John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Eye to Eye

eye contact in photography


The power of eye contact

Did you ever notice how difficult it is to maintain eye contact, even for just a few seconds, even with someone you know very well and perhaps love? Or how about those moments when you found yourself exchanging glances with a stranger in a restaurant - not necessarily because you had any real interest in each other, but just because the two of you could not resist the temptation of looking to see if the other person was looking!

The window to the soul indeed

As an expression of intimacy or aggression, eye contact involves the direct connection of one individual's psyche to another. Simultaneously you see and are seen by the other. You take each other in and size each other up.  It’s a direct, no-nonsense meeting of the minds. Eye contact automatically amplifies any emotion, whether it is affection, assertiveness, criticism, doubt, fear, or hostility.  The impact goes beyond the realm of the purely psychological. It’s also “primitive” in a very biological sort of way. Babies and highly social animals, like canines and primates, quickly rivet to eye contact.

The eyes pull us in

When actors want to convey as much emotion as possible, when they intend to draw viewers into the scene as if they are participating in it, they look directly into the camera. That’s why photographs of people gazing right into the camera are so compelling. We can’t help but stare back and try to see right into their psyche to figure out who they are. We can’t resist feeling that we are being pulled into the photograph. It's as if an invisible wall separating us from the image has suddenly fallen away. One of the fascinating aspects of a photograph is that even if we move from side to side, or wander around the room, the eyes of the subject in the photo follow us, as if the person is alive and conscious of our presence.

The eyes look into OUR souls

Unlike real situations, we have the luxury of holding that eye contact for as long as we want because part of us, the logical part, knows that the person isn’t really present, isn’t really looking at us. But there’s another part of us, that primitive and emotional part, that reacts as if the person IS staring right into our psyche.

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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche