Sophie, the mime: the image resonates and means something to me because I have an emotional connection to the subject, to the setting, and I know the narrative story on either side of the frame. It may resonate with you because you happen to like children, or because the facial emotion is a strong an unambiguous one, or you like monochrome documentary portraiture, or for some other reason. But if it were executed differently, you may feel different about it – but not necessarily or consciously know why. It is up to the photographer to control the unconscious influences in such a way that at least their intended communication is fulfilled, but not in a way that draws attention to itself (and thus breaks that illusion).
After the huge amount of very interesting and thoughtful discussion that ensued in the comments – thank you for your thoughts, everybody – and a few days of settling time, I couldn’t leave the previous article on soul hanging inconclusively. There are few very interesting observations made, higher conclusions that one can draw from the responses here, and further logical leaps from contemplation of one’s own work and raison d’être. Firstly, a clarification though: I’m not looking for a magic formula to ‘inject soul’ into my own work, and I’ll explain why later. I was and am simply seeking to understand why certain images move certain people in a certain way – and if there’s anything one can use there to make a stronger image, given the choice, and providing of course it fits one’s own idea.
An image is not about the subject.
There are several filters of interpretation that take place here: the image in its objective, singular form is the photographer’s interpretation of the scene and subject; they have isolated the elements that are of interest to them and hopefully discarded the rest or presented them in a way that is contextual and not conflicting. What is seen in the image is up to the audience – you cannot notice something that doesn’t catch your attention in some way, and whilst there’s the whole psychological logic behind subject isolation methods, we cannot discard individual biases. It is very, very difficult – almost impossible – to look at an object purely impassively and think of it solely as a collection of shapes and colors and geometries. Ultimately: the audience sees what their subconscious is geared to seeing, which is a bias that’s a function of their experiences, preferences and personality. The number of possible interpretations for ‘only the clouds are truly free’ was far more than I expected – struggle of migration was my intention; imprisonment and mental illness came out of it (and not something I’d ever envisioned).
The subject bias can often dominate the image.
Our brains pattern recognise: a face is a face not a collection of arcs and gradients. We know what the object is – or we think we know, because we project our imagined or experienced qualities of similar objects in reality on what we see in the image. It’s Magritte’s ‘Treachery of images’ all over again: what we are seeing in the photograph is an implicit representation of the object, not the object itself. A Ferrari might look fast, and we expect it to bolt at the slightest push of the pedal and we can almost imagine that adrenaline rush, but there’s no way to tell from the photo it’s a static display model with no engine. Similarly, the quotidian is often dismissed out of hand as a foregone conclusion. Who really stops to look at a traffic cone or garbage can?
We subconsciously project ourselves and our emotions.
Take that hypothetical face again: even without knowing the actual person or circumstances, we read or project expression and thus emotion on that face, affected by our experience and likely further biased by our own personal emotions at the time of viewing the image. That is also impossible to decouple: we project ourselves into the image, and if the return is incompatible or incomprehensible, there’s no emotional engagement. And if there’s no emotional engagement, we feel nothing, and the image is dismissed. It doesn’t ‘work’ for us. Ergo: no soul. Worse still, if there are no human elements – and our own experience or imagination cannot connect the dots – we can’t visualise ourselves in the place and scene and what emotions we might experience there – it’s a blank feeling, and once again the image is cold, devoid of emotion. Interpretation is cultural, too: take the fish image in the previous article. A lot of people got hungry, but equally many felt revulsion; fish are served with heads in Asia as a means to attest species and freshness. In the west, it’s merely a carcass.
Emotion runs both ways.
Just as many have identified ‘soul’ as having a sorrowful or melancholy or negative or sad component, and we want people to like our work – it’s important not to write off the other half of the continuum. To feel strongly about something – love or hate – means that it has touched you in some way; you either resonate with it or against it. And a strong dislike or revulsion is not necessarily a bad thing. Happiness is not preferable to sadness or vice versa; it’s just the opposite emotion. But it is an emotion nevertheless. The worst case would be if an image evokes nothing at all: you remember something if you hate it or love it, but not if you were completely indifferent. I’m not sure a feeling of isolation or coldness is necessarily indifference, either.
Thought is emotion, too, and reflective of the audience.
We do not involuntarily think about things we don’t care about – and given image viewing is very much a voluntary action rather than a compulsive one, we have to think that we feel cold about it or don’t understand it (after trying to) or that it doesn’t resonate: there is still emotion here, but the opposite of what we expected to find. Just because we feel no empathy with the presentation, subjects, emotions or arrangement – actually says less about the photograph and the photographer and more about the audience. Think of it as two very specific beams trying to overlap: the more focused and sharper the photographer’s interpretation, the tighter but more intense the beam is going to be. It’s going to hit less of the audience, but the few it does will be lit much brighter. Is that good or bad? I personally would rather really resonating with a few than generating a few more social media likes.
Soul theory in graphic dots: an image (upper, pale red) can affect a large number of people a bit or a few but very strongly (lower, intense red) – it can’t do both, simply because it’s not possible for an image to contain that much information (the density of the red). Given the choice, I’d rather have the bottom scenario: if you make an image that’s only remembered by a few, but it sticks with them forever rather than a transient image that’s seen by many but soon forgotten – I think that’s much closer to my personal philosophy of chasing the last percent. But some may prefer the former; there are reasons for either.
The only way to achieve this collimation/coherence is by trying to more accurately reflect yourself.
The photograph is a reflection of the creator’s interpretation of the scene/subject. Firstly, the creator must feel something about the subject or there is nothing at all to reflect. Secondly, without knowing and being certain of their own feelings – that reflection is never going to be defined and clear. Thirdly, without instinctive command of the right language – think of this as the technical aspects of camera operation, post processing, and compositional psychology – they’re never going to be able to lucidly express their point of view. Tools are not an end pursuit, they’re merely enablers for vision. I can’t make that clear enough: I only pursue tools and skills to be able to better express myself, and focus that beam. One has to be able to do the mechanical motions as a reflex, intuitive action to be able to concentrate on defining and translating the idea.
Imperfection, perfection, spontaneity, ambiguity, emotion – are not in conflict.
I think the key missing word here is deliberation: perfection and cleanliness and order and precision are not end goals, they’re a manifestation of a very deliberate way of shooting and translating one’s own ideas. Without that control, a successful image – even by assessment of the creator – is reduced to nothing more than a game of chance. There is no point in doing this; it’s like the monkeys at typewriters eventually producing Shakespeare. If you have the skills to write, compose a narrative and find the right audience, you can save yourself quite a lot of effort (and wasted resources); spewing random words is unlikely to successfully communicate your thoughts. At the same time, successful communication is also dependent on your audience understanding the language you speak: this represents the common visual language we need to understand as photographers. Except, unlike language, there are often more mismatches and incomplete blanks than commonalities. Spontaneity requires the intuition I described in the previous paragraph: you might see it, but if you have to think about how to capture it, you’re going to miss the shot. Ambiguity can be deliberate, too: choose to expose to reveal only the intended portions of your frame, or to partially hide things to create the ability to allow the audience’s imagination latitude to fill in the (literal) blanks.
Experience > Personality > Biases > Self-identification > Projection of emotion > Empathy > SOUL
This is the strongest conclusion or clearest definition I can arrive at: ‘soul’ happens when something in the image – regardless of the intention of the creator – resonates with the audience and generates an emotion. We as creator have no control over how or in whom that emotion is triggered: each viewer is different, and has different biases, preferences and passions. There may be some common things everybody responds to – strong facial emotions etc. – but this is an immediate and instinctive empathetic reaction that may be more involuntary than deliberate. My personal belief is that a response has to be deliberate and thoughtful to be lasting. Many will probably disagree, but if an image yields all completely at immediate glance and does not reward viewing – then there’s no reason to revisit or contemplate it, which in turn does not encourage memory.
I personally have no intention of trying to second guess what those emotional triggers are for my audience – doing so will only result in an image that isn’t even self-consistent or that works for me. It only makes sense to make images that work for you – in this way, the integrity of the idea is preserved, and if it resonates with an audience, it does so with force. I suspect a good portion of classical ‘great’ art is like this too: it was not understood in its day because it only rewarded the small number of people who bothered to view it objectively and invest some time to understand; some of those people may have been influential, and in turn shaped opinions and preferences of a much wider (and more uncertain) audience. In short: we make art because we have to, and because it resonates with us, the creator. The rest is a bonus. MT
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