What’s in a Picture? The Psychology of Photography


When I was in the midst of getting my masters degree in Psychology, I had the occasion to take a number of courses on the topic of forensics.  Within those courses were sections about how to apply psychology to the analysis of photographs. When looking at a photograph, you can learn a lot by focusing not on the subject of the picture –you, a child, a cat–but the representation of the subject and what it tells you about the emotions and psychology of the person doing the representing. In other words, when looking at a picture , a lot goes beyond what one looks like. 

These days, when a photograph is taken, there is immediate gratification. You can see what has been captured so quickly that there isn’t much time for emotion to build up, the sense of elation or disappointment one anticipates in checking the image within the small rectangle against the emotional perception in his or her mind.

Things such as composition, arrangement of bodies, expressions and lack thereof all play an important role in what is going on psychologically, behind the scenes.  I get tickled when I see photos that are obviously arranged by one party to attempt to convey a message of greater intimacy than actually exists.  The body language of a single subject in a photo can be very intriguing, but things really start getting interesting when we see the body language of two or more people interacting with each other.

Let’s take a look at the following picture:

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In the photograph above, the body language says a lot about what is really happening behind the scenes . See how the person standing in back has enveloped the person in front with his arms?  There is much more to this stance than meets the eyes . See how he is holding down her arms, and how his facial expression doesn’t match that of the woman he is holding onto?  This speaks of insecurities experienced by the person in back. He is attempting to make the couple look more romantic or affectionate than is mutually experienced.  The pose also reveals a desire for dominance.  Now, if the woman had been a child, the meaning would be completely different.  However, where two adults are concerned, this pose speaks of a desire to be in control and an unbalanced emotional relationship. You almost know that it was his idea to take the photo.

Now let’s take a look at a similar photo that has some telling differences.

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How do the lines formed by people’s arms,  head, hands, and body interact with each other,? Look at other lines in the image, and the frame.   Do these lines reinforce each other, as in feeling peacefully horizontal, firmly vertical, energetically diagonal, or do they compete with each other?

The picture above looks very much like the same pose as the first picture, but has some distinct differences.  First, note the facial expressions.  There is a mutuality of emotions being expressed here.  While the person in back has his arms wrapped around the person in front, the person in front has raised her hands to welcome the embrace.  This indicates a more welcoming equality between the couple. Chances are, neither party in this couple seeks dominance.  This looks like a well balanced, equal couple. It also looks like both participants mutually agreed to be included in the photo, as though it was discussed and agreed upon in advance.

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In this picture, we note inequality again, and a longing by the person in the back to have more of an emotional connection than the person in front desires.  Note the woman’s coquettish nuzzle into the man’s shoulder while the man remains noncommittal with his body language.  While his facial expression could be anything….a big smile, a little smile or no smile at all, his body speaks volumes about how he really feels.

Now, let’s take a look at a completely different pose:

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At first glance, this picture might give a different impression from what is actually transpiring. We have a couple snuggled together.  His arm is around her.  She is leaning into him provocatively.  But what does this REALLY mean?  First, look at their legs. They are facing in two different directions.  He is sort of standing on his own, and she is leaning into him.  While his arm is loosely around her back, he is not really engaged with the embrace.  In fact, it’s not an embrace at all.  It is an afterthought.  She is trying to give the impression that a lot more is going on in the picture than he is.  This is indicative of insecurity on her part, and a lack of commitment on his.

The same is true of the couple below:

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In the photo above, we see more inequality.  The person on the right is leaning into the person on the left, who is standing firm on the ground.  If you separated the two of them, he would be standing straight and tall, and she would fall over because of how far she is leaning.  While he is touching her with his body, she is clearly dominating the mood of the photo, trying to make the statement, “See? He loves me.”   Actually, he probably has another girlfriend on the side.  🙂

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The couple above, albeit photographed from behind, enjoys more of an equal bong.  They are both leaning toward the center of the photo, and their hands are clasped with equal force. See how he leans in so that the top of his arm is a perfect match to the top of her shoulder (since she is shorter)?  This is a couple that typically experiences equality in their power within the relationship.

There is no way to look at a single picture and make an accurate judgment as people have tried to do with the Obamas, the Clintons and the trumps.  However, series of photos….more than one that conveys the same messages of emotional imbalance are more than conjecture.  They are pretty much right on the money.  It is so easy to tell when one person is insecure and is attempting to convey that there is more to a relationship than actually exists.  Of course, you always have to add in other factors, too, before you get an accurate picture.



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