Photography as emotions

For a while now I’ve adopted a concept of photography as a visual/emotional anchor. We look at images and don’t see them as a composite of light, or objectively study the subjects within. Instead, as we perceive the photo certain emotions arise, sometimes negative and sometimes positive.

This really lends from a major area of psychology which is now largely discredited, called behaviorism. A Russian gentlemen by the name of Pavlov was studying endocrine fluids that dogs release during certain digestive phases. He quite literally had their guts on display as they ate – not a pretty sight.

During this research a rather curious behaviour appeared in the dogs. Each day before they were fed, the researchers would ring a bell. And after some time, Pavlov noticed that the dogs would begin to salivate if the bell rang, even in the absence of food. They’d been conditioned, without knowing it, to salivate at the sound of a bell.

Pavlov wasn’t a psychiatrist, but this theory was developed further by a few so-called behaviorists. One of which was a particularly unpleasant gentlemen by the name of B. F. Skinner who more or less tortured infants to show that humans, just like Pavlov’s dogs, could be conditioned to feel a certain way when presented with external stimuli.

While behaviorism in this form is not exactly popular at the moment, the understanding that external stimuli can trigger emotions or unconscious physiological responses has been studied extensively. Researchers no longer question its existence, but the extent to which these triggers govern our behaviours is still unknown. One of the most effective psychological treatments today, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), uses a great deal of this idea of emotional triggers.

“Jimmy, what on earth are you talking about?” may be going through your mind right now. Bear with me though.

With our ever evolving understand of conditioning, what we have come to know is that it is entirely impossible for us to divorce ourselves from our emotions – unless we have sociopathic tendencies, and even then we’d feel emotions, but they’d be much more egocentric in nature.

External stimuli are evoking emotions in us constantly. When we walk past a smell, often an ex boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s perfume or aftershave, we regress to a time in the past. That smell takes control of our emotions for only the briefest of moments and we are powerless to stop it. At some point, that smell, completely unbeknown to us, has become associated with a specific set of emotions.

Music is also a powerful stimulus. How many times have you heard a song that drags you back to a time you’d almost forgotten? Music stirs emotions in us we sometimes didn’t know we had, and as with certain smells, we’re powerless to remove ourselves from the emotions it evokes.

Photography in this sense is no different to music. We see an image, even if it’s of something we’ve never seen before, emotions stir, large or small, and we rate that image based on those emotions. As photographers, we go through the same process but then afterwards we’ll often scan the image to determine what it is that we like or dislike about it.

Every single image we look at conjures an emotion in us, and it’s my belief that the best photographers in the world are those who are most accurate at evoking the emotions they want in other people. Some may not know they are doing it consciously. Photographers capture a scene and they know it’s a good one because they themselves will feel that ‘click’ that we often talk about when things come together. Those who post-process will play with an image until, again, those emotions click into place.

Many times these images are even titled after an emotion. I recently saw a black and white image of a boat in calm water, called ‘loneliness’. In fact, the photographer here used the name ‘Deserted’ in one of his series and upon looking at it I immediately felt something along those lines.

This leads us to another point, often we can’t put into words or conceptionalise what we feel. I created an image recently that was very personal. When I was younger, more than 15 years ago now, I used to play a computer game called Monkey Island. It was a pirate adventure game. Navigating down the dark alleys, talking to strangers and looking for adventure generally evoked in me a sense of safe-fantasy, if that makes sense. I simply can’t explain it.

Then a few years on I watched Pirates of the Caribbean and again I was struck by that same feeling. It’s very distinctive for me. And so, as I walked along Blyth beach in the North East of England the other day I saw a scene which didn’t quite give me that same sense, but it had the potential to.

I set up my equipment and put my ND filter to use. This is where HDR comes in. When I got home the image, as you’d imagine, was flat. But I knew what I wanted and went through an impromptu workflow, as all workflows are.

At one point the image simply clicked, or in others words the emotions I was searching for came forth and I knew I’d created the image I’d wanted. The problem with this way of doing things is that I’m failing to take my audience into consideration. I’m basing an entire image on my own experiences which other people may simply have no emotional attachment to.

My Monkey Island fantasy

Essentially, what it comes down to is that photographers, as with any other artists, are masters of emotions. Yet, where images fall down in my opinion, is when the photographer has failed to evoke the correct emotions in the viewer. I see many newbies to HDR who are understandably excited about their new software and can’t wait to try it out, as most of us have experienced. They go out and take a picture of a field next to their house. Unfortunately fields for the most part have very little emotional value. They’re just fields.

On the other hand, someone may have taken a photo of the same field on a beautiful summer day. The shot may be composed nicely, where families are picnicking, people are throwing a frisby, and they truly capture that warm, summer feeling of freedom. When we see that image we are immediately drawn into those emotions – we can’t switch it off.

Another good example of this is sunsets and sunrises. Photographers everywhere check the weather forecast daily in the hopes of getting a beautiful sky. Why? Because they are always emotionally compelling. It doesn’t matter how many sunrise shots I see, if they’re well taken and well processed I simply can’t get bored. Those times of the day have some strange, primal pull on our feelings and photographers use that regularly.

Inevitably, as a firm believer of this, I always ask myself what potential emotional value a particular scene has.  One benefit of this is that I stopped taking pictures of empty fields a long time ago. I save my shots for something more evocative.

Interestingly, I found an article over on digital Photography School which also talks about moods/emotions in photography and has some interesting ideas.

Ultimately, this mindset has not only improved my imagery (in my mind, at least) it has also increased the level of enjoyment I have for photography – something I didn’t even know was possible. I feel like I’m creating a world, no different to a movie director, in which my viewers have no choice but to join me if I’ve done my job right.

While I’m sure I’m not the first to write about this, nor the only one to use it as my philosophy when I’m behind a camera, there’ll inevitably be many who live by a completely different ethos. What is yours? How do you feel about this idea of photography evoking our emotions?

My name is Jimmy McIntyre and I’m the editor of HDR One magazine. I travel for a living, learn languages, take pictures, and generally strive to enjoy every minute of the waking day! You can visit my daily HDR travel blog or subscribe to my updates on facebook – Jimmy McIntyre
  • Abishek

    Wow, never ever thought about it like that before. I just see something interesting and take a picture of it.

  • Gail

    Jimmy, I Love all of your work. Some may not call me
    Passionately as others, we all see and feel uniquely…
    This is wonderful opportunity for endless experiences.
    You are always thoughtful of others, wonderful and
    appreciated. The Beauty is our ability to share in the Joy
    through other eyes…Thank You for sharing Your Beauty !!!

  • Swissjon

    Interesting article Jimmy. It’s interesting you link to the Digital Photography School, You’ll find me on there most days and I think I’ll share this article with them..

    My wife is an art therapist and uses the links between imagery and emotions as the basis for her entire work.. The creation if a photographic work of art (as opposed to a snap shot or other work done without thought outside of the technical aspects) is by its very nature emotional. Personally I find photography a form of meditation. If I’ve had a stressful day at work, pausing on the way home for a moment or even an hour or more means I arrive home in a good mood and thinking about the photos I’ve taken rather than stressed from the day. In addition, I take a lot of photographs of other artists at work, whether its my wife creating something artistic, a musician, or an actor or acrobat of some description (I’m the photographer for our local circus school) the “thing” that makes me connect with a photo is when I capture someone “lost” in their own feelings.. A guitarist screwing his face up as he “feels” a chord, a singer so obviously full of happiness as they sing about love that you can see and take delight in sharing their emotions..

    HDR, as much as any other visual art, is a unique way of sharing with others a feeling you may experience. Thanks for sharing. :)

  • Paul Mack

    Very thought provoking and nicely written Jimmy.