John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

- Group Conflict -

Groups tend to move through several stages in the course of their development. In the conflict or "storming" stage, people criticize and judge each other. They may compete for status and power. Emotions run high. The words “should” and “must” surface often, as people demand that others live up to their expectations. One person may become the scapegoat for the group’s emerging hostilities, but it’s difficult for anyone to avoid being drawn into the turmoil. If the conflicts can be resolved, the group becomes stronger as people come to understand each other better and learn to accept diversity within the group.

In my course on group dynamics, students participate in an interpersonal learning or "self-analytic" group. The purpose of the group is to explore how its members perceive and react to each other, and to understand the underlying social-emotional processes that contribute to the atmosphere of the group. As the students discover, and as described in the caption for the photo, conflicts invariably pop up in almost any group that exists over an extended period of time. One of the exercises in the course involves the group setting up various poses that illustrate some of the basic principles about group dynamics. I take shots of the poses so the group can later view and discuss them. In this one, the group chose to illustrate that idea about conflict.

Behavior in any group is part conscious and part unconscious. Posing for a staged shot is no exception. In this image, it's hard to tell what the group consciously intended to illustrate in their pose and what they revealed unconsciously. In either case, they did a great job of portraying some of the essential features of a group conflict. Subgroups form. Someone may become the focus or "scapegoat" of the group tensions, even though the lines of conflict may actually move in several different directions all at the same time. Some people become enmeshed in the situation while others move towards the periphery. The fact that several of the people are looking straight at us, the supposedly neutral spectators, suggests that it's hard for anyone to remain objective and uninvolved. It's so easy to get pulled into the conflict. Those students not looking into the camera establish lines of sight amongst themselves that hint at the complexity of the psychological connections within the group.

Despite the serious nature of the subject, the students are smiling and seem to be having fun. Here is the important lesson to be learned about conflict. Once people understand and work through it, the group becomes more cohesive, productive, and enjoyable. In fact, when viewed in retrospect, the conflict is something the group often jokes about.

For the post-processing of this image, I decided on a tight crop along with a combined motion and zoom blur to enhance the feeling of enclosed energy and the sensation that we are being drawn into the image. I intended the high saturation of colors to convey the intensity of the emotions that can be generated by a group conflict. The overall effect is slightly surreal, which points to a common reaction people have to a group conflict: "Is this really happening? It seems so exaggerated and strange!"


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:

Psychological Lines
Interpreting people pics
Body language in photography

paradoxes of group life berg

Paradoxes of Group Life: Understanding Conflict, Paralysis, and Movement in Group Dynamics - Kenwyn Smith and David Berg

"In this groundbreaking classic, Kenwyn Smith and David Berg offer a revolutionary approach to understanding groups and overcoming the problems that often paralyze group members, the group as a whole, and relations among groups. They explore the hidden dynamics that can prevent a group from functioning effectively. And they show how an apparently paradoxical suggestion?for example, inviting a success oriented group to risk failure, or affirming the benefits of going nowhere to a group focused on moving ahead?can break action barriers, overcome conflicts, and improve group performance."

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche