Photo analysis – A external article

WHY ARE THESE PEOPLE SMILING? : Photo analysis is the study of body language as captured on film. Therapists review family photographs to understand the relationship between individuals over the years.


FEB. 9, 1990 12 AM PT


You stand forewarned:

Once you have been indoctrinated with the theory behind “photo analysis,” chances are you will find yourself analyzing every photo in sight.

Not likely, you chortle? You’ve heard of palmistry, after all, yet you deftly quash on a regular basis the temptation to read meaning into every hand you shake.

Well, photo analysis is different from such age-old occultisms as numerology and astrology.

For one thing, photo analysis is practiced by psychotherapists with board certification rather than by psychics with Ouija boards. For another thing, it’s rooted in this world rather than the outer world.

Photo analysis is, simply, the study of body language that has been frozen in a camera’s wink.

“Photographs can tell you a lot,” said Don Ridge, a Tustin-based marriage and family counselor who frequently uses photo analysis with his patients. “Do the people in the picture look austere–perhaps rigid? Or do they look open and flexible? Are there distances between them?

“Sometimes you see a whole family album of pictures in which nobody is touching. That indicates something. Your client may be trying to work through an inability to show affection and express himself. Photos could help him to realize that he learned the pattern from growing up in an undemonstrative family.”

Ridge discovered the benefit of photo analysis years ago with a patient who suddenly–or so she thought–felt estranged from her parents and siblings. “I suggested that she bring in some pictures,” Ridge recalled. “In most of the photos, she was standing off to the side. I said, ‘Does this mean anything to you?’ And she said, ‘Yes, I guess I never did feel like a part of the family.’

“From then on, photos became a natural place to look for clues. Family pictures give you an extension of the person to work with.”

Like Ridge, many Orange County therapists employ photo analysis to help their patients gain self-awareness.

“It’s used more widely than you might imagine,” said Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at UC Irvine. “When used correctly, it can be very powerful in triggering memories not only of experiences, but also of emotions that accompany those experiences.”

“I ask every single one of my clients to bring pictures at some point in the course of therapy,” said Costa Mesa-based counselor Elizabeth Slocum.

Renee Alpert, a clinical psychologist in Santa Ana, first stumbled upon the method in a book entitled “Photoanalysis.” “I was very impressed by the idea, and I’ve used it as a tool ever since,” she said.

The author of that book–the bible of photo analysis, published in 1973–is New York City psychologist Robert U. Akeret. “My interest in photo analysis developed out of hands-on experience rather than academic research,” he said. “A resourceful analyst will make use of any link to earlier times that his client can offer, whether it’s a family scrapbook or a diary.”

In his book, Akeret examined photographs of both the famous and the uncelebrated. Over one series of pictures, for instance, an anonymous girl repeatedly attempts to snuggle next to her unresponsive brother. The boy–in a photo that seems innocent at first glance, yet startlingly ominous with a second look–surreptitiously pushes her away with a balled fist.

“As we talked further about her relationship with her brother, she realized that the fist in the photo was symbolic of their battles and of the anger and resentment her brother had expressed toward her since birth, when she displaced him as the only child,” Akeret wrote.

“That particular photograph looked so ordinary on the surface,” Akeret said in a telephone interview. “Then you look again–what’s that fist doing there?”

He advised students of photo analysis “to read a picture like a book: line by line.”

“Put your hand across the bodies and look only at the faces, then cover the faces and look at the bodies,” Akeret instructed. “See what the people are doing with their hands, see where their energy is focused, see what sort of interaction is going on, see if the individuals are supporting one another physically or if they are putting space between themselves.”

Who stands next to whom in group shots also can tell a tale. “If a daughter is linked closely with her dad, that will be reflected,” Akeret said. “Not necessarily in every photo, but in a sweep of four or five, she will gravitate toward him.”

Sweep is the key word when dissecting photographs. Akeret emphasized that a solo picture–unsubstantiated by recurring themes–cannot do much more than whet curiosity. “It’s impossible to determine anything from one photo–you might as well take out a crystal ball,” Akeret said.

Ridge agreed with Akeret’s admonition. “Photographs are just another piece of information–they are not a panacea,” he said. “You can’t draw any conclusions from one or two photos; you have to have several photos, you have to have a pattern. A single picture can help you to ask questions, but it doesn’t answer questions.”

Furthermore, the subject of the photograph–the person who was actually there–should have the last word in its interpretation.

“You’re not always accurate,” Ridge pointed out. “You might say, ‘Look, your mother and father are never touching in these photos. Is that a hint?’ The client might answer, ‘No, that’s not a hint. They just didn’t touch in posed pictures, but they usually showed affection.’ If your client says it’s not a hint, then it’s not a hint.”

Although one picture may be worth a thousand words, those words are more conjectural than definitive. With that consideration in mind, Ridge viewed an assortment of photographs and offered his observations:

* The Ronald Reagan family (see cover photograph), circa 1967: Father and son assume poses on the left side in a formal portrait, mother and daughter on the right. Ronald and Ron Reagan exchange touches, a teen-aged Patti rests her hand on her mother’s knee, Nancy Reagan sits erect with hands folded.

“There is a dichotomy between males and females in the photo,” Ridge noted. “It gives rise to the question, ‘Was there a traditional male-female separation? Were there different expectations for men and women in the family?’

“The very fact that (Patti) can touch her mom’s knee shows there is some intimacy. Even if the photographer directed the pose, she could have avoided contact. If there were no intimacy, she would have put her hand on her mother’s dress without touching (Nancy Reagan’s) skin.

“(Ronald) Reagan and the boy look comfortable with each other. But Nancy is not in contact with anyone. Her daughter is reaching out to her, but she seems to be off to herself. Her hands don’t look comfortable; they’re tightly clasped.

“If you were working with one of the kids, you’d ask, ‘Did your mom keep to herself? How often did she touch you? Was there always a distance?’ ”

The George Bush family, 1989: President and Mrs. Bush sit in the middle of a couch, surrounded by their youngest grandchildren. Their adult children and teen-aged grandchildren stand behind them.

“It looks like a rather traditional family,” Ridge said. “There is a hierarchy by age–everyone is focused on the grandparents. But the children also are given prominent places; children are probably important in this family. Everyone is right next to each other, no one is off to the side. I don’t get the feeling from the photo that some child is less accepted than the others.”

The Kennedy family–Joseph, Rose, John, Bobby, Ted, Jean, Pat and Eunice–in 1946: Casually dressed, the clan huddles together for a back-yard snapshot.

“This is a very friendly looking family,” Ridge remarked. “They’re so squashed together, with everyone leaning into each other, that they form a pyramid. There’s a lot of touching going on. The energy seems to be spread out amongst all of them, rather than on one focal point.”

Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, 1976 and 1987: In both pictures, the couple are standing side by side.

“One would wonder what they’re concentrating on,” Ridge said. “His eyes are going in one direction, hers in another. Are they in worlds of their own? You wonder if they’re tuned in together. It’s the same in both photos. It would be interesting if you were working with one of them to ask, ‘What were you feeling at that time?’ ” Hayden and Fonda are now divorcing.

Ridge is not “working with” any of these people. The only speculations he can verify are those of people he knows first-hand, like the family smiling from a Christmas card that is propped upon his desk.

He nodded toward the holiday remnant. “You can see in the photo that he (the husband) wants to take the dominant position in the family,” Ridge said. “And he appears rather uncomfortable and rigid, by the way that he’s sitting so upright. She (the wife) looks warm and friendly; she’s touching the children. And, in actuality, the couple does have some problems relating and communicating with one another.”

Ridge admitted that photo analysis is infectious. “When I see a photograph of people, I almost automatically try to figure out where they’re coming from,” Ridge chuckled.

Another admirer of photo analysis, Tustin psychologist Amy Stark, said that yellowed photographs can take people back in time to offer “the child within” a helping hand.

“A lot of my patients are adult victims of child abuse and emotional neglect,” Stark said. “Photos are one way of getting in touch with the inner child–of seeing what that child had to deal with. Sometimes, in picture after picture, the parents’ faces look severe and angry. Parents provide a child his first perception of the world, so it’s no wonder that the world is a scary place to these people.”

By reviewing childhood photographs, Stark said, patients gain a perspective on their place in time: “Old pictures can serve to remind them that that was then, this is now–and now they should move on.”

UCI psychiatrist Grob said that “moving on” with life is the whole point of psychotherapy and should be the point of photo analysis, as well. “You don’t want to get overly preoccupied with going over the past,” he said. “I can’t imagine that week after week you’d trot out the family pictures with a patient.

“Therapy is not only remembering things from childhood, it’s using the insights gleaned from past experiences and past relationships to function better in the current, day-to-day world.”

For Ellis Schwied’s patients, childhood memories are the present. The child psychiatrist, who is chief of adolescent services at Capistrano by the Sea Hospital in Dana Point, uses photographs during therapy sessions as conversation openers.

“I’m seeing a 7-year-old boy who is very sullen and defiant–he knows more than I do, that sort of thing,” Schwied said. “I asked his parents to bring in photos one day; before you knew it, he and I were engaged in a discussion about the pictures. Suddenly, I’m a part of the family–I know his uncles and aunts, I know that he went on a vacation in Colorado last year. Pictures help you to establish a relationship with the child.”

Schwied requests photographs as a matter of course. “They give me a great deal of insight about the kid’s position in the family pecking order,” he said. “It’s very telling to look at a picture of the family around the Christmas tree and see who’s smiling, who’s looking down, who’s next to which parent, whose attention is where.”

A scarcity of photos may reveal as much as the photos themselves. “Sometimes parents will have very few photographs of their third or fourth child; that gives you a real idea of where he fits in,” Schwied said. However, he charitably allowed with a laugh, “my wife and I don’t have nearly as many pictures of our second girl as we do of our first, but we don’t love her any less.”

Such are the limitations of photo analysis. Not every picture tells a story.

“When I was on my book tour, people would bring me a photo of someone and say, ‘This is my fiancee. What do you think, doc–should I marry her?’ ” Akeret added with a laugh. “But photos aren’t magical.”

WHAT TO LOOK FOR * Proximity: If the camera captures its subjects rubbing elbows, they likely enjoy a warm relationship. However, if they put enough distance between themselves to avoid touch, they might shun intimacy with one another.

* Positioning by hierarchy: Men who take the dominant placement in photographs probably take the dominant role at home, as well. Families that center portraits around the grandparents exhibit a respect for age.

* Positioning by attraction: A parent who consistently gravitates toward a certain child in photos might pick favorites. The person who often chooses to stand on the outside in group shots could indeed feel like an outsider.

* Hands: Friendly smiles can belie the tension revealed in clenched fists.

Los Angeles Times
A California Times publication

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