Hope, fears, happiness, trepidation and deep emotional pain are the emotions that lead us through the ups and downs of our lives, the light and shade of our experience on earth. Many of the strongest disciplines of photography, including portraiture, documentary and event-based projects, are highly relational pursuits. Therefore, it is necessary to capture emotions to communicate and fulfil the remarkable opportunities see life truly as photographers every day.
Photo: South Sudan Independence Celebrations, BabaSteve (Steve Evans), 2011.
Emotions lay down memories in our archive of feelings and memories, so a photograph that conveys that emotion will be highly memorable. I often find that emotional photography tugs at the heartstrings because of its transporting ability and an uncanny secondary effect of making us super aware of time. But this, I mean that good emotional photography can capture this fleeting expression of ecstatic joy when it crosses the face of a person, puts you right there and evokes the contagiousness of this happiness. It can also lead to an understanding of longer-term emotions. For instance, there are amazing examples of quiet hospice projects where overwhelming love is in the room, despite the long and inevitable sadness of the situation.
Photos that Evoke Emotion
I was travelling in Morocco in 2019. One afternoon, as the low sun cut across the streets, I saw a couple of teenagers who seemed to bear the weight of the world on their shoulders. The photo I have to remember is one in which their two faces are highlighted against what looks like a familiar ad for Facebook. It was a graffiti depiction of the slick corporate logo, in contrast to the rough and worn setting. The poignancy of the unrelenting connectivity and sharing of emotions with which we all compete on Facebook seemed appropriate for the young women who wanted to establish their identify in worrying circumstances.
As described in Daniel Goleman's groundbreaking 1995 book, photographers need is emotional intelligence to view and read the setting. Without being tuned in, you miss things you focus on your goals, and think less about what is going on around you, including in the lives of others you encounter.
Understanding how our actions affect others is also crucial in the practical approach to emotional photography. Did I mention at the beginning of this article that acting in good conscience, we must connect with that person and be gentle in our dealings and ethical in our behaviour.An overbearing photographer can shut down a situation rather than expose its potential.
Photo: Loneliness, Jeff Knezovich, 2002.
I've often thought about this in my travels and in my experiences as a newcomer to Australia when I first lived there. If you can speak the language, it helps to speak verbally and show interest or reassurance and start a conversation. If I am in a country where I do not have a good grasp of the language, it is always good to know a few words. Of course, some 'universals' help us in every situation: "Hi!", and "Okay!" have taken me far. Still, it is so important to be open to the other person in these situations. Show your face, and your emotions, and establish eye contact where appropriate (There are various cultural norms around this to be aware of). As photographers, we sometimes have our cameras glued to our faces, which can be a huge mistake. It puts a device between us and the emotion of the situation (from the perspective of the other person); one of the biggest lessons I have learned is to put the camera down. Stay in the situation, be observant and present, but also impulsive and quick; this is much more important than spending minutes staring through the lens.
How to Evoke Emotion in Photography
As ever, we have many compositional and narrative approaches to creating images that evoke emotion. Sometimes, we can analytically work through them, but often we find ourselves in a moment when we go with the follow of the situation to capture emotions in those few seconds.
Photo: Refugee at the Border, BabaSteve (Steve Evans), 2015. A refugee woman at the Greece-Macedonia border releases emotions pent up as she is forced to with with thousands of others for permissions to cross.
The most direct way to integrate emotion into your work is to photograph people when they naturally show the outward signs of emotion: capture facial expressions, hand gestures; and body language associated with the physical and mental experience of feelings.
I have spent a significant amount of time in quiet spots and humdrum backstreets when travelling and taking photos; and have found plenty of emotion, sometimes in contrast to the surroundings. But we also associate emotional photography with significant life events, ceremonies and festivals where crowds come together. It is an extraordinary element of emotion that can be experienced with the same intensity, whether alone or collectively, in a large gathering of others. In a way, this phenomenon is one of the strongest characteristics of humanity. It can lead to learn about emotion through highly valued writing by individuals sharing their lonely, inner thoughts and embodied mass experiences. We come together with thousands of others in devotional visits to temples, concerts and football games.
Photo: eMOTION, Martin Fisch, arfis75, 2012.
Emotion plays an enormous role in narrative photography, becoming the electricity that flows through the networks of objects within your scene. A picture of a long shoe lost on the roadside embodies so much more than the sum of the parts, because of our intrinsic emotional intelligence; it automatically creates a story of what happened.
Photo: PixelLine, 2014.
Starting Points, Skills and Working from the Heart
The elements of two expression and stories on the spectrum of emotional photography provides you a starting point for considering how you will approach your work in this realm.
This is an interesting area for developing skills, as it is far from a technical process. You have to be tuned in to your whole self; as you work with your emotions, and bring your technical skills up to speed. The accumulation of practice helps your muscle memory and observation skills to work together to capture something that can be fleeting or emotional difficult.
There are ways to build understanding by considering your photographs, those of others and elements, including composition and lighting. Some emotional photographs have a lot of drama, aesthetically speaking, with angled perspectives, close crops, asymmetric layouts, sharp lighting and clashing colours. Being aware of the power of context often plays an important role; aligned environments can reinforce the increased emotion, for example, in the face of a Mardi Gras performer in the middle of her colourful troupe. Conversely, a contrasting climate can tell so much of the story. We all know the internal conflict that results when our experiences or emotions don't match those around us. Many photographers have the knack for finding those situations where sadness lies at the heart of the party. Siân Davey, whom I wrote about in the Photography and Psychological Issues blog, is a master at this, especially with her series about her daughter's alienation from society.
Go with Your Heart
Ultimately, you can only go with your heart, and tune in to your emotions as much as you turn in to the emotions around you. Don't be put off. Sometimes the feeling does not come through in your finished work. The beautiful fact is that some things are just impossible to capture. Remember, though, emotions are a subjective experience, so what you see in your work can be different from the emotional feeling it gives others.
Photo: Jay and Mary Ratliff, Bryce Watanasoponwong, a photo from my series The Ratliff’s: Seven Decades of Married Life in Trenton. As country music plays, Jay and Mary slow dance at the Trenton Senior Center.
Photographer and visual storyteller based in Bangkok
BRYCE Watanasoponwong is a Thai-Australian photographer and visual storyteller. He is interested in producing a narrative series that evoke emotion and make a personal impact. Becoming more involved in how is photography is... read on