John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche
As we all know, people react to photographs in very different ways. No two people will respond to any particular photo exactly the same. Over the years, clinicians and researchers have developed a wide variety of questions to help people articulate their personal impressions. For example, in her book Phototherapy Techniques, Judy Weiser proposes dozens of inquiries that explore the many nuances of how people respond to photographs.
In my own research and teaching about images, I’ve been searching for a small set of essential, comprehensive questions. Unlike psychotherapy where the clinician has the opportunity for ongoing explorations of a client’s reactions, in research studies and teaching, time is rather limited. Over the years I’ve narrowed down the many possible questions to just seven that I consider effective for covering a wide territory. Like myself, I’m hoping that other researchers and teachers will find this set of questions useful. Clinicians might also find them helpful as starting points for more in-depth explorations.
Some photographers find it easy to discuss the technical and compositional aspects of their photos, but stumped when it comes to understanding how people personally react to those images. They too might find this set of questions useful. After all, a photo that is technically good is, well, technically good – but what does the photo MEAN to people, what psychological effect does it have on them? Isn’t that what photography is truly about, whether it’s called art, photojournalism, event photography, or a personal snapshot? Right off the bat, a person viewing a photo might say things like “I like it” or “What great colors.” This set of questions invites the person into a deeper conversation about such general reactions. The most rewarding dialogues occur when people, including the photographer, share their different impressions of an image.
As you’ll see, I designed this particular sequence of questions with some specific intentions in mind. However, it isn’t necessary to follow any particular order or to ask all of them. In research, teaching, or just in casual discussions about photographs, people might find all or just some of the questions useful. Whatever the circumstances, they serve a three-part purpose: understanding the person viewing the picture, the various meanings of the picture, and the photographer who created it.
1. What thoughts and feelings immediately come to mind when you look at this photo?
The initial, spontaneous reaction to a photo often is very important. It’s a gut level impression that bypasses conscious, rational thinking. It usually revolves around a feeling or sensation that people might have difficulty explaining. The source of that immediate reaction might be unconscious. The following questions often help clarify that immediate perception.
2. Describe exactly what you see in this photo?
After discovering a person’s initial reaction, I like to encourage them to describe what they see – not necessarily in terms of the possible meanings they perceive in the image, but rather simply in terms of the people. objects, scenery, colors, textures, shapes, movement, etc. Understanding the simplicity or intricacies of a person’s perceptions often reflects their visual sensitivity and cognitive complexity. What they see right away, what they notice after examining the photo in more depth, and what they don’t detect at all, can help you understand their immediate personal reaction, as well as their replies to the following questions. After asking this second question, you might push the envelop with additional inquiries, such “What else do you see?” However, this isn’t necessary. A person’s initial description, even without further questioning, is still fascinating and informative.
3. What does this image remind you of in your life?
For the first two questions, people might offer their interpretation of the meaning of the photo - i.e., what they think it's about or the story being told. However, any particular photo doesn't necessarily have a meaning or tell a story in some objective sense, like a photo of a flower. Even when a photographer intends a picture to convey a particular meaning and/or narrative, the viewers' subjective impressions shape the message in some way. The very open-ended Question 3 specifically encourages people to personalize the photo, to project any thought, memory, fantasy, or feeling from their life experiences into what they see. It’s their subjective interpretation. Some people readily free associate to a photo, some struggle to see the connection between the image and their lives, and some have almost nothing to say, which might very well be an honest reply because the elements of the photo are indeed unrelated to their lives. Generally speaking, if a picture doesn’t remind a person of anything in particular, let it go at that. However, keep in mind that the degree of one’s ability or inability to relate to a photograph also can reveal powers of self-insight or defenses against such insight.
4. If you could go into this picture, what would you say and do?
Here we’re encouraging the person to delve deeper into a subjective interpretation of the image by inviting them to immerse themselves into it. It’s the kind of question that encourages fantasy, daydreaming, and the ability step out of this “reality” and into another one. People vary greatly in how extensively they can respond to this question, or if at all. This question offers people their first opportunity to take control over the image, if they so desire - and to manifest how active or passive they see themselves in it.
5. What would you change about the image?
Following Question 4, this one specifically invites the person to change the reality of the image based on their own needs and expectations. They are not passive observers of or participants in the picture, but an empowered being who can change the structure, emotions, and meanings of the photo. In responding to Question 4, some people do discuss ways they might modify the scene and/or the subjects in it. For those who do not, this question 5 might encourage that exploration.
6. What message might this picture be giving you?
Following Question 5, this one encourages people to summarize the possible lessons the image has to offer them. It’s based on the assumption in humanistic psychology that people intrinsically know how to better understand themselves, resolve personal difficulties, and find meaning in the world. It’s also based on the assumption that images, in particular, can encourage people to tap these internal resources.
7. If you gave a title to this image, to capture what it means to you, what would it be?
If posed at the end of this set of questions, number 7 serves as a way to “summarize in a nutshell” and “sign off” from their exploration of the photo. People typically choose titles reflecting ideas that stand out in their mind after responding to the previous questions. Their titles reflect the lingering “hot spot” of meaning and emotion. If you’re looking for only one quick, easy, and pithy way to determine a person’s reaction to a photo, this is a good question to ask. Many people conjure up a title that reflects their immediate personal reaction to the photo. Some choose generic titles, others pick ones that are specific and unique. In all cases, their titles might indicate something important about how their mind works in response to that particular picture, or how it works in general. Exploring in more depth why people choose a particular title leads to the kinds of insights uncovered by the other six questions.
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