On emotion and images

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The previous image post with leftover single images from Iceland got me thinking: what exactly makes it so difficult to let go of them? The simple answer is one of emotion: they appeal to us at some level which is irrational and defies explanation. It is almost certainly experiential: the images trigger a memory of the surrounding events and conditions, or the making of the image is the memory – you’re far more likely to be attached to an image if you had to climb a mountain to get it, even if the image itself is nothing particularly special. The more effort and emotional investment in the subject and making of, the less objective we can be as curators. Notice I didn’t say photographers: I think there has to be emotional investment at some level as a photographer otherwise it’s too easy to treat the subject with cold dispassion and land up with the resulting image simply being purely an image of record and nothing more.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what the four title images have to do with anything, and I certainly can’t blame you. I chose these specifically to illustrate what I think of as a sort of “scale of emotional transfer” that’s more subject-driven than anything. We start with the sunset and spectacular cloud arrangement (and no, it wasn’t photoshopped, or I’d have removed the dark cloud bottom-centre to better define the heart): at some level, everybody is drawn to a spectacular landscape or sky – there’s probably something in our collective DNA that makes you thankful for not having been eaten by a lion and lived to see another sunset. Nobody has any problem recognising the subject matter (mountain, cloud, sky or time of day (sunset) cues given in the image. We also have no problem recognising that these lighting conditions are pretty fleeting: again, because most people have seen a lot of sunsets, and thus have the mental database of experience to realise that you’re looking at something rare.

The second image (singer) is a little more subject-specific: you might not like music, you might not recognise it’s jazz, but again: as humans, we can still generally recognise enough body language and the subtle cues given by the position of mouth, closed eyes, bunched brows etc. to know that there must be some emotion being expressed by the singer in the music (again: the cue is the microphone, which most people will again recognise). If you have no interest in music it might appeal at the level of being an interesting ‘work’ portrait or even the tonal aesthetic. Bottom line: not all may connect to the subject matter at more than a rational level.

Next we have the watch: I suspect this image will appeal to an even narrower audience because of the esoteric nature of the subject matter; and even within those limits, people have their preferences which leads to other emotional reactions – you might prefer the Swiss-French style of classical movement finishing with cotes d’Geneve instead of our technical aesthetic, for instance. You might not like leather straps. An important swing has just occurred here: in the previous image, it’s possible for most people to look at the image as a photograph first, and specific subject matter a distant second. In this image, we’re now looking at the subject matter first, and the photograph second – and speaking as the designer, this is true even for somebody who has significant emotional investment in both image and subject matter.

The final image skews this even further towards the subject and away from everything else: pictures of your kids and family aren’t interesting to anybody at all unless they know the people in the image. And in those cases, the aesthetics and composition are so far out of consideration that unless something is massively objectionable, it usually passes without any comment at all – all attention is focused on the subject matter. Portraits know this well: capturing some element of personality of the subject that triggers a reaction in the audience (subject or otherwise) isn’t easy; the typical instinctive reaction of most subjects is they don’t like it for some reason or other: usually because there is a strong emotional response to realising “I look like that?!*”. I have never, for instance, heard from a subject that they would like a bit more catch light in the eyes and definition on the left sleeve (though from art directors, yes) – usually it’s “can you make me look thinner?”

*In a way, this is probably the biggest challenge of portraiture: not representing the subject as they are perceived by external parties, but representing them as they think they would like to be perceived and often without the benefit of working with somebody who knows how they are actually being perceived. Double deception, in other words…

Ask ourselves for a moment why this is the case: the art director has a vested interest in getting the shoot complete with the intended objectives, i.e. the images show what they need to get the intended message across to the target audience. The portrait subject wants to project the personality they envisage in their own minds, and thus concerns tend to centre on their main insecurities – e.g. not serious enough, not happy enough, not relaxed, too relaxed, too fat, too thin, too short, too tall etc. The technician/ executor wants to make sure composition and lighting are right – but the photographer has to really take all of these considerations into account. It’s no different if you’re not shooting for a client: the only change is all of the subjectivity has been replaced with ‘you’ or ‘I’. I want to portray what I see in this subject, to get across the message (if any) I intend – it might be beauty/ ugliness/ contrast/ juxtaposition/ social commentary – or anything else.

We as creators tend to be skewed obsessively towards one particular objective, often to the detriment of the overall complete impression. This obsessiveness is what causes images to weaken: we can only see what we’re focused on, and not what we’re missing (but gets picked up on by everybody and anybody else without emotional investment in image or subject). Circling back to firstly the headline images: none of these are really my best work as there’s too much tunnel vision in all of them – a singular overriding purpose and prevents me from addressing other deficiencies during the execution:
Sunset – ‘wow, heart!’ – otherwise, boring and one-dimensional
Singer – emotion, light – no context
Watch – technical qualities – no context, somewhat dry
Family – story and focus – can’t see faces, frame a bit empty

Each one works for its purpose (in order: recording/ social media; demonstrating X1D e-shutter and as part of a larger set; product image to detail movement; Sunday morning making pancakes with mum) – but nothing more than that. Is universal emotional resonance even possible? Probably for extreme subjects like war or things where there’s only one well-known representation due to other limitations (the moon, for instance) – but probably not across the board. So I’d distil it down to this to close: at the very least, make sure your own images do something emotionally for you – i.e. you like them at a level that’s difficult to quantify – because if we don’t feel something, how can we capture it – and how can the audience see it? MT


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved


  1. Thank you. I don’t have anything substantive to add, but I feel bad that posts like this which are the most unique and helpful (from my perspective at least) don’t seem to get as much interaction as gear oriented articles (though I value those, too). So anyways, I decided to comment to let you know that I hope you continue to offer posts like this. Thanks!

    • Thanks Sean. I write them because there’s some meaning to me, but yes – the audience is rather…limited. Self improvement requires a lot more effort than buying new gear 😉

  2. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Right you are!
    – – –

    The sky, I agree that it’s a “personal” photo, the heart distracts from seeing the photo, but it is a photo one just has to take…

    But with the others I disagree.
    The singer is a good portrait, regardless of a possible disinterest in the context.
    The watch photo – with the longer exposure – catches the passing of time as well (and the leather contrasts nicely with the metal), making it more than a watch portrait.
    The family photo nicely catches the close relationship – and the dripping ladle adds movement to the calm situation.
    – – –

    Btw, the link “previous image post with leftover..’ is broken.

    • Sometimes I have to shuffle the posting sequence around…and we forget the other many references (which don’t automatically update), which in turn tends to result in the occasional broken link – sorry!

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Don’t be sorry!
        We who often visit your site find anyway.
        ( Someone should invent two-way live links!)

  3. Timely comments and insights… I just picked up a commercial account and am tasked with bringing emotion to what can be a somewhat boring subject matter. Indeed, emotion is the only way forward. Won’t be done until summer but if I do something interesting, I’ll try to remember to circle back. y path forward Regarding portraits, yep, I love when strangers to a subject, as well as those intimate with the subject, positively react to an image, especially when someone says “you’ve captured their soul.” There’s nothing more rewarding and often more daunting than that. It almost always revolves around connecting to the subject in some manner. It’s also why I never object to a subject bringing family or intimate friends with them (subject to a few rules) as it helps establish a genuine dynamic.

  4. Ming, you’ve hit the nail on the head when you mentioned emotion. All images, whether they meet out own standards or not for a variety of reasons, will nearly always invoke memories of the occasion we took them. Even our poorly exposed images, certainly more prevalent when we only had film stock, or we slightly missed focus, still retain some power to “flip the switch” and take us back in time. But whilst they can trigger the exact time they were taken, they also have the power to excite memories around a wider time frame of which the image is just a small part. I suspect most of us experience a memory of what led up to the image being taken and from then onwards leading to the next.

    There is also the real thought that we may not come this way again, so I tend to keep hold of images that are less than perfect simply because of this and the memories they invoke.

    • At worst, such images don’t do it for us because we didn’t have a clear idea or emotion at the time of capture – at best, they hit all collective switches because elements in the images reference things that are in the collective societal memory. But yes – there are a lot of imperfect images I keep for myself, too – and never show because I know they are meaningless to anybody else. Perhaps this is the important bit: know your audience…

      • It’s funny, but as the years go by, my audience is becoming simply ‘me’. It used to be very important to me if someone liked my photos, now I don’t much care.
        I would think that unless it is a paid job with a specific goal, we take pictures for ourselves. If it didn’t interest us, or if we didn’t find it beautiful, or I suppose if the scene, object, person didn’t stir some emotion or other, we wouldn’t photograph it.
        I have no pictures of my toothbrush, but a number of them of my favourite old cars, places I’ve been, and basically anything that simply moved me somehow. Even done very artistically, taking a photo is to record what we are seeing before us, and why would we do that if it didn’t excite one emotion or another?
        More and more, (except for idiot selfies), we are our own audience. I’m starting a project to print one photo (from my forty year collection of negatives and files) per week, frame it, and hang it on my home office wall, and keep doing so until two of the walls are pretty much filled. I expect it will be a rare day when I don’t walk in there, look at one picture or another, and smile for the memory of a place visited, sigh for a friend who has passed on, feel accomplishment when I recall the two days spent photographing a frozen and storm-ravaged shoreline, etc.
        Emotions all.

        • Bingo – the first line emotional response has to be within the photographer; even if it’s a paid assignment. If not, there’s a high chance of a very weak image indeed.

          I like your project – and wish you all the best with the curation!

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