Can You Photograph the Soul Behind a Face?

Can You Photograph the Soul Behind a Face?

Portrait photographers are told time and time again that their goal is to somehow bring a subject's soul, as Godard would phrase it, to life. Is this just myth? Is it even possible? Can you manipulate what aspects of a person's personality are highlighted in a portrait?

It’s close to impossible not to judge someone by their appearance. We’re all conditioned to do it. We may try not to, but it’s very hard to avoid, at least unconsciously, judging a book by its cover.

Several studies have indicated that viewers tend to judge trustworthiness from facial photographs to predict online financial lending decisions, facial impressions of competence predict voting choices, and facial impressions of attractiveness affect hiring and promotions.

Recent Studies

A recent article by Rainer Zitelmann in Forbes magazine suggests that photographs can provide significant clues about the subject's personality:

When you photography a face... you photograph the soul behind it.
 - Jean-Luc Godard

The Personality Judgements Based on Physical Appearance study tried to answer two questions:

  1. What traits can be perceived accurately based on physical appearance in a standardized (posed) photograph?
  2. Does accuracy improve when spontaneously expressed nonverbal components of physical appearance are visible to observers?

According to Zitelmann, the study found that when presented with highly posed photos of a subject, the viewer was able to assess openness, self-esteem, and emotional stability at a rate a little better than chance. On the other hand, viewers were not successful at judging agreeableness and conscientiousness.  

When viewers were presented with photos where the subjects selected their own facial expressions and posture, the viewers were significantly more successful in assessing the subjects: 

 ...observers are able to form reasonably accurate impressions for a number of traits simply on the basis of physical appearance.

A similar study, First Impressions of Personality Traits From Body Shapes, was designed to find out whether or not 

people look at a person’s body and make snap judgments about whether the person is lazy, enthusiastic, or irritable.

Viewers were shown images of body models and asked to determine if the subject was enthusiastic, extroverted, dominant, quiet, reserved, or shy.

Face composites, wikimedia, Quadell.

Overall, the study found that viewers associated pear-shaped and broad-shouldered bodies as being associated with traits such as quarrelsome, extroverted, and irritable. Bodies that were more rectangular were associated with traits, such as being trustworthy, shy, dependable, and warm.

Studies Translated for Portrait Professionals

This certainly provides photographers with something to think about when shooting commissioned portraits for LinkedIn or other social media.  Perhaps you can use this to help to sell more accurate or, on the flip side, intentionally inaccurate portraits to your clients.

For clients that want to exude a dominant personality, wardrobe that accentuates broad shoulders and a tapered midsection would work well. For those whose clients want to appear warm, perhaps a more uniform lighting scheme that doesn't taper the face or midsection would work better. 

What do you think? Do portraits help to share the subjects' secrets, as Karsh would have you believe, or do they fall short of the original, as Goldin suggests?

Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. 
   -Yousuf Karsh

I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I've lost.
   -Nan Goldin

Lead image from Mark Dunsmuir.

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Dave F's picture

So, if I'm a rectangular-bodied (trustworthy) photographer, and I use my skills to make a pear-shaped / broad-shouldered person appear more rectangular (i.e. less quarrelsome), doesn't that sort of blow a hole in this theory? HMMM.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

It's all over now . . . . ! ;)

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I hadn’t heard that before. Nice. Do you know who said that?

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Looking him up now. Thanks.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been “young Mark”. I’ll take it!

Orville Raposo's picture

Nice question

Orville Raposo's picture

I don't understand why people have a fascination for being intrusive. I like to click a person as he or she is. Trying to capture more than that is like trying to put into the picture what is not there.
It creates an artificial picture
When the person later looks at the picture, he or she won't be able to identify with the image he or she is looking at because it is not him or her.
It is what you got out according to your needs by manipulating.
Let's not get too smart.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Wrong question. Should be...."Can you emote your soul behind your face"
You can't photograph what isn't there. If someone does not show enough 'emotion of the soul', then what the photographer is left with is trying to manipulate an emotion through PP. Hardly a photograph then. B&W can capture only so much.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Good shift. I do think that you can have someone emote something that isn’t there. Just a little direction and wham bam, Chè you have. After all, wedding photographers do it all the time. ;)

Timothy Gasper's picture

Sure you can. That's the whole point. It's up to the individual to present their soul to the viewer. A photographer can't pull it out of them. And no camera or PP will ever help with that.

Carlos Calvo's picture

It's impossible to photograph a soul (souls do not exist, or at least, nobody has been able to demonstrate their existence yet) so I think it is someone's personality, or part of it, what you actually want to capture...

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Doesn’t it weigh 32 grams? Or something like it.

Bert Nase's picture

You only can if your model let you see it's soul... but you never know if it's authentic.

Steven Barall's picture

Photography doesn't need help, it's okay as it is. There's no reason to make it pretentious, to make it sound more important. No one's soul is being photographed.