John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

- Reaction Formation -

reaction formation

In the defense mechanism known as "reaction formation," we repress an emotion that we find anxiety-provoking or unacceptable, while consciously feeling and expressing the opposite emotion.

Just in case you're wondering, I didn't actually take this shot in a cemetery. The clown was copied from a photo of Memorial Day parade and pasted into the background image of the graveyard. The juxtaposition of a laughing clown with a cemetery scene seemed like an ideal way to capture the concept of reaction formation. A person might appear bubbly and happy on the outside, while depression or sadness lurks below. In fact, the sad clown has become something of a cultural symbol of pretending to be jolly while crying on the inside.

Confronting usI also find his taking a picture of us, the viewers, an interesting additional element of symbolism. Because we tend to experience the emotion of a person's reaction formation as overly intense, dramatic, or a bit false, we may feel self-conscious about how to respond to it. The person may put us "on the spot" to respond in a way that confirms his conscious feeling while helping him deny the unconscious threatening feeling. The simulated TTV ("through the viewfinder") frame echoes the shape and concept of his camera, suggesting that we, in return, are taking a picture of him because we sense the play-acted qualities of his emotion.

On a more technical note, I'll mention that the shots of the clown and cemetery were both taken from a low camera angle, which made the composite more realistic. From the perspective of psychology, I'll also mention that research indicates many children are in fact afraid of clowns, probably due to their extreme appearance. And so, while we may, as adults, perceive a clown in a graveyard as as anomalous combination, our childhood memories of clowns might very well resonate with this scenario.


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why do I do that burgo

Why Do I Do That?: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives - Joseph Burgo

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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche