the process of “honing a brand’s essence into its visuals.” She explained that even though advertising is primarily associated with selling products, she prefers to see the medium as a storytelling platform. 

“It is about getting into what the core of the company is,” she said. “What are they trying to tell people? I think because of how the creative brain is set up, we can get a feel for how we want to bring out the brand’s essences or feelings they want to showcase. You’re trying to figure out what they’re saying to you and then you reinterpret it into a visual.” 

Along with running “Smile A Day,” Davant primarily freelances as a content creator and social media manager for companies such as The Third Space Media and The 3% Conference in San Francisco. She bridges her passion for storytelling and art into a form of advertising that promotes positivity among communities of color, especially for women.  

In pursuit of her own happiness, Davant discovered how social media can empower a new type of storytelling, one that can foster and spark conversations that might not occur in a traditional setting. By learning about what makes each other happy, perhaps coming out of sadness may be made easier. 

“After a year of capturing portraits I started to think about ‘what is the hidden meaning of sad?’” she said. “I started to see it as its acronym—S.A.D.—and how it connected with my situation and discovered it to mean ‘Sustain, Arise, Dominant.’ I want ‘Smile A Day’ to be something bigger and figure out a way to let people experience ‘Smile A Day’ offline, but I also want it to be a readily available platform for other people to tell their stories.” 

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article mentioned the "late Roland Young." Mr. Young is alive and well, Academy Art U News apologizes to Mr. Young and readers for the error.