John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche



In the 1960s William Condon pioneered the study of body language that occurred within a fraction of second, which he called “micromovements.” For example, in a careful, frame-by-frame analysis of a video, he noticed a wife moving her shoulder just as her husband’s hand came up – an interaction of micromovements that formed a “microrhythm.” The psychologist John Gottman was even able to predict what relationships would endure or fail by examining the micromovements of couples interacting with each other in video recordings.

Famous for his theory of emotion in facial expressions, Paul Ekman added to these findings with his research on what he called “microexpressions,” which are looks that flash across a person’s face, usually within 1/15 of a second. Involuntary and extremely difficult to control, these instantaneous reactions surface in the middle of other facial expressions over which the person has more command. Because underlying emotions provoke them, microexpressions reveal what people are truly feeling, often when they are uncomfortable with and deliberately trying to suppress and conceal that feeling, or sometimes when the feeling is unconscious. The emotional leakage usually involves the seven basic facial expressions that are universal across cultures: those indicating anger, fear, disgust, surprise, sadness, happiness and contempt. Researchers and law enforcement officials have found that microexpressions thwart contrived attempts to fake a facial presentation and therefore are useful in exposing lies.

The Subliminal Effect

Most people, up to 80 or 90 percent, don’t notice microexpressions in others, although they can be trained to detect them. Even if we don’t consciously recognize them, they still might have a subliminal impact on our impression of people and how we respond to them. So if you think you are acting on a hunch about a person, it may not be pure “intuition.” Your eye and brain in fact detected the person’s emotion revealed by the expression that flashed across his or her face. For these reasons, some psychologists believe that research on microexpressions supports Darwin’s observations about the evolutionary significance of emotion and how it is expressed.

Can a Photographer Capture It?

So what does this have to do with photography? Well, think about the applications to shots of people. Photographers specializing in portraits well know that when asked to smile, subjects don’t look like they do when they smile spontaneously. Their expression often seems at least a bit contrived. In fact, the muscles used for a posed smile are different than those involved in a natural smile. Photographs of people are more interesting and true to the character of the people in them when the subjects behave freely and without self-consciousness.

Actually, these kinds of natural facial expressions, when the subject isn’t “trying” to look a certain way for the camera, are a bit different than microexpressions. The microexpression is unique in its brevity and how it reveals an underlying and perhaps concealed emotion. A photograph that captures it is a record of a fleeting glimpse into the subject’s psyche.

This fact poses some interesting dilemmas for the photographer. First, let’s consider a purely technical issue. Because the microexpression occurs in a flash, it’s quite difficult to capture in a single snapshot. Shutter speeds surely are fast enough to do the job, but the human photographer’s reaction time lags far behind the moment. Even if you train yourself to spot a microexpression, they are long gone before you press the shutter button. If you’re a person with considerable psychological and interpersonal sensitivity, you might be able to tune into the situation, anticipate when a microexpression might occur, and capture it. Perhaps you’re talking with the subject or carefully observing the interaction among people while you’re shooting. But even with accurate intuition and a camera boasting superfast frames per second, you could still miss that flickering facial expression. Largely, it’s going to be a matter of luck, which is often the case in photography.


Should a Photographer Capture It?

Then there’s an even more tricky ethical issue. If a microexpression reveals an underlying emotion that people might be trying to deny and conceal, or if it’s an unconscious feeling, or even if they’re simply uncomfortable showing it, should the photographer capture that private sentiment? Might the person feel vulnerable, exposed, intruded upon, betrayed, or angry? Of course, the answer to that question depends on a lot of things – like the personality of the subject, the nature of his or her relationship to the photographer, how the photograph will be used, and how viewers might interpret it. A look of joyful surprise on an otherwise stoic man’s face might be perfectly acceptable to everyone if it’s a perfectly timed shot of him walking into his surprise birthday party. However, imagine how intrusively manipulative it would be for a photographer to pose a personal question to a subject – such as “How do you feel about your mother?” – as a prelude to capturing the person’s micro-expressive response.

Some Complications

The researchers also offer some caveats. Ekman, for example, states that people sometimes confuse the expressions for fear and surprise, as well as the ones for anger and disgust, because they involve similar muscle movements. Mark Frank, an expert on how microexpressions betray attempts at deception, warns that one microexpression or a collection of them is not proof of anything. They have meaning only in the context of other behavioral cues.

This holds true for microexpressions in general. If we do succeed in capturing one, the meaning conveyed in the photograph will be shaped not just by the culturally universal emotion associated with that expression, but also by other aspects of the subject, the situation surrounding the subject, and the psychological effects created by the composition and the post-processing of the image. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts and surely any one part, even if that part is the highly revealing microexpression.

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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche