The Psychology of Photography

Did you ever ask yourself what makes you want to take photos? Simply for the fun of it? To live your artistic streak? To capture memories or make a living? Or is it the love for photographic gadetry mainly that offers a boundless pastime? Photography, in the end, is a lot about psychology, telling as much about yourself as about the persons, landscapes and things you capture. In this context, the camera can well be perceived as a third eye. In a way, this makes each and every camera a mirror of your mind and soul. Because in the end it’s not the photographer who makes the photo, it’s you.

What’s hidden behind the veil? The eyes are the window to the soul and a picture is worth a thousand words…
(+++ This article is the first part of a series followed by meanwhile published The Politics of Photography and upcoming The Philosophy of Photography.)

As is well-known, the eyes are the window to the soul and a picture is worth a thousand words. A photograph can tell about time and space and how things have evolved or remained the same. When one takes a picture, one is actually crystallizing one’s own experience into a tangible form. By the choices the photographer makes in lighting, composition, subject and the way the picture communicates, the photographer interprets a snapshot of a splice of time.

The experience of photography can be seen as an eye opener to less ignore the life we live in because photography helps us focus on what is going on around us by forcing and teaching us to see more attentively. As a photographer it is less easy to take everything for granted as you’re after those moments that would otherwise be forgotten and lost in time. But even if two photographers would take a snapshot of the exact splice of time, their photos would still be different.

The Good Old Power of the Image

There is always something very individual about photographs and the way they combine the perceptive eye and mind of the photographer with the stark reality of the subject, the sense of reality as shaped and interpreted by the photographer. Photography therefore is never really accurate — and that’s part of photography’s beauty. True, the camera never lies. What appears in a photograph existed. The camera, however, interprets. Composition, lighting, angle — this is real, this happened, this is truth. And yet, even the most “real” photography is just a subtle, but meaningful interpretation.

Your photography will always be different from everyone else’s, even though you’d use the same gear trying to snap the exactly same image. Because photography taps into your heart. No matter how you look at it, psychology is one of the most intrical parts of photography. I would even argue that the better psychologist you are — or the better understanding of your own interpretational set of skills you have –, the better photographer your can become.

Your relating to others, your understanding of others allows you to really be present and capture not just any moment, but that moment that makes a good photograph so timeless and unique. Because photography, with its fragmentary and evocative elements, mirrors the uniqueness of human identity and each moment in time.

There is the professional photography, a trade like any other requiring a certain set of skills and equipment. Even behind professional photography, however, lies the urge to capture something that unites all photographers; the urge to capture and create something unique.

There are no two absolutely identical photographs on this planet. Each and every imaging process — right from the moment of picking up your camera to looking at the final image — is a highly personal, individual, unique series of actions that never ever leads to the same result. Et voilà a part of photography’s magic: the creation of uniqueness, determined by the uniqueness of each subject and object, space and time.

That’s where psychology comes in, because the uniqueness of a photograph can evoke feelings, such as anxiety, fear, familiarity, comfort or reverence depending on the subject and object matter. Photography can have the effect of reflecting the soul and thoughts of the person photographing and photographed.

An image can furthermore educate, inform, inspire, agitate galvanize, shake up, change. Photography can not only change the way how people feel about themselves — even if just for a moment –, photography can also bring about any change.

Because good images transcend. They encourage us to act. For better or worse. The power of the image as a tool in information and propaganda campaigns is as old as the copied, replicated image itself. We all have seen photos that changed the world. Here is Jonathan Klein of Getty Images — how much more psychological can photography ever be?

“True” vs. “False” Images

Granted, there are “truer” and “falser” images. Ansel Adams’ photography should be described as “true,” even though he “makes” and doesn’t “take” a picture, as he said of himself, meaning he adds a personal layer of interpretation to each image. And even a “true” image just shows an angle and a frame. To see a more whole picture one must think outside the frame.

The image as we know it, however, is always a condensed, compressed reality. Each photo has its own story and even motives, the more so when post-processed. In the end though it’s not the photographer who makes the photo. It’s you. With the photo as a very personal, individual reflection of your self. That’s why there are no two identical photos on earth. A photograph is as individual as you are.

Therapeutical Photography

The field of photo psychology tells us that we’re also “reading” pictures very differently. If we’re digging deeper, a photograph will well tell a lot about the photographer once we understand the motivations of the photographer or the emotional content communicated through a given photograph.

In some cases, particularly in photo psychology based in Freudian psychoanalytic thought, photographs may be analyzed with the intent of unearthing unconscious processes in the psyche of the photographer. So here we have the therapeutical effect of photography.

Some psychotherapists actually encourage patients to start taking photographs as a form of therapy. Therapeutic photography furthermore encourages the making of self-portraits which then become tools for studying body image with the goal of coming to terms with physical appearance and, consequently, self-acceptance.

The Soul Camera

Some cultures refused to be photographed as they believe that the camera steals their soul. They are reacting to the emotional responses that some photographs generate in those who view them. The emotions of love, hate, anger, rage, hurt or disgust that the picture evokes cement their belief that it shares too much of themselves.

That happened to everyone at some point in time, didn’t it. For instance, when you look at a picture of a loved one, it can evoke the feelings of warmth, love and joy — or sorrow and sadness. You may get the feeling that you are looking into the soul of the subject of the picture.

The camera thus is a reflection of one’s soul — by bringing your own values and own belief system to each photo, as Klein says in the video above. And only as a result of that, an image resonates with us.

Even though a photographer consciously photographs a person, landscape or object, in the end it is always his or her psyche that creates the interpretation of light rays that gives each image its individual power.

Understanding this interplay between one’s self, the camera and the object is key to understanding the limitations or giftedness of one’s photography.