John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Johari's Window

johari's window

Johari’s window is a concept used in psychology to explain knowledge in interpersonal relationships. It's named after its inventors, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham. Often portrayed as a diagram in a two-by-two square shape - but here, of course, illustrated with a photo! - it depicts the four possible combinations of what is known and unknown to self and other. Let’s take a look at how Johari’s window applies to situations in which you share your photograph with others. We’ll start with the upper left window pane.

1. Known to Self / Known to Other

Let’s say when other people see your photo, they offer comments about it. Maybe they say something about its subject matter, its visual qualities, the techniques used to create it, or an idea being expressed. If you nod your head in agreement, because you’re aware of these things and probably intended them, then this is the first pane of Johari’s window: things about the image that are known to self and other. Psychologists call this the "open" quadrant.

Most of the time this will be a satisfying experience. You created the photo with a specific purpose in mind and people acknowledge it. That’s what sharing photographs is all about: successful communication. The more you share photos with others, the bigger this quadrant gets.

2. Known to Self / Unknown to Other

If we slide over to the pane on the top right, we run into a situation that usually isn’t so rewarding. People aren’t aware of the idea you’re trying to express in the image. They don’t notice the techniques you used. They just don’t get it and you perhaps end up feeling unappreciated, frustrated, and misunderstood – especially if you were attempting to express some personal thought or feeling in the image.

What then? Well, you might conclude that your image did not succeed in its attempt to communicate, so you go back to the drawing board and try again. Or you explain the photo. As they say in interpersonal psychology, you might even “self-disclose” to help people understand the personal thought or feeling that you were trying to convey. If that works and they now get it, you successfully managed to slide back over to the first pane.

Sometimes people actually may be aware of your purpose and efforts in creating the photo, but they just don’t say anything about it. In that case a little bit of inquiry on your part will help you realize that you’re really in a Pane #1 situation – although it sure would be nice for people to acknowledge what they understand without your having to probe to find out. In other situations people may not realize something about the image and you deliberately don't tell them. Maybe there's something personal about the photo that you would rather not disclose, or maybe it involves one of your photography secrets. That's why psychologists sometimes call this the "hidden" quadrant.

3. Unknown to Self / Known to Other

Let’s move on to the lower left pane. This is where things start to get interesting - in this "blind" quadrant. People detect aspects of your photo that you hadn’t noticed yourself, sometimes even when you had put a lot of thought and effort into creating the image! If the person points out a flaw, that might be a bit upsetting, as when you didn’t notice the utility pole extending out of the subject’s head. It’s a reminder of how your eye can develop blind spots.

On the other hand, people may point out something admirable about the image that you hadn’t considered yourself. Maybe it’s something about the composition or the idea being expressed. Images can be so subtle and complex that you can’t notice everything. Sometimes you even overlook an important feature that made it a good shot!

Lightbulbs really start popping over your head when psychologically astute people perceive something about your personality or lifestyle in the photo even though you had not intended to reveal it. In interpersonal psychology they would say that the other person’s “feedback” triggered an insight for you. With that insight you have now moved back to Pane #1, while on the way feeling an empathic connection with that person.

This is one of the outcomes of sharing photographs that can be quite fascinating, although sometimes a bit intimidating too. We don’t always realize the unconscious forces that shape our photography. If we take other people's point of view, the situation might be tricky for them as well. Would you point out something about an image when it's clear that the photographer doesn't realize it? How do you do that?

4. Unknown to Self / Unknown to Other

The last pane in Johari’s window, on the bottom right, is the most elusive. It's the "unknown" quadrant. Is there something important about your photograph that neither you nor the other person recognize? Perhaps both of you haven’t taken the time or don’t have the eye to notice something subtle about the concept, composition, or technique. Or maybe it’s something about your personality that’s so subtle or hidden that neither of you can see it.

But how do you know the difference between a situation where there’s something important that’s unknown to self and other and a situation where there’s nothing important to be known?

You don’t. That's why it's the mysterious "unknown" quadrant. You’ll only find out by discussing the photo with others, by self-disclosure and feedback. That process might lead you to Pane #3, where the other person comes to realize something about the image that you still don’t. It might lead to Pane #2, where you arrive at an insight into your work while the other person still does not. If the purpose of photography is successful communication with others and even within your own psyche, the process ideally leads once again back to Pane #1, where both of you gain a new understanding of the image and what it means.

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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche