Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph Blog Why We Like to Have Photographs Around Us – Dr. Ellen's Blog

Why We Like to Have Photographs Around Us

Posted on 2016-08-19 By

*This article was recently published in Apogee Photo Magazine

I speak to you today from the perspective of an experienced mental health professional and photojournalist, with the goal of sharing my observations about the complexities of the world of photography that we share in common.

Let me begin with this observation: the primary reason we like to have photographs around us is for the memories they evoke. Photos and memories go hand in hand; and the photos don’t even have to be great ones to serve that purpose.

This is as true for nature and urban images as it is for old photos of families and friends, pets, travel destinations, even abstract compositions. The photos we are drawn to elicit an emotional response from us that can vary from love and exhilaration to anger and rage, even to feelings of great emptiness at times. That is also why we hang onto them, if only in a box in our dusty attic.

What those photos share in common is that they trigger memories of complex personal encounters we have had with their subject(s).

A photograph of a deceased brother, for example, will elicit vary different emotional responses from us depending upon whether we treasured that brother or perhaps — at the time of his death — we were estranged from him. Our response to a photograph will therefore depend on the circumstances that best reflect the prevailing relationship.

Some photos will elicit very happy memories, and those are the ones we tend to frame and display for constant interaction with them. But sometimes we also like to surround ourselves with photos of important but difficult people in our lives, not necessarily because we love them but because we are still trying to work out emotional issues concerning them; like a rigid and distant parent, an alcoholic parent, or chaotic growing up years.

Photographs can definitely help with this process, although obviously not as effectively as when we are in an ongoing relationship with such persons that includes soulful dialogue.

That, of course, is not always possible or even desired, which is why some people keep ‘bad’ photographs that you and I might otherwise trash. Photos can definitely help to heal old wounds and soften emotional blows as we try to conjure up better days with them.

Photos and self-affirmation

The reality is that we tend to need things in life that are self-affirming. We want to know that we are definitely here, and that we have been here for some time. The physical touch of another, in particular, is very self-affirming. But when that touch relationship is lost, or it becomes negatively charged over time, we can at least look at a photograph and recall how we felt when that touch was still present and available to us.

Group photos can be especially revealing


The body language that is evidenced in a group photograph tells much about the interpersonal dynamics that are inherent to the group at hand. This is true of sports teams, faculties, business teams, childhood birthday parties, and even staged groupings of political and other luminaries.

Photos of family groups, in particular, are often considered critical accouterments to some forms of psychotherapy because they can be so revealing of the underlying family emotional process. As such, they are important tools for engaging a patient in self-reflection.

Emotionally distant and detached family members, for example, like to stand in the back of the family grouping or at one side of the group –you’ve seen this I am sure – but you rarely find them smack dab in the middle of everyone. They almost always have their hands stuck in their pockets, usually with their head or at least their eyes predictably looking anywhere but at the camera.

Emotionally accessible folks, on the other hand, like to wrap their arms around everyone as they deliberately place themselves in full view of the photographer’s lens as they talk or laugh with those around them. They don’t do this just for the photograph at hand; this is how they live their lives.

An unhappy person always looks unhappy even during spontaneous Kodak moments. Their depressive features stay with them and show up in the form of crumpled posture, disheveled appearance, turned down mouths, etc.

It is also interesting to observe who stands next to whom in groups, including how far they position themselves from matriarchs or patriarchs and other key family members.


Implications for photo sellers and buyers

These emotional interfaces are important things to keep in mind for photo sellers and their potential buyers.

EXAMPLES: A buyer will gravitate to gorgeous images of Italy if they once had, or perhaps still have, powerful emotional relationships in that special part of the world. Another buyer will respond similarly to images of barren polar extremes as they contemplate their own icy world. Still other buyers will gravitate to particular colors that evoke memories of childhood figures that loved those colors; or to monochromes of urban homelessness that reflect poignant losses they have come to know too well.

Photographers tend to think that buyers respond to their images for all the right reasons: for their composition, their quality, their framing and most of all for their stunning beauty. And those things may be true, but the memories triggered are the most powerful reasons of all for buyers to buy the photographs that they do.

It behooves photographers who market their work to think in such terms, for we all know of photography galleries that have come and gone, of photography styles that just don’t sell, and of portfolios with great promise that don’t sell.

And the question is why – why don’t they sell?

I think one reason, besides all of the more ephemeral reasons noted above, is that photographers themselves are not always in tune with their own insides. When their focus is entirely external, they completely miss some universal truths that drive humans in general; for the mind of the photographer is no less important than the mind of the photo lover, or buyer.

  • Images that evoke universal truths sell
  • Images that evoke powerful emotions sell
  • Images of dynamic processes and interfaces sell
  • Images of universal struggles sell
  • Images of life’s paradoxes and juxtapositions and even life’s absurdities sell
  • Simplicity sells
  • Living patterns sell

Photographers therefore aren’t always the best judge of their own photographs for these and other reasons, particularly the more focused they are on the technical aspects of their work.

Underestimating the emotional forces at play is self-defeating, and it can be quite costly on a number of levels.