Ron Yaciuk is about to teach Ryan Wang the hidden art of smizing.
To smile with your eyes is the key to achieving the perfect passport photo, Yaciuk explains while positioning Wang.
Wang, a first-year engineering student from China, studies himself in a mirror, brushing aside his dark bangs. He turns to Yaciuk’s camera, his eyes wide and unsure.
“I’m going to show you a trick,” Yaciuk says. “I want you to think of happy things. Your eyes will pick it up and then you’ll look happy.”
The first flash goes off.
“You look too serious. Let’s put some joy in your eyes!”
Yaciuk removes Wang’s glasses — too much reflection — and presses him for happy thoughts. “If you won a million bucks, how would you feel?”
Wang’s gaze starts to soften and his lips curve upward. Another flash bursts.
“Look at this!” Yaciuk exclaims. “A good-looking photo.”
He summons Wang to his computer screen and scrolls through the takes.
Wang, expressionless at first, reveals a hint of a smile in his last take. It’s the photo that will appear on his Chinese passport for the next 10 years.
“I was so worried because I lost my passport,” Wang says while Yaciuk edits the picture. “I’m lucky to meet him.”
At the surface, Yaciuk’s uncanny talent lies in producing passport photos that invite joyful disbelief from customers. The trick, of course, is to smize, but that also entails ridding customers of their fears.
“Every person is unique. What works for one person might not work for another person,” he says.
“Some people may not want to take instructions. Others may be very shy. Some may have bad days. You have to work on one person and figure them out.”
Customers often visit Yaciuk’s store bemoaning their previous “criminal” mug shots. Even Yaciuk isn’t immune from mediocre photography. He whips out his driver’s license and decries the washed out picture.But in the 28 years that he’s run HUB Photo, Yaciuk’s job has evolved beyond passport photography. He’s a confidante and resource for U of A students, many of whom hail from other countries and speak little English.
While readying the photos, Yaciuk questions Wang about his residency. He quickly learns that Wang also needs a visa. After outlining the visa options, Yaciuk recommends Wang stay overnight in Calgary because of long waits at the consulate.
“I feel like they’re all my sons and daughters,” Yaciuk later says during some downtime at the store. “I really like helping people and I love helping students. That gives me satisfaction.”
It’s also what’s driven Yaciuk to pursue and reinvent his business, even when threatened by the advent of digital photography. He first overtook a photo-finishing store in 1986 where the LRT pedway now stands, before setting up shop two years later at the southern tip of HUB Mall. The location employed nine staff and included a dark room and studio next door.
Yaciuk now works by himself, after running the store with his daughter for nine years. Festive garland still lines the wall and staircase the first week of January. Family photos are tacked to the back wall near sticky notes outlining photo specs. Soft jazz blends in with the trickling of an aquarium.
Yet the constant stream of customers keeps the space bustling. Yaciuk estimates about 90 per cent of clients come through word of mouth. The majority return, often more than once.
Kun Chen, a third-year fine arts student, tells Yaciuk it’s her third visit to the store as he blow dries the fresh stamp on her photo. She’s planning a trip to London during reading week and needs to renew her passport.
“He’s very quick,” Chen says admiringly. “And all the photos are beautiful.”
Yaciuk smiles behind the counter. He figures he’s got one or two years left before retiring. He hopes to move to South America and work with orphanages.
But before selling the store, Yaciuk still has plenty more eyes on campus to light up with smiles.
“That’s my passion,” he says. “I love when I can get someone smiling and they say ‘Hey, you made my day.’”