Photography and psychology, part one: it’s all a mind game

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This is one of my more successful recent images: on Flickr alone, 2,500+ views and 125 favourites: but why? After this pair of articles, I think all will be clear.

Today’s article is one I’ve wanted to write for a very, very long time. Such a long time, in fact, that it’s taken me several months to condense my thoughts into some semblance of order. I’m going to start with a question: how many times have you seen an image that provokes an unexpectedly strong emotional response in you – either good or bad – and you haven’t been able to figure out why? How many times have you looked at the work of a photographer and thought – not only is there something remarkably consistent about his or her style that makes the creator instantly identifiable, but also makes me as the viewer feel a certain way? Wonder no longer. As ever, these articles are written to first and foremost, make us think a bit more about why we shoot the way we do, and in doing so, hopefully become much better photographers. We all have the tendency to get caught up in the technical side, the equipment, and lose sight of the end objective: the images.

As is typical with these kinds of articles, we’re going to have to start by challenging a few preconceptions and redefining some things so we all start off on the same page. Firstly, photography. At a technical level, it may be about the instantaneous translation of a three-dimensional scene into a two-dimensonal image according to the reflected luminance levels of the objects in the scene. But that’s a very cold way of looking at things; it’s the kind of way that inevitably results in feelings of inferiority, expensive credit card bills and slight buyers’ remorse after trying to figure out where to hide all of those now-empty boxes. In a previous exploration of clarity, I – and a huge number of contributors below the line – tried to figure out what it is – if anything – that’s missing from an image which limits it from more accurately representing the feeling of actually being there. The conclusion was of course that it probably wasn’t technical; there’s of course a good portion that’s limited by the display medium; and an equally good portion that’s just a fundamental restriction of the medium itself.

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Abstraction: or not? Ladders are almost common-consciousness. Repetition of them throughout the frame is entirely intentional. Is there a message here? Escape!

We can use the restrictions of the medium itself to focus the attention of the viewer on the story we want to tell; I plan to explore these limitations and strengths further in a future article. However, the real nugget you should be taking away from that sentence is that photography is fundamentally a relationship between the photographer and the viewer. Nothing more, nothing less. At its core, a successful image is about communication: it must tell the viewer the photographers’ intended story, through an entirely and solely visual means of communication. Forget captions and titles, they inevitably get orphaned from their parent images, and thus an image must be strong enough to stand on its own and clear enough to tell the intended story without the support of text. Even more importantly, the visual portion has much more immediate impact than the text – simply because text requires conscious processing; images don’t. (And what if your audience doesn’t read that language?)

A strong image has to tell a story: that’s secondary evidence of the viewer being able to make some inferences from the visual cues they are being presented with by the photographer. (Whether these are correct or not is another question). Each visual element, or subject, in the frame, is something that has an implied relationship with other subjects in the frame; the depth/ complexity/ closeness of that relationship is something that is implied by the physical proximity of the objects and other visual similarities like luminance, color, texture etc.; for instance, if two things look effectively identical, we assume they are from the same source. The photographer’s job is to control the relationship – or rather implied relationship – between these objects by means of light, composition and perspective – so that the viewer forms the right conclusions.

Use of perspective is a good example of this: I always emphasize that perspective (relative size relationship between foreground and background objects) must be chosen before focal length; this is so that the prominence of the main subject relative to the background context is a conscious choice, not an accidental coincidence. This is very important, since it’s effectively the only control a photographer has over ‘perceived importance’ of an object in a scene; empty foregrounds in wide-angle shots are a sign that there’s nothing of any particular importance – which is why such image structures are to be assiduously avoided.

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Why does an image like this imply trust, professionalism and cleanliness?

The image-making and compositional process is itself not simple; I spent some time figuring out and decomposing what makes an outstanding image to try and quantify this. Of course, what it doesn’t cover is the emotional response in the viewer: that’s not something you can easily quantify. Yet, all of the strongest – best is a question of personal preference and aesthetics – images have this property in common; as a viewer, you feel something when you view them. Even assuming you can cover all of the technical and aesthetic bases, your image might not elicit an emotional response in your audience; as a result, the photograph feels flat and lifeless.

Here’s another connection: emotion = life = association = impact. Specifically, if you feel something on viewing an image, it feels alive or speaks to you; it does this simply because there is some sort of conscious or subconscious association you make between the image and your mental bank of experiences, feelings and visual memories. In turn, there is a sense of connection with the image, and because an associative mnemonic already exists in your brain, the image lodges itself in your consciousness. Since it makes you think about it, the impact is there. Simple, right?

Yes and no. There are a lot of assumptions and leaps of faith here: firstly, the photographer’s plane of reference is going to be different to the viewer’s; just how different will affect the success of the image hugely. There has to be enough overlap for the viewer to be able to find something familiar in the image, otherwise no associations can be formed; if no associations are formed, the impact never hits. Overlapping planes of reference are very important for documentary, photojournalism and reportage: simply because the story is often of primary importance over the aesthetics of the composition. A wedding is a good example: if it’s your wedding, no matter how bad (or good) the images are, there are a lot more associative memories to go with the images than if it’s a wedding of people you don’t know. The same goes for news reporting: there have to be enough visual cues that the viewer can at least figure out the context, if not the whole story. And the more unusual the event, the further removed it is from the collective consciousness, making it increasingly difficult to visually codify in an effective manner.

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What feelings or memories does this image invoke? Why?

Residing on the other end of the continuum is fine art and abstract photography – here, the context is almost completely irrelevant, and the emphasis rests entirely on the visual aesthetics of the work. In fact, the success of an abstract photograph relies entirely on the fact that the planes of reference are so far removed that the viewer can’t immediately identify the subject at all, or the contextual elements in the image appear at first to have no relationship with each other at all: there is no common ground whatsoever. Don’t be fooled, though: this type of photography is no easier to successfully execute than reportage; it just has a different set of challenges.

The majority of photography falls somewhere in the middle, though; and all images are more successful if the aesthetics work, too. I keep referencing the cinematic style and cinema itself as a good example of a balance between subject, story and context; the simple reason is because in such an environment, everything is a conscious choice. It has to be, because the environments are all imagined, built and staged precisely to tell the story; no object placement or light is accidental or coincidental. (I suppose part of this is due to the budgets involved: the more money being thrown at something, the more effort is put in simply because there’s far more at stake if something goes wrong.) Cinema actually goes so far as to control the perception of the viewer in very careful, subtle ways: your attention is drawn to certain parts of the frame by virtue of framing, lighting or color; this is all the more obvious if you try to look for mistakes: there may be poor editing and aesthetic/ compositional disagreements, but for the most part, your eyes are drawn precisely where the director intended.

Part two of this article will continue with an exploration of how we view images.


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  1. If you cropped the image of the woman in abaya, then it would likely be even more powerful at least for the gentlemen. The image like this usually provokes a predictable reaction.

  2. lots of food for thought ….I totally agree that there are some people’s work that I just tune into and love it, whereas with others I need to work harder..and dificult to articulate why some times. also like yr comments on strong image….really need to think about how that plays out for me..thanks again for sharing yr understandings : ) trees

  3. If I had to try and summarise what we were trying to achieve with your outstanding images workshop this article would be it. But as we also found out its fiendishly difficult to achieve!

    • Pretty much, yes. There’s the technical/ quantitative ‘hows’ – which are covered in the exercises and ‘what makes an outstanding image‘ articles – but this is the ultimate goal: how does the photographer put all of those tools together to make the viewer respond in a certain way to a carefully defined and communicated message?

      • The how is in some ways quite simple – practice, practice, practice and get as much feedback as you can from a diverse group of people so you figure out what does and doesn’t work.

  4. Is 2500 views a lot these days? This one of mine is up to 3.7 million at last count. That must say something about the flood of images that we now get, as opposed to only a few years ago.

  5. Interesting timing … I just finished watching episode 3 and was wondering why the medical image here, which also appears as one of the examples at the end, was shot with a shallow DOF. My best guess is that the large OOF areas give the image a softer, less clinical, if you will, feel which was important to the picture’s goal of making the staff and facility seem welcoming. Am I close?

    The thing I can’t figure out in that photo are the OOF faces because it feels like all 5 people are the subject, but only 1 is in focus. Would the feel of the picture be lost if there was a bit more DOF?

    • Wrt the medical image, my interpretation is: behind every doctor you see on the ward there are a number of specialists acting behind the scenes to support the doctor. It’s a team effort.

    • Yes, pretty much. That, and the fact that the background isn’t that pretty meant that shallow DOF was the way to go. Sven nailed the other half :)

      • Ah, thanks guys. I can see that, but it is a hard concept to get across. The difficulty is trying to represent concepts that are easy to say in words without words, but I guess you have to do what you have to do with commercial work.

        There’s a famous saying in the dance world, “There are no mothers-in-law in ballet.” Mother-in-law is not an easy thing to convey with dance, but there are other things that only dance can say, and so it goes with every other art form.

      • I attributed about the same message as Sven, roughly, “The medico you will interact with is backed up by, and part of, a team of other professionals.”

        The background not being pretty is another practical reason (chuckling) … it’s probably a good thing that the latter isn’t the first interpretation that came to mind :)

  6. Ming, Really likening the ladder shot. Thanks for writing another thought provoking article.

    Best Wishes – Eric

  7. Pedro Simoes says:


    Congratulations on another very interesting and enticing article, and thanks for sharing with us!

    If I may add my two cents, I’ve long believed that photography, as well as other forms of art, is all about conveying emotions – not so much a “story” or a “message”. Albeit hard to give a precise definition of what that means, it’s what connects fine art and photojournalism (or whichever “style” you can name): no matter their approach, they must make people feel something to be successful.

    And the thing is, technical considerations apart, I think a photographer can only consistently achieve that if the subject makes him feel something in the first place (I don’t remember who said that, but it’s just another way of stating that “subject matter is subject that matters”). In this regard, I totally agree with you that psychology plays a huge role – and I dare add, not so much the viewers psychology, but mostly the photographer’s.

    I’ve been reading interviews from many renowned photographers lately and the one and only thing I could find in common between all of them is this: they have a deep, spiritual connection to what they’re shooting. It touches them so deeply that somehow this shows in their pictures, and the viewers do recognize that, consciously or not. They never shoot something because “they like it” or because “they can” or because “it looks nice” or because “the light is perfect” or because “their audience will dig it”. They shoot what gives meaning to their own lives, and in doing so they reveal themselves to us, they reveal their emotions, their soul, their innermost vision about the world.

    Vivian Maier could be a good example of that: she used to shoot pedestrian scenes of people she didn’t know in rather uninteresting places, doing nothing special, with whatever light she had available, with apparently no intention of pleasing an audience. And yet some of her pictures are just astonishing! Somehow you can just tell that clearly the subjects do matter (a lot!) to her. In a way, you can literally see the world through her eyes.

    Adding a third cent and risking going a bit too far, maybe that’s why some of your own street shoots received such mixed reviews, MT: although they’re all technically great, it might not be clear enough to the viewers what emotions those scenes/places/people conveyed to you in the first place.

    • Makes sense – I definitely only shoot things I care about, but sometimes in the course of experimentation, that’s a somewhat secondary consideration. When we shoot for ourselves, without the intention of sharing (e.g. Maier) then I suppose that’s perhaps the purest distillation of art there is.

      I suppose I should be flattered that I’m being compared on the same level of the greats though…

  8. The whole crux of this photography lark…right here. Ultimately, this is what it comes down to. But even within this image/viewer communication the dynamics of the entire process from capture to display change depending on the target audience and metrics used to quantify success of the image. And there are so many confounding factors too (like current popular fads), and potentially contradictory phenomena at play. I agree with the notion of overlapping planes of reference…but at the same time differences in experiences can be equally powerful. For example images of indigenous people from places we have never been having more innate interest than a similarly lit/posed/processed picture of someone of our own race/culture and demographic. Places we haven’t been having more power than places we see every day.

    As with all artistic endeavors, subjectivity is high, and for every rule there are countless exceptions. The problem then comes to how to wrangle all of this into your image to try and capture the audience? Perhaps Pedro is right…as photographers we should try and stick to just making images of subjects that move us personally, and enjoy the work on that basis, and let the viewer think what they like. To do otherwise may be a road to insanity! Of course, if you are shooting commercially for, say, an advertising campaign, then you absolutely must analyse and account for as many of these human factors as possible, with a target audience and image use in mind

    The other problem with trying to consciously create an image to suit the viewer is that of losing what makes you love doing it in the first place. If all I cared about was social media hits, then I would photograph nothing but naked, nubile young women holding babies in a sunlit field of flowers with kittens and puppies gamboling around their feet, probably in HDR or ultra-high-contrast B&W, or heavily cross-processed, or hugely composited and photoshopped with sun flares and god rays. The fact I am not interested in any of these things (at least photographically speaking…of course I love kittens in real life…who doesn’t??!!) means I can’t compete on 500px for hits alone, if that was my target audience. Even if I did this, and won the 500px Wars, would that translate to money in the bank if I was doing it commercially? I doubt it…those audience members will be quite happy with an infinite supply of little JPEGs on their screens, and won’t feel compelled to pay for the 40×30 to hang on their walls. As an aspiring artist, if I had to choose a target audience beyond myself, it would be those who, on seeing my work – produced for my own enjoyment – were prepared to live on bread and water for a month to save the money to buy it, even if they had no where to really put it! I would want the audience that would quietly reference me appropriately in polite conversation, or internet discourse, and along the way maybe find a few like-minded souls to share in the appreciation of me! Of course, there may not be enough of these poor deluded souls to pay the bills, but even just one would be worth years of psychotherapy!

    The paradox is, to capture this latter group the artist must stay true to themselves and wait for the audience to come to them, otherwise they are sailing blind, trying to navigate to a destination they haven’t even identified yet, and having thrown away their internal compass to guide them. So Pedro’s point seems right again.

    Actually, all of this may tie in nicely with a discussion I was going to start on the Flickr Group…

    • “Of course, if you are shooting commercially for, say, an advertising campaign…”
      Then it’s quite possible the products do not move you at all. In fact, it’s more than possible: likely.

      Third paragraph: Bingo. We need to produce for ourselves, to have any attempt whatsoever at sustainability. At the same time, if we go out to ‘hook’ an audience, I think that would change the output too much. The only way I can see of balancing integrity and still attracting an audience is attracting them for some other reason to begin with; guess what, the raison d’etre of this website…

      • Yes, that seems to me to be the way to truly self-promote…not by pushing the product itself, but by offering something beyond just the product, and to have a clear sense of purpose. As I have said before, I came for the pictures, I stayed for the chat :)

  9. Thanks so much for making me think. I like to snap pictures, but I’m not a “real” photographer. When I see images that make me ponder the perspectives of life or the unusual, I appreciate the person behind the lens so much.

  10. Another MT piece to make us think!…. Your Photo skills=your skills as a teacher…as you know. Curious about the top image: B&W PP conversion? I see on your Flickr page this was shot OM5/Zuiko-75 1.8/ Thank You

  11. My perception is that she’s a truly beautiful woman even though she is covered up. The little she shows, she wants it to make a statement as to what’s underneath. Beautiful big eyes and over the top mascara plus “fake?” eyebrows that act as an inner frame to the black frame she is wearing. It is a haunting photo and works for me!

  12. Jorge Balarin says:

    Hi Ming,
    What you said about wide angle photography with empty foregrounds is true. I experience it yesterday with some wide angle shots that I did, and I thought about it. But of course, perhaps the are some exceptions of the rule.

  13. Thanks, Ming. Another thought provoking essay backed up by photos that make the same point. As usual, any good essay raises more points to be considered. In this case, “How to you go about ‘making’ a photograph that does all of this?” You selected some that worked for you, but where did they come from? Did you conceive of a “latter image” or just kept going until you came across a scene or setting that forced you to envision it? Forced you. Someone else (most) could go through the same setting and not see or think of any such thing. In fact, we might be looking for a beautiful woman looking out from a burka, and of course never encounter one. One nice thing about getting into photography is that you don’t need your camera to do it. It eventually forces you or empowers you to look at the world and see things better or more often at least. Not always, of course. The mind can easily get too focused to see much at all.

    Then teaching, which is what you’ve done for us. There’s a great saying at the beginning of the Tao that says something like,
    “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao.” This clearly is dissing words and word concepts in a major way. Problem is, there are probably thousands of written texts telling us all what the Tao and Taoism is, including the paradoxical, self-contradictory statement I shared above! There’s a political version from American politics (probably stolen from elsewhere), “If you have to explain it, you’ve already lost.” So, we’re back to the spontaneous, emotional (and mental) response that usually provokes a “Wow” in us (or counterpart in other languages). The great thing about wow is that it’s useful both ways: if you immediately dislike a food or photo, you can still say “wow” without offending anyone. Just don’t follow it up. If it’s very positive, then of course say more.

    I’m a strong believer in “story” or imagined/provoked “narrative” in a photo. It can be a scene with or without people, and still do this, like your photograph of ladders. It also is highly original. We’ve all seen sides of buildings with fire escapes, (again) possibly without even noticing the fire escape ladders. The one hanging down from above changes all of that. Now the other ladders stand out as much as the beautiful eyes behind the vail (do all Muslim women have beautiful eyes! Seems like from all the photos). But these are my favorite types of photos. There’s also still life, along the lines of still life paintings. To me, very difficult to do. So, where’s the story? Good still life photos can approach the other end of your continuum, abstract relationships (color and objects), yet very real concrete objects. And like the painter, you don’t normally stumble across them like many photos: you construct it out of your own imagination and let’s say whatever fruit and other objects you have available. Still can produce a “wow” how did you do that?

    Long way to ask again, How do you achieve what you’re describing? Personally, it may not fit all of us as well as you. Or is it something else that cannot be said very easily, or “if you have to ask, it’s too late.”

    • Tough question, Larry. It’s got to be a bit of everything: starting with an idea; seeing something; editing out the chaff afterwards. I’d like to say that every image starts with an idea before I see the subject matter, but that’s only true in settings where I’m in control of all the variables. Most of the time you need to have something there to light the spark in the first place – even if you land up moving that subject around manually and controlling the light.

      My guess is the difference between stage 3b and stage 4 in the creative evolution of a photographer is when you flop over from being reactive/ passive to active/ proactive…

      I don’t know if this answers the question; I’m not sure it can even be answered easily at all. Also, there’s an oft-quoted line that’s rather apt here: “a camera is just a device that teaches you how to see the world without one”. How true!

      • I’m still working on a quote I came across in a collection of someone’s photograph: “Good photography redefines the familiar.” Not easy at all. We are all already too familiar with the familiar to do that or see that very easily. Your ladders photograph does that in a way that is also aesthetically appealing as well. You quickly have to add to that: “And discovers the unfamiliar.” Again, not so easy. Seems like the two of these together capture a lot about photographs you tend to like. And again, cannot be taught so easily, but perhaps learned by oneself through practice and experience. I’m greatly in favor of luck as well when it comes to photography.

        • Well, as Gary Player (I think) said “The harder I practice, the luckier I get!”. Yet just “practicing” isn’t necessarily enough, to quote another sporting personality, Vince Lombardi, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect”. So for all but the most insanely and innately gifted we still need to be taught, if only what makes perfect practice. But even still, there is definitely serendipity at work in many of my favourite photographs, and without that touch of fate/destiny/whatever who knows what artistic and scientific wonders would not have come to be?

  14. Reblogged this on saturn1ascends.

  15. Important, deep psychological context. A pleasant surprise, coming from someone whose early experience came from the business world !
    Glad you made a final transition and left the shallow world of the bottom line behind you.
    I wil read this a second time tomorrow, before I venture into “Part Two.”

    • After leaving, one of the first things that’s driven home is just how important that bottom line is, shallow though it may be :)

      • Quite.

        Off topic but I’ve found it odd at times, and disconcerting, how many false assumptions and erroneous judgements I’ve encountered coming from lifetime employees who’ve never had their very livelihood in managing a business of their own. Some of them managers on behalf of their employers who quickly demonstrated themselves wildly ill-informed about the most basic principles.

  16. Great article Ming! I love psychology, and understanding the way our brain works in order to improve our images is really important, and not that difficult! I shared your article in my blog :)

  17. I’m not sure what to make of your statement, … “the prominence of the main subject relative to the background context is a conscious choice, not an accidental coincidence. This is very important, since it’s effectively the ONLY control a photographer has over ‘perceived importance’ of an object in a scene; empty foregrounds in wide-angle shots are a sign that there’s nothing of any particular importance – which is why such image structures are to be assiduously avoided”.

    First this is clearly not true, and second you later discuss means of giving importance to specific elements. I’m not sure if you know of Gestalt theory, but provides much information on this subject, especially books by Rudolf Arnheim. Cropping influence “what in” and “what’s out”. The proportion of a crop — square, horizontal, or vertical influence greatly the “perceived importance’ of an object. This happens because the inclose image interacts with the frame. E.g., An identical photo of a 3/4 or full length person will create a totally different response depending if the frame is vertical or horizontal. I vertical element (person) in a vertical frame results in each reinforcing and complimenting each other, whereas in a horizontal frame we create visual contrast or conflict with the frame and the object fighting for visual dominance. A square frame tends to induce more neutral reactions as it can reinforce the visual repetition of both vertical and horizontal elements. The mind also treats elements in the upper part of the frame and of more importance than the lower areas, due to visual dynamics and a visual gravitational effect. Also, culture can affect our visual dominance of left or right placement. Because we read left to right and top to bottom, our eyes generally enter the frame from left to right. Additionally, we tend to see and object facing to the right as going ‘forwards’ and left as ‘going ‘backwards.’

    Another related point is that the eye travels not only across and around through an image, it also travel from front to back. Given that the closest object appears larger and also is ‘read’ as closer (a more intense relationship possible, whether threatening or engaging), we tend to regard the closest as most important. This can somewhat be overcome by symmetry and the center object also asserts dominance especially if reinforced by symmetry of other objects and the background/foreground relationship. Further, “perceived importance” can also be induced by a subject turning away or towards the viewer/photographer in a similar way to eye contact. (Your medical hallway photo illustrates both the central figure reasserting itself as dominant by centrality and reinforcing symmetry of the other subjects and the girl on the right rear is the only on turning her body away and consequently is less important than a similar person at a similar distance and at a similar distance from the center.) Also there is a subtle oscillation in the placement of the figures. If we label the people 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 from L to R, our eye first goes to #2 (closest, most in focus [clarity], contrast [white], and MOST engaging as she is turned toward you rather than square to the camera which can be read as either neutral/boring or confrontational). Next our eyes move back into the space which is #4 which has more novelty and internal contrast (clipboard) than the others. Then #1 with some novelty [headscarf], followed by #5 no novelty and turning away, and finally the doctor, #3. In our eyes moving back through the space to the doctor reasserts some dominance although he is out of focus. This is caused by the fact that his is a visual novelty because the girl heads are all the same height (unifying) whereas the doctor is clearly higher and breaking through that horizontal line of girls heads. His center axis position and the fact that he is the only one square to the camera helps balance the front/back important/less important effect.

    Finally, the relatively strict symmetry of the architecture and its one point perspective (which is always more powerful [e.g.,Leonardo's Last Supper]) and the symmetry of the people is countered (which creates more interest) by the interaction of #2 and #3 (both white, creating a relationship) in a visual tug-of-war between forward v. central, and in focus v. out of focus, and lower v. higher height. You may not have noticed, but the sequence from front to back goes from #2 right to #4 then left to #1 then right to #5 then left to #3. This left, right, left, right, not only creates tension but adds interest. If you look at the painting “A Rainy Day in Paris” by Gustave Caillebotte the umbrellas do the same L, R, L, R, etc. trick! against a very strong receding perspective. That’s a great compliment for a great photo!

    P.S., Time to read/re-read Arnheim’s “Art and Visual Perception” and “The Dynamics of Architectural Form.”

    • I don’t see the disagreement here. Aspect ratio is taken as given. That also affects the perceived amount of foreground, which in turn changes the relative size of foreground objects – or maximum possible size – relative to orientation and rest of the frame.

    • Jorge Balarin says:

      What a salad !


  1. […] is really fundamentally all about psychology; the photographer is having a conversation with their audience, but beyond that, they’re […]

  2. […] and the brain uses persistence of vision to reconstruct the whole (see these two articles – part one, part two – on psychology and how we view images for more information) – the absolute […]

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