John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Interpreting People Pictures

interpreting people pictures

People love to take pictures of people. People love to look at pictures of people. Without doubt, people pics are the single most popular form of photography. In this modern technological age of ours, anyone can take as many shots of people as they like, as well as view millions of them online and in the media. We are, literally, bombarded by people pics all day long.

We do become a bit numb to it all. Today you probably barely noticed a few dozen interesting images of people that passed in front of your eyes. This anesthetization prevents us from realizing something important: almost any photograph of a person contains many fascinating levels of meaning and emotion, if only we take the time to look.

The purpose of this article is to explore the wonderfully fertile dimensions of people pictures, to remind ourselves that there are specific ways to look at and interpret what we see in those images of our fellow human beings. We’ll investigate the obvious aspects of how to read these kinds of photos, as well as the more subtle methods of interpretation.

In addition to helping anyone who wants to look more deeply into photos of people, these strategies will also be useful to photographers who take them. After all, taking more meaningful pictures of people requires the ability to recognize meaning in such scenes.

The first simple rule: Take your time

Because a photograph captures a moment frozen in time, it gives us the chance to study the image carefully. This opportunity runs counterintuitive to our modern fast-paced, multi-tasking, short-attention-span lifestyle in which images of people in commercials, movies, and online social networks like Facebook and Flickr zip past our eyeballs like race cars. To take advantage of that captured moment, we need to reverse the idea that “faster and more is better,” hit the pause button… take a deep breath… and ease ourselves into slo-mo.

All of the ideas that I’ll discuss about understanding people pics rest on this basic strategy: take your time! With curiosity, compassion, and even a sense of adventurous discovery, linger on the photo. Look at everything. Begin with what first catches your eye, the obvious things, then expand your awareness into the rest of the image. Circle around the entire photo. Read it from left to right, right to left, up and down, back and forth. Squint so that only the most obvious shapes and colors stand out. Pull the photo up close to your eyes to detect the tiny and subtle things. Find and examine all the details. Turn the photo sideways and upside down to see how that unusual viewpoint changes what you notice.

Truly appreciating and understanding any photo, including and especially people pictures, requires a meditative state of awareness. Allow your eyes to wander through it, stopping here, then moving over there. Take the time to immerse your mind, your emotions, your whole being - if that doesn’t sound too cliché - into the scene. Try using what psychologists call “evenly hovering attention” or “bare awareness,” in which you explore the photo and its subjects without any preconceived expectations, desires, or judgments about what you can or should notice. These things will only get in your way. Simply look at the people and the scene to discover what they have to offer.

Your subjective reactions

What strikes you about the photo when you first see it? What emotions, sensations, and thoughts immediately come to mind? If you had to pick one descriptive word or short phrase as a title to capture that spontaneous reaction, what would it be? Joy, anger, pride, sadness, relief, confusion, strength, anxiety, determination, dizziness, confinement, acceleration, futility, exhaustion, smoothness, exhilaration? Of course, the list goes on.

Your instantaneous gut-level response will cue you into the experience of the people in photographs, especially when the photo possesses what Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist and philosopher who was intrigued by photography, called “punctum” – the power to evoke a strong, personal feeling. Photos with punctum will most likely elicit a compelling reaction in many people, which reflects the emotional depth of the subjects in the photo. The emotion elicited in you might be an empathic attunement to the subjects: you feel what they feel. It also might be a sympathetic response to their situation, as you would feel protective towards someone who appears hurt, afraid of a threatening figure, or comforted by a compassionate face. The average photo may not contain punctum as Barthes defined it, but every people picture contains meaning and emotion. Even an apparent lack of emotion in a subject might suggest such ideas as numbness, defensiveness, determination, depression, or stoicism.

Your immediate reaction, if you have one, is important. But there’s more to understanding a people pic than that first impression. As you look at the photo and the people in it, allow yourself to free associate. By free associating to what moves you in a photo, or what you find distasteful, including punctum as well as less intense responses, you’ll find that events in your own life form the basis of these reactions. Consider these questions:

- What does the photo as a whole, or parts of it, remind you of?

- What memories or experiences of your own come to mind?

- How might you identify with any of the subjects?

- What would you say or do if you were one of them?

- Does a familiar story come to mind based on what you see happening with the people in the photo?

- After considering these questions, how might you alter the title that you would choose to capture the feeling or meaning of the photo?

You can use your personal associations to try to understand, in more depth, the experience of the subjects. However, keep in mind also that you might be, what psychologists call, “projecting.” It’s often an unconscious process. Your own feelings and memories distort your perception of the people in the photo. You might be projecting your emotions and experiences into them, rather than really understanding their situation. The more ambiguous the image is, the more likely you’ll do this. It’s a tricky business knowing if you’re using your subjective reactions to accurately empathize with the subjects, or if you’re simply projecting your own life into them while misreading their experience. But tackling that challenge will improve your knowledge of people pictures, as well as yourself.

If you know the people in the photo, that familiarity will help prevent and correct your projections. It will also make it easier to understand their state of mind when the shot was taken. Of course, having the opportunity to talk to the people in the photo will greatly improve your appreciation of what they were experiencing in it. Nevertheless, by using the strategies that I’ll discuss in this article, you’ll be amazed at what you can discover about a people picture even when the subjects are strangers to you.

Psychologists who are skilled at photoanalysis can arrive at some remarkably accurate conclusions about people in photographs, even when the photos not only lack any kind of punctum, but actually seem quite mundane. In his book Photoanalysis, Robert Akeret, one of the pioneers of this type of psychology, uncovers the smallest and most subtle details of a photo to arrive at some astonishingly precise insights into people he didn’t know. In some cases, after analyzing a photo, he had the opportunity to interview the subjects to validate his conclusions. His perceptions often turned out to be surprisingly accurate, although, I must admit, I wondered if some Monday Night Quarterbacking might have affected his description of these cases when he later wrote about them in his book.

Facial expressions

We humans are exquisitely expressive with and attuned to facial expressions. When you first look at a photo, your eyes will most likely rivet to the subject’s face, especially the eyes. In my article on body language here in this book on photographic psychology, I describe how psychologists have identified the seven basic facial expressions that convey the seven basic emotions (sadness, surprise, anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness). Although it’s helpful to keep these seven emotions in mind when examining a people picture, I think we’ll all agree that there are countless nuances of emotion expressed by the human face. The expressions can be so subtle that you might find it difficult to pinpoint the underlying feeling, to find words that articulate what it is. Some people are better at it than others, but it’s a skill that can be developed. One simple technique involves mimicking the facial expressions of the subject in the photo to see how it feels. It sounds silly, and you may not want to do it if other people are around, lest they start wondering about you, but it works well as a way to identify with and better understand the subject.

Body language

My article on body language describes a variety of other things to look for in a people picture. Take your time when examining the different parts of the subject’s body – the position of the head, arms, legs, feet, torso, and especially the hands. Exactly how is the person sitting, walking, or standing? Even the tiniest tilt of the chin or lean of the body might be significant. Cover the head with your hand and just look at the body. Cover the body and just look at the person’s head. Cover one side of the body in order to focus on the other, cover the top of the body to look at the bottom, and vice versa. Even compare the two sides of the person’s face. Are these different parts of the person harmonious with each other, expressing a similar state of mind, or do they seem to convey different emotions and attitudes, perhaps even contradicting each other? Body language reflects the fact that we humans can feel and think many things simultaneously.

As with facial expressions, try imitating the subject’s body position so you can tune into their experience. The body doesn’t lie, some psychologists say, which is why they believe an examination of body language lies at the heart of photoanalysis.

In a shot where people are behaving naturally, perhaps unaware that a photo is being taken, their body language will be a more accurate portrayal of their state of mind than in a posed picture. However, people are not robots. Even if a photographer gives them specific instructions on how to pose, people respond to those instructions in their own unique way, according to their personalities and state of mind at that moment. When asked to smile, some people can do so quite naturally, while others force a stiff grin. That alone says something about them. The classic family portrait, in which a photographer clearly instructed people to assume particular positions, might look rather staged and staid at first glance. But a careful study of body language will reveal the individual personalities.


When there are two or more people in a photo, our mind assumes, sometimes unconsciously, that there must be some kind of relationship or interaction between them, even when none exists, as in a street scene. What might that relationship be: friends, family members, casual acquaintances, co-workers, business partners, lovers? What are their feelings and attitudes towards each other? Can you detect intimacy, tension, harmony, or conflict? What’s the overall mood of the dyad or group? My article on body language in photography offers tips on how to address these questions. The way people lean towards, touch, and look at each other – as well as the lack of this connectedness – can reveal a great deal about the subtle and complex nature of their relationship. Some psychologists, like Akeret, even believe that a photo can predict the future of a relationship.


There’s always something happening in a people picture. What is it? Can you identify the activity taking place? What do people seem to be doing? Is there a sense of movement and energy, or is there a more static, relaxed feeling? We are what we do, so identifying the actions of people in a photograph, even subtle movements, will yield clues about the subjects’ behaviors, personalities, and their relationship to each other. It might help to imagine what would happen if the photo came to life. How would the people move? Do they look like they are about to do something? What might they say?


As we all know, what we wear and how we wear it reveals a great deal about our backgrounds and personalities. Study the attire of the people in a photo, as well as their hairstyle, jewelry, and grooming. Do they look neat, casual, disheveled, eccentric, or high-maintenance? If there are several people in the photo, determine how differences in their physical appearance might reflect differences in the kinds of people they are and how they conduct their lives. What might differences and similarities say about their relationship to each other? For example, is it a “birds of a feather” situation, an “opposites attract,” or a clash of personalities? Imagine how the meaning of the photo would change if they were dressed differently, or if the subjects swapped their attire.


We sometimes overlook objects in a photograph, particularly if they’re small, in the background, or otherwise difficult to see. Things that people are holding, might have just placed down nearby, or might be about to pick up, can all indicate something significant about their behavior in that situation, their lifestyles, and their personalities. A hammer, book, doll, camera, guitar, phone, briefcase, and football all convey very different ideas.

Psychoanalytic theory talks about “selfobjects” – things, including pets, that are extensions of our psyches, that give our lives meaning and sustain our sense of identity. In environmental portraits, when the photographer goes to someone’s home or place of work, the scene might be filled with selfobjects. During studio portraits, some photographers ask subjects to bring something with them to hold or otherwise include in the photo. Most likely, they are selfobjects.

In locations other than home or work, as on a vacation, people often choose to stand next to something when posing for a shot, like a statue, poster, car, plant, sign, or store front. They might consciously know why they chose that particular thing to include in the shot, or the choice might be unconscious. In any either case, that object most likely symbolizes something about the person.

Scene and context

All of the things I’ve mentioned so far about a photograph – facial expressions, body language, relationships, dress, activity, and objects – take place in a scene and context that shape how we perceive those things. The scene is the surroundings, whether it’s a tight shot of someone standing against a wall or a wide angle photo of people in a landscape or city street. We can think of the context as a slightly more abstract idea, like the country, culture, and period of time in which the shot was taken. The scene, objects, and dress of the subjects will offer clues about the location and historical period. When trying to interpret the possible meanings of a people picture, we can consider these sorts of questions:

- Where was the shot taken? What does this reveal about the people in it and their relationships?

- What was the culture like at the time and place? What might that suggest about the people?

- If I can identify the social, economic, and cultural background of the subjects, does that help explain what I notice about them? Are these things consistent with or contradict what I notice?

- Might the scene or context symbolically represent something about the people and their relationships?

The photographer's influence on the shot

We sometimes slip into the perception that a picture is an objective representation of a person, that it somehow took itself. Obviously that’s not the case. Someone took it, even if it’s a self-portrait. In another article in Photographic Psychology I discuss the various ways we might interpret a self-portrait, so here let’s instead focus for a moment on how a photographer taking a shot of others influences our interpretation of the image.

First of all, consider how the photographer might be related to the subjects. Is he or she a friend, family member, lover, casual acquaintance, or stranger? Is it a professional or personal relationship, or maybe a bit of both? What was the photographer's motives and intentions in taking the shot? Was it to please one of the subjects, but not necessarily the others? Was it to impress fellow photographers? Was it an attempt to try out a new shooting or post-processing technique? The answers to these kinds of questions shape the appearance of the photo and therefore what we see in it.

It’s very possible that photographers take a particular shot as an expression of how they feel and think about the subjects. The photo might say as much or even more about the photographers and their relationships to the people in the photo as it does about the people themselves. The photographer is the “invisible” subject in the picture. Photos reflect photographers’ attitudes about the subjects, their state of mind at that particular moment, their feelings about that particular shoot, and their beliefs about photography in general. Sometimes they’re not even aware this is happening. It’s an unconscious process.

When the photographer tries to be unobtrusive, or encourages subjects to behave spontaneously, we’re more likely seeing them for who they are, regardless of their relationship to the photographer. Photographers might wait for that exact moment to capture a particular expression that reveals something essential about the subject’s personality. It’s also possible that they wait to capture a moment that reflects how THEY want the subject to appear, regardless of how true that moment is to the subject’s actual personality. For example, they hold tight until that brief instant when the highly conceited person looks goofy, in order to take that narcissist’s image down a few notches. Or they wait for the hyperactive child to sit still for a second, so he doesn’t appear too frenetic at the birthday party.

When photographers give subjects very specific directions on how to pose, they are more likely acting according to their own expectations about the subjects’ presentation. Perhaps they are mostly concerned about creating a standard, acceptable composition, as in asking a group to stand closer together so that people on the ends don’t get chopped.

But sometimes they might be projecting their own personalities, lifestyles, wishes, and fears into the subject’s pose. A photographer who insists that the men stand in the back of the seated women for a family portrait, or that a wife holds her husband’s arm and looks up into his face while he stares off into the distance, might be saying more in the shot about his own life than about the married couple in the portrait. When we examine such photos, we should always ask ourselves how much the subjects’ poses reflect their natural personalities and relationships to each other, how much it reflects the way the photographer wants them to appear, and how much the photographer projects his own life into the shot. It’s a rather complex question, but then we humans are complex beings.

As I mentioned earlier, even in highly controlled shoots, subjects will react to instructions according to their own personalities. The wife holding onto and looking up at her husband may not appear submissive and doting, as the photographer intended, but rather strong, confident, and supportive. Somehow, if only in small and subtle ways, one’s true self can shine through the very posed photo.

When interpreting a people picture, consider the subject’s reactions to being photographed by that particular person, and to being photographed in general. Is the subject’s psychological appearance a response to the situation at hand, to the fact that a picture is being taken, or both? Was the photo intrusive, a surprise, taken with permission, or encouraged? Some people will have strong feelings about a particular person taking their photo, about who might see the shot, or about any photo taken of them. This says something about the kind of people they are, and you might see it in the picture.

Interpreting photos with the subjects

If you want to interpret a people picture as accurately as possible, talk to the subjects in it, or people who know them well. In fact, talk to them about the photo as you look at it together. It will help verify your perceptions and show you where you went astray, even where you were projecting your own issues into the photo. The subjects will give you insights that you otherwise might have overlooked, but you might be able to help them arrive at some insights too.

The form of psychotherapy known as “phototherapy” is based on this very assumption: if you help people examine and talk about a photo of themselves, you can help them articulate who they are as well as discover new ideas about themselves. All of the strategies described previously in this article will come in handy when discussing the picture with the person. Here are some of the questions Judy Weiser mentions in her book Phototherapy Techniques:

- What’s the story behind this photograph?

- What emotions are you expressing here?

- What does the photo say about you? Is it the “real” you?

- What do the facial expressions and body language of the other people suggest to you?

- What does this photo say about your relationship with them?

- Does the photo reflect typical things about your personality or your relationship to these people?

- Is there anything significant about the place where this shot was taken, or about the objects in it – something a stranger wouldn’t understand?

- What was this time of your life like?

- Who would you like to show this photo to? Is there anyone you wouldn’t want to see this picture?

- How would you describe your relationship with the person who took the shot? Why do you think they took this picture of you?

The limitations

There are limitations to what any one image can reveal about its subjects. Never jump to conclusions, especially based on one bit of evidence in the photo. Carefully consider the complex interaction of the people, setting, culture, and photographer that all contributed to the image.

Remember too that it’s just a snapshot in time that might give a very wrong impression. All sorts of accidental, inadvertent, and misleading things might be captured in a photo. That father wasn’t sleeping during his son’s piano recital. He was blinking when the shot was taken. She doesn’t drink beer. Someone happened to put that bottle on the table next to her.

Most importantly, we humans are too complex to be captured completely by any one picture. That’s why a series of photos will yield more reliable conclusions, more insights, and a more complete understanding, than any one photo alone. Even in this media rich age of ours, when there might be thousands of photos of a person throughout his or her life, we don’t want to reduce ourselves to the images of ourselves.

Pop quiz

interpreting people picturesYou may have noticed that throughout this article I made no mention of the photo that appears at the beginning. I wanted to save that for last. Rather than analyzing the photo myself, which I could do with considerable accuracy, especially because I know these people, I’ll instead pose some questions to help you interpret the photo. It will be a kind of review of everything I’ve discussed in this article. This series of questions will give you a sense of the flow that happens during the interpretation of a people picture. I won’t cover all of the questions that you could consider, just a few important highlights.

- What’s the overall feeling of the photo?

- What title for the photo or story immediately comes to mind?

- How are these people related to each other? How can you tell?

- Where was the shot probably taken, and on what kind of occasion?

- How are they physically connecting to each other? Might that say something about their relationships?

- Do you see any subgroupings? What might that suggest about these people?

- How do their facial expressions compare? Where are they looking? Why?

- What are they doing with their arms and hands? Might that say something about them?

- Where do you sense movement, tension, harmony, and stillness? Might that mean anything?

- Does their clothing suggest anything about their background, the occasion, or the period of time that the shot was taken?

- What was happening right before the shot? What do you imagine happened afterwards?

- How might the photographer be related to these people? What might have been the photographer’s intention in taking this shot?

- Does this photo remind you of anything in your life?

- If you were one of the subjects in this picture, who would it be? What would you do or say in this scene?

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

If you enjoyed this article in Photographic Psychology, you might also enjoy these:

Body language in photography
The varieties of self-portrait experiences

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche