The Role that Photographs Play in our Lives

Question: Hi Dr Ellen, I came across your site during a web search for the psychology behind photography. I reside in Australia and am a writer/photographer/graphic designer and pediatric cardiology nurse. And I use my visual arts skills a great deal in my nursing role. I often do portraits of the babies and children for the parents during their hospital stay and I have just designed a sick children’s diary featuring monochrome images of the children throughout the diary. This diary will help families and caregivers organize the care of chronically ill children. I write to you for some advice about the psychology behind why we take photographs, cherish photographs, surround ourselves with photographs etc. I am redesigning my web page and understand that it needs to be more than a cyber shop front supplying products. My intention is to include information for clients to help them understand why they are seeking to surround themselves with photographs and the benefits thereof. The obvious answer is the pleasure of remembering but what I am after is information that explains that process even further. I am trying to understand the actual physiological reactions that occur in our brains,  and the changes to our psyche when we surround ourselves with photographs. I am curious by nature and wish to understand this process for myself and then offer this knowledge to clients – helping them to think outside the frame, so to speak. I would greatly appreciate it if you could offer any thoughts and or reading material I could review on this subject. ~Lynn

Lynn, probably the number one reason that humans like photographs is for the memories they evoke. That said, it is also much more complex than that because of the nature of our emotional relationships with the subjects of our photographs.

Important others inevitably elicit an emotional response from us in ways that can vary from love and exhilaration to anger, even to terror at times.

When we feel such strong emotions, the body responds in kind as evidenced by a sudden escalation of blood pressure, quickened pulse, as well as by tension headaches, heart palpitations, sweating, and other behavioral signs of arousal or distress. Similar arousal states can arise whether the emotions are positive or negative, although positive emotions soothe the body whereas negative emotions tend to encroach and escalate over time, producing a host of digestive and other ailments that are directly related to long-term negative distress.

The mind and body are one. Where one goes, the other follows.

It is really not the photographs themselves that provoke us; rather, as I said, it is the memory of close personal encounters with the subject(s) of the photographs. A photograph of a deceased brother, for example, would elicit vary different emotional responses from us depending upon whether we deeply loved the brother or, at the point of his death, we were, instead, estranged from him. The photograph serves two vary different functions, then, depending upon which circumstance best describes the situation at hand.

Sometimes we like to surround ourselves with photographs of important but difficult people in our lives, not necessarily because we love them but because we are trying to work out underlying unresolved issues by having their likeness around us without their more toxic parts. This works, too, as evidenced by the photographs of parents that still grace someone’s bookshelf, long after the parent and child parted ways. One of the goals of a self-differentiated person is to stay connected with one’s past without cutting off, in an effort to heal old wounds and soften emotional blows so that they won’t weight us down through life.

Photographs can definitely help us with this process, although not quite as well as when we are in personal contact with others and can actually come to some soulful resolution with them in the process. That’s not always possible, which is why people like even ‘bad’ photographs that you and I might otherwise trash.

When we are also subjects

It is also interesting to think about what photographs tell us about our relationships with others when we, ourselves, are included in the photograph.

Dr. Ellen meets old friends in Minnesota

Here are some examples of what I am thinking about. Emotionally distant folks like to stand in the back of a large family grouping, or perhaps at one side of the group –you’ve seen this I am sure – but you rarely find them smack dab in the middle of everyone. They almost always have their hands stuck in their pockets, usually with their head or at least their eyes predictably looking anywhere but directly at the camera.

Soft, mushy, emotionally accessible folks, on the other hand, like to wrap their arms around everyone as they deliberately place themselves in full view of the photographer’s lens as they talk or laugh with those around them. They don’t do this just for photographs, this is how they live their life.

Friends at the keyboard

Others can fall anywhere in-between these two extremes. An unhappy person almost always looks unhappy even during spontaneous KODAK moments; their depressive thoughts are always with them and they show up in the form of crumpled posture, anguished glances, disheveled appearance, etc. Photographs can be very unkind at times!

The body language that is evidenced in a photograph tells much, then, about the inherent group or family process at hand; so much so that photographs are often considered critical accouterments to some forms of psychotherapy. Photographs not only rekindle memories; they can evoke deep-seated feelings that we might never even realize existed. For these reasons we cling to them, and frame them, and incorporate them into our daily lives as best we can so that we can constantly double-check the reality around us.

Of course, sometimes we fail to frame and keep photographs around of important people in our lives, which expresses something else entirely. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say?

Self-affirmation

We tend to need things in life that are self-affirming. We want to know that we are definitely here, and that we have been here for some time. The physical touch of another, in particular, is very self-affirming, but when that touch relationship is lost, or it becomes somehow negatively charged, we can look at a particular photograph and at least recall how we felt when that touch was still present and available to us.

So sometimes we covet photographs and call them precious because of this. KODAK doesn’t make them that way; we infuse them ourselves with preciousness.

Photographers aren’t always the best judge of their photos for this reason; and writers of their own work, as well.

The Effects of Loss

Loss induces anxiety. In fact, we can say that the greater the losses we experience in the life, the greater our level of generalized life anxiety. And with chronic high anxiety comes loss of self-affirming experiences.

We can lose many things and we can also lose things in many different ways. For example, we can lose our appetite; we can lose self-confidence; we can lose our standing in the community; we can lose our reputation, and even our financial security. And, of course, we can lose important relationships for lack of good role models in life and/or from lack of good common sense on our own part.

Loss eventually shows up in our facial expressions as well as in the form of anxious or depressed body posturing. It also is expressed by our psyche in the form of emotional tirades and other peppery behavior.

You can look at someone and see clear evidence of their cumulative losses. You can also get a sense of how heavy those burdens are just by the way a person walks or talks, or holds their hands, or even grinds their teeth or not. Small things like deep furrows in their brow or chewed fingernails, or dry and wrinkled skin, an acned face – these are signs of distress that can show up even in old photographs.

Photos, therefore, offer a veritable portal into ones soul. They can lie but most often they don’t.

The lie, if there is one, is that a photograph was taken to tell some story other than the one reflected in the face of the photographed one. And that takes talent on our part as photographers. We have to be able to empathize with our subjects or the resulting photograph is merely one more picture of, not them, but ourselves.

This is why selling photographs is a difficult business. If you understand the emotional role that photographs play in our lives then you will rush less quickly into the stock trades and posture yourself more intimately with the subjects that engage your interest.

If you are lucky, some of those images may also engage others for the self-reflections that they evoke.

Dr. Ellen in Australia

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