John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

- Face Recognition -

face recognition

A proportionally large area of the human brain is devoted to processing information about the faces we see in the world around us. Research shows that even at birth infants prefer to look at pictures of normal faces rather than ones in which facial features are scrambled, as if recognition of the human face is “hardwired.” It’s impossible to know what infants feel when they see jumbled faces, but adults often describe them as disturbing and alien.

It really is quite amazing how exquisitely sensitive we humans are to each other's faces and facial expressions. You'll often hear people say that they tend to forget names but they never forget a face. It's the single most important visual feature that determines identity, and it makes a powerful impression on one's memory. As highly social creatures, we are constantly assessing our social interactions by tuning into what people are doing with their faces in reaction to us. The variety of ways we communicate with our expressions is no less complex than the variety of ways we think and feel. For these reasons, it isn't surprising that there are more photographs of human faces than anything else, and we never grow tired of them.

I encountered two challenges when creating this image. The first was technical. If you're shooting with direct frontal light, it's easier (but not easy) to scramble facial features because the evenly lit and flat quality of the face simplifies cutting, pasting, and blending in. But with sidelight, as in this shot, there are delicate skin textures and form (shading) that make it much harder to scramble the facial features while retaining the realistic looking textures and form. You can't simply cut, paste, and rearrange the eyes, nose, and mouth onto the background image of the face. You'll end up with a mess, even if you're pretty good with feathering patching, and cloning techniques. Here's where my otherwise unfortunately receding hair line turned out to be an advantage I have over some photographers. I copied the forehead area and pasted it twice into a new layer over the background image of my intact face. After shaping and feathering in that layer, I had a head with no eyes, nose, or mouth - just featureless skin! Then all I had to do was copy the facial features from the background image, paste them into layers above the featureless head, and blend them in using layer masks.

That's when the second challenge appeared. How should I scramble the facial features? I was rather surprised to discover that it required quite a bit of experimentation to make the face appear as alien as possible. Several attempts to randomly position the eyes, nose, and mouth resulted in an ugly and unusual looking me, but the image was still plausible as a person's face. The mind contains some robust tolerance for accepting a variety of facial patterns as "human," as Picasso no doubt knew. Actually, quite a bit of research in psychology has focused on the innate and learned aspects of face perception, as well as impairments in face perception resulting from brain injury.


Would you like to read or participate in a discussion about this image in flickr?

Here are some other articles in Photographic Psychology that are related to this photo and essay:

Facial asymmetry and "character"

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche