John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Visualizing and Verbalizing in Photography

Psychology describes language and visualizations as two basic ways our mind manages memories and processes information. Some researchers call them the “verbal” and “mental imagery” systems. Inside our heads we often think with words and carry out all sorts of conversations. In our mind's eye, we also see pictures in our imagination, as in recalling a childhood memory. While language resides in the left side of the brain, complex visual imagining occurs in the right. These two cognitive systems also point to the two basic ways humans express themselves to others: by creating words and visual images.

The verbal system of the mind

The verbal system tends to involve thinking that is more conceptual, linear, conscious, and factual. Words are abstractions that refer to things that bear little resemblance to the words: The word "tree" doesn't look like a tree. We sequence words into sentences so we can communicate with others. That effort of the verbal system requires considerable conscious control. Because we develop language in order to communicate with others, the verbal system tends to be more concerned with the factual demands of reality that we and others must address.

The mental imagery system

The mental imagery system tends to be more sensory, holistic, fantasy-based, emotional, and personal. Images more easily arouse the senses – not just seeing, obviously, but also the sensations of sound and touch. They contain individual elements that the eye can perceive, but the mind first reacts to the impression of the image as a whole. More so than words, images are the stuff of imagination, fantasy, and symbolism. They more quickly arouse our emotions and personal memories. As dreams show us, they are more easily influenced by the unconscious. Because infants process their experience of the world via images long before they learn language, we might even consider the imagery system as the more fundamental method by which the human mind works.

Visualizers compared to verbalizers

Most people rely on both the imagery and verbal systems for cognitive functioning, but researchers have postulated that some people may be better visualizers while others are better verbalizers. This is a useful distinction to keep in mind as a photographer.

Some people are drawn to photography and visual design because they are strong visualizers. They tend to think visually and prefer to express themselves that way. However, their verbal system might not be as fully developed. They might have a hard time talking about images, including their own. They can take wonderful shots without being able to verbalize how they do it or why those photos are so good. They just intuitively sense their visual surroundings and how to capture it effectively.

Other people may be strong verbalizers who love conversation and thinking with words, but they might not understand the visual language of a photograph. They might have a hard time composing a good shot or appreciating one that is shown to them.

Combining the verbal and visual systems

Research indicates that combining the visual and verbal systems is a powerful way to learn. For us photographers, this means improving our skill in understanding visual design, while also improving our ability to talk about images. Learning to verbalize what works and what doesn’t in a photo solidifies our understanding of image creation and leads to new ideas. In return, the image provides the tangible sensory vehicle to ground, extend, and enrich our conversations about photography. Visualizing and verbalizing synergistically enhance each other. The bottom line is this: if you learn how to talk to people about your photography, you will most likely improve your photography.

Talking too much and not enough

Of course, an image does not have to be verbally analyzed to be appreciated. The powerful psychological effects of some images cannot always be expressed easily in words. After all, as the saying goes, one picture is worth a thousand words. Some people, especially those of Zen persuasion, would even go so far as to say that attempting to describe the impact of an image in fact ruins it because doing so causes us to lose sight of the fundamental, immersive, holistic, and emotional effect of the visual experience. Verbose evaluations get boring pretty quickly.

When people are overly adamant about not discussing images, they might be feeling a bit inadequate about their poor verbal skills. Methings they doth protest too much, in other words. On the one hand, there will always be very talented people, even geniuses, who create images of incredible beauty and meaning, while fumbling awkwardly with words to describe their vision. The irony is that their genius often goes unrecognized until people start talking about their work and why it's so good.

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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche