Some photos evoke strong emotions. Emotions are as much an essential element of photographs as composition. So, how can we embed them in our images?
Like all art, photos can evoke powerful feelings. Some may bring you to tears of joy, while others may make you roar with laughter. Some may make you cry in despair, and others make you boil with rage. But many that you see may not trigger an emotional response, and you will look at them with indifference.
Great photos can evoke positive and negative emotions, and those that do are more powerful than those that don’t.
What are emotions? My Oxford English Dictionary defines it this way: a strong mental or instinctive feeling such as love or fear. That’s probably not very useful. It is a limited description and does not cover physiological manifestations such as a lump in the throat, butterflies in the stomach or the pain of a broken heart. There is no scientific consensus on a definition, but we all instinctively know what emotions are and what they do to us. They direct our behavior and motivate our actions. Emotions are a mixture of mental states, biological and psychological manifestations, and physical changes. If your photos can accomplish that, they are successful. But how do we achieve that?
First, we must recognize that the viewer is different from the photographer. Whether the photo evokes positive or negative feelings is subjective, depending on the viewer’s belief system. I could look at snapshots of my son when he was a child or photos of my friends and relatives who have since passed away, and they would evoke different emotions in me than in you. You would experience a smaller emotional response because you would miss that personal connection.
Conversely, you might look at a picture of something you feel positive about, when I might not react to it. Meanwhile, someone else may comment negatively on the image.
For example, a staunch Republican, Les took a photo of Donald Trump at a rally. That photo now hangs proudly on the wall of the office. Les’ co-worker, Jo, disagrees with everything the ex-president stands for and feels nothing but disgust at the photo. Jo is a boudoir photographer who considers their art of photography and is pleased with their results. However, Sam, another boudoir photographer, looks at Jo’s photos with disdain, thinking they have no style and are akin to cheap 1970s porn. Meanwhile, Max is angry with Sam’s photos for sexualizing women. Meanwhile, Max’s 10-year-old child sees the photos and giggles amusedly.
A photographer cannot dictate what his viewers will feel. They can only produce images that provoke an emotional response and hope that others will feel the same.
Second, we must remember that, like most art, a photo can cause two different reactions at the same time. The image may be something that our audience finds off-putting. However, they can still appreciate the positive merits of that photo, such as the composition, tone control, or even the risks the photographer took in taking it.
In other words, liking a photo is not the same as liking the content. Nevertheless, some viewers will not be able to separate their emotional response to the content of the photo from the image itself. It’s not uncommon for a photographer to be abused for posting a photo of an emotional subject online when they were just filming an event. Unfortunately, not everyone has the intelligence to distinguish between the subject and the photographer’s intent when applying their creative skills.
Third, the more extreme the subject and the closer to one’s personal experience and chronology, the greater the emotional response. Take the following image as an example.
Most people probably don’t know who the subject is and don’t react emotionally to it. But this bad photo is all that’s left of Billy Grohl.
Who is he? He is a mass murderer. Despite his heinous crimes, our emotional reaction to this photo is probably less than our reaction to someone who is not a mass murderer and alive today or was part of our recent history. Grohl is said to have killed more than 100 victims in the early 1900s. There will be exceptions, but even if we know his crimes, the photo will still evoke less emotional reactions for many than a photo of, say, Richard Nixon, because the latter is closer to the present and is a real memory in the memory of many people. ghosts.
In turn, the image of Nixon will evoke less emotion – positive or negative – for most people than an image of Donald Trump. As we saw before, a photo of Trump can bring feelings of pleasure to some, but anger and contempt for others. Either way, it’s likely to be a strong response, as his presidency is still fresh in most people’s minds.
Do we, as photographic artists, want to produce a negative reaction from our viewers? Maybe we should. Negative reactions to images are more drastic than positive ones. So watching a frowning subject is much more powerful than watching the subject smile. This probably explains why so many portraits are taken while the model does not look very happy.
Is it more likely that defining a photo as art evokes an emotional experience than a journalistic image? Surprisingly, positive feelings are toned down in art, unlike when they are in the non-art context. In other words, a photo of a smiling person will have more emotional impact in a documentary image than an art photo.
However, little changes in viewers’ feelings when negative emotions are depicted, whether the context of the photo is art or non-art. In other words, negative emotions such as disgust and anger are just as strong as the image is art or journalism.
When we put emotions in a photo, we have to consider ‘Fluid processing’. That is the ease with which the mind processes information. Simply put, smoother images – images that are easier to understand – are more appreciated by people. Consequently, making emotions visible in a photo will lead to the photo being valued more than a photo of increased complexity where emotions are more difficult to decipher.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t create images that are harder to understand. However, they won’t appeal to such a wide audience if you do.
The central element of all aesthetic experiences is their ability to arouse emotions in the observer. That’s the whole point of art. However, viewers’ understanding of the complexities of feelings contained in an image is due to their emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is directly linked to one’s IQ. Therefore, and to put it bluntly, someone who is smart is more likely to have a wider range and deeper emotional understanding. As a result, they are better able to read the emotional nuances of images than someone with lower intelligence. Likewise, the more intelligent the photographer is, the greater their ability to embed emotions in their photos.
Of course there are more definitions of intelligence than of emotions, so what we mean by intelligence is open to a more extensive discussion than is possible here. In addition, there are limitations to IQ tests. Still, you can see this theory at work in images displayed on various news websites. For example, images on lowbrow sites, such as Mail Online, use a limited number of basic emotions, such as lust and anger. When you move to the higher end, the range of emotions displayed in photos is more versatile because the readership is generally more intelligent. The lesson we learn from this is to target our images at our desired audience.
Do you consider the emotional impact of your photos? It will be great to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
I hope you enjoyed and learned something from this article. If so, read my latest on a related topic about what kind of photographer you are.