Thursday, November 30, 2006

How photojournalism affects the brain

The eye is directly connected to the brain via an optic nerve. The eye and brain are in constant communication. The brain sends instructions to the eyes, the eyes respond with movement (called a saccade). The eyes collect visual information and immediately present it to the brain. Then, the process repeats.

Unlike written or spoken languages, the brain can immediately understand the massive data presented and sort for the meaning of visual information in milliseconds. Consequently, visual information is the most immediate and visceral of all communications.

While moving images (video and film) are the most engrossing, the still image is the most powerful. This is also due to the way the brain functions. Moving images force the eye to saccade as scenes change and objects move. However, the still image is frozen and allows time for the eye to fixate.

For anything to become memorable, the brain must retrace neural connections several times to build up a chemical memory. This occurs during viewers' fixations. Once the data is chemically stored inside these connections, it's a memory. It can later be called upon with another chemical trigger.

Essentially, if a still image is studied for a small amount of time, it becomes physically burned into the chemical markers of the brain. It's a chemical version of a rewriteable compact disk (CD).

Every new image encountered is compared against the previously stored mental images. Commonly, the brain might chemically say Bob looks like Ted with brown hair instead of black and green eyes instead of blue and a small scar on the left side of his forehead. When it comes to photography, previously stored images are probably very famous photos and difficult to usurp.

The most common or imperfect images in a set are dumped as better images are encountered. This is the point of impact for photojournalists. It's also what distinguishes the work of one PJ from others.

For example, let's consider a mass-market portrait photographer. Each image produced looks essentially the same. Each portrait has a person at a half-right turn with the same light and one of 25 interchangeable backgrounds.

Once the backgrounds are memorized, the people are the only difference. Once enough types of people have been photographed, only subtle changes are remembered. Over time, only surprising portraits evoke any response from the photographer.

Our portrait photographer may remember the subject in a business suit who insisted on wearing a red, foam-rubber clown nose.

So, let's build this mental image, which doesn't even exist in reality, from your own memory. First insert a generic portrait studio background. In front of this background is a head-and-shoulders shot of a person in a business suit. Then, we put a red, foam-rubber clown nose on this person.

The remaining changes are macro societal for the experience of the reader followed by minor details.

Any race, gender, or age could be applied to this generic person, these facts can be selected from previous experiences in your mind.

The minor details commonly appear at fixation points of standard images. Some fixation points are mouth, nose and eyes. These minor changes show the emotional level (happiness) of the generic person.

Let's say the person is serious for one image. But, s/he starts laughing uncontrollably as the second shot is taken. Most PJs, know exactly what the differences are without seeing the images. These neural pathways have already been traced so many times that we can easily connect arm position No. 3 to portrait No. 2 as we insert eye wrinkle No. 15 with hair No. 7, with suit No. 9 and clown nose No. 4. So, we know what the image looks like although we've never seen the image before.

An artist's view
All of this falls squarely into the hands of the art snobs who claim everything that can be shot has been shot. Furthermore, it applies to everything that will be shot in the future. This is because enough similar images have been created that the most complex composition is only a minor change from previously viewed images of someone with a vast visual memory.

This could be extremely depressing if one dwells on it too long. It means the most amazing photograph we'll ever make is only a minor adjustment from images others have already made. It also means the judge of whatever contest we're about to enter has a 30-year visual library to compare our images against in nanoseconds before s/he yells "out."

A PJ's view
Here is where quality PJ work becomes powerful. The reason the mental image above was so easy to construct was because it's made mostly of nouns (background, person, suit, nose). Probably, the generic mental construction was nothing more than a colorful silhouette of a person.

Experienced visual pros can easily assemble this image as well, but it's new to most folks and gets stored in their memory until something better overwrites it.

The verb is minor (laughs). However, the verb separated the example image from others. It's different. When the verb is inserted, the mental image of the generic person probably got mental attributes of a face. It could have been someone unknown, or it could have suddenly shifted to a well-known friend's exact face and body language.

The verb we inserted tapped into pre-existing, chemically-stored emotional bonds of the viewer. Going back to our original image, we've added several more neural connections and additional emotional meaning to the chemical memory.

This image may overwrite some other image in a viewer's mind, but could be easily lost with time and additional visual stimuli.

How PJs make memorable images
The example above was a simple portrait. It was made more memorable by the insertion of a minor verb. PJs have additional tools at their disposal.

PJs can give viewers subjects in context with authority and create sympathy/empathy. These images are most compelling when combined with a powerful action verb and strong emotional content.

Most daily PJ work takes place in the "real world." The backgrounds of our images aren't painted, they're real places. Often, they're real places where our most common viewers have visited. As such, viewers immediately connect the background to their own emotional memories of the place.

Although location is important to subscribers, other viewers correlate the background to somewhere they have been. Although subtle, PJ images are already beginning to mean different things to each viewer. The image starts to become unique to each viewer as their neural synapses fire and connect visual and emotional memories.

This is most true with uniform environments such as sports. Although PJs shoot a pee-wee football game in the suburbs, the background may remind a former football player of his college football days. The backgrounds we capture are enough to make an image memorable and connect with viewers' emotions.

In addition to the context mentioned, PJs' images have authority. Our images are primarily facts. When viewers see PJ images published on paper or on the Web, they're viewed as facts. The cutline verifies the facts of the image for skeptical viewers.

Most day-to-day images don't require this factor to connect to viewers emotions, but images with new data require this authority.

For this example, let's consider a man in a business suit stands next to a traffic light near an overpass. The man holds a sheet of cardboard with a hastily scrawled sign that reads, "Needs work."

This photograph would immediately evoke emotional responses from each viewer. Some with limited world knowledge might find the image mildly funny. Some who have suffered through hard times might become angry (one of the most powerful emotions) about how everyone makes fun of them. Note the image is no longer about the subject, but about the viewer because the viewer connected personal emotional links to the image.

However, PJs present facts. After the initial anger subsides, viewers might read the cutline to verify this is a factual image rather than some advertising gimmick with extremely poor taste.

The cutline reads, "John Smith, formerly an account manager at Telecom Industrial Utilities, holds a sign to acquire work after the government closed the business for failure to pay taxes on Monday. More than 600 employees lost their jobs."

These are all verifiable facts, which support the image and give it authority and credibility. The guy was really there holding the sign.

PJs want viewers to find parallels in our images to their own lives. This is why PJ work is sometimes called a reflection of a community. We show the community to itself. By doing so, the community connects with the publication on more than a superficial level.

If we can't get this level of sympathy/empathy between our image subjects and our readers, the images are unlikely to have any impact on the readers and are basically "page fillers."

The readers who found the previous example mildly humorous at first may get an emotional kick of guilt after reading the cutline. Those who have "been there, done that" connect the image with every emotion they felt under similar stressful situations.

Obviously, the impact of the image varies greatly from reader to reader.

If the cutline continues, "Smith, a single parent, said employees were not paid and his hospitalized daughter needs medicine."

At the inexperienced end of the spectrum, empathy with the subject is probably created. Viewers may not feel the image, but they can imagine themselves in a similar situation and have an emotional response.

Worldly readers may experience total sympathy with the subject. The image is immediately connected to deeply-burned chemical trails in the brain. Painful memories are replayed and connected to the image on the page. They feel his emotions. They have sympathy.

Powerful action verbs
As evinced above, subjects with relatively passive verbs ("holds") can etch into the minds of viewers and connect deeply to stored information within viewers' own brains.

When powerful action verbs are introduced to PJ images, images are most likely to affect viewers. Visual verbs such as falls, explodes, slams, rips, etc. summon defensive responses within the viewers' brains.

Often, images which contain powerful action verbs elicit physical reactions from viewers. PJs want viewers to have these "gut reactions." This means our image was connected by the viewer to additional nerve centers within the body. The image isn't simply mental but became physical as well. In other words, it'll be remembered for a while. In addition to the neural traces, it now has physical reinforcement.

Most Pulitzer Prize-winning images from the 60s and 70s had strong action verbs. Here are some memorable example images:
1961 - Japanese student stabs socialist leader.
1964 - Ruby shoots Oswald.
1969 - Vietnamese police chief executes Viet Cong prisoner.
1973 - Napalmed Vietnamese girl runs.
1976 - Woman and child fall when balcony collapses. (Two verbs)
1977 - Thai students beat lynched leftist students.
1977 - Racist spears lawyer with flagpole.
Emotional content
Emotional content runs the entire length of the human experience. As we know, personal experience varies per viewer. However, there are some universal experiences including pain and fear. Other common emotions include happiness, disgust, remorse, grief, etc.

While the physical reaction isn't as obvious, the brain connects viewers' emotional content to images. The physical reaction is more on a cellular, nervous system level than a muscular reaction. Viewers' skin may tingle, stomachs may clinch, tears may form. These are all physical manifestations of emotional reactions to chemically-stored images within the brain.

Many emotions have become verbs. Scream and cry are common. Other emotions are implied and understood by the viewer from facial expressions. A person recoils (in fear or pain).

These emotions are best displayed on the subject's face. This is why most editors want to clearly see people's faces. Often, body language or position alone can also convey the emotion without the ability to see the subject's face. However, readers can more rapidly and effectively connect directly to the subject if the subject's eyes are visible (and in focus).

The viewer feels the emotion while seeing the image. PJs want to tap into our viewers' feelings to maximize the impact of our images.

As such, viewers are likely to absorb images completely when emotional elements are introduced. Rather than dwelling on the obvious, let's understand this is the key to a successful image.

PJ's goal
The goal of PJ work is to communicate with viewers through truthful images and words. If we place subjects in context and create sympathy/empathy while documenting a powerful action verb and strong emotional content, we have succeeded.

When combined, these ingredients connect multiple neural and physical chemical pathways to a mental image for the viewer. If successful, we've overwritten many previous images in the viewers' brain chemistry.

If all of this can be done while presenting a new word to our viewers, we've created something truly worthy of our viewers' time.

Enough for now,


Marie said...

'Hancock's words explodes upon the internet'

Dude, this is one powerful post. I always look to your blog for inspiration. Thanx.

Marie said...

...sorry, it should read 'explode'. Where is my editor?

Mark M. Hancock said...

Thanks Marie. I've been trying to avoid "Hancock explodes" for many years. ;-}

Anonymous said...

Droppin' science . . . dig it. :)

Bhrugu Ranjan Das said...

very good

Steve said...

This is an absolutely facinating post. Terrific job!

JAVAD said...

great article, Do you mind if i refer to it for my final year project?

Mark M. Hancock said...

If you're referencing a paragraph or two for in-school academic purposes, sure. Use proper attribution so you don't get in trouble with your instructor.