Traditionally, facial expressions have always been conceived as connected with emotions, but different experts in History of Psychology debated the idea that, in some cases, they might only appear as related to them.
Charles Dawin has been the first one to suggest that those expressions were universal as the emotions behind them, claiming that they were “biologically innate and evolutionarily adaptive” (Darwin, 1872). His idea, then, was not simply that those manifestations are already present in all humans and animals, but that they evolve in time due to their need to adapt themselves to the environment they live in, as a response to Evolution.
Since his research has been then considered as inconclusive thanks to those further researches conducted in the world of Psychology, a second theory arouse: the one that linked those expressions to different cultures. However, Darwin’s theory found its “evolution” in the work done by Doctors Tomkins and McCarter, who demonstrated that “facial expressions were reliably associated with certain emotional states” (Tomkins & McCarter, 1964), and Dr. Paul Ekman., who made a distinction among main facial expressions and developed, subsequently, the theory related to subtle expressions, those non-obvious micro-expressions uneasy to detect since their duration is usually brief. Their work generated over 75 studies managed by different psychologists in time and analysing the topic from different angles and with different aims.
David Matsumoto, The Seven Basic Emotions and their Universal Expressions, explicative image, 2008, San Francisco State University, USA. ©David Matsumoto, 2008.
Ekman and Keltner, also stated that personalities and psychopathologies do not affect those expressions even if, in some cases, they might result as amplified or diminished. They provided as example the case of some disorders, like schizophrenia, in which some emotions have a prominent role and might cause a certain level of misconception in the interpretation of their emotive causes.
Doctor Shimamura, in 2015 highlighted the importance of the role of the observer in the interpretation of those expressions, discussing how we “frame” them, declaring that, of course, “a smile may be viewed differently depending on the situation, what happened just prior, or the disposition of the person transmitting or receiving the expression” (Shimamura, 2015). He provided visual examples alongside his theory and one of those images was the drawing created by the psychologist Roger Shepard for his “Mind Sights: Original Visual Illusions, Ambiguities, and other Anomalies” in which there are two identical running monsters following each other. Thanks to an optical illusion, named “Ponzo illusion” that creates a sense of depth in the context around those figures, the following one seem bigger and the most provided interpretation has always been that the smaller one seems scared while the second monster seems angry.
Roger Shepard, Terror Subterra, drawing, 1990, New York, USA. © Roger Shepard, 1990.
All these perspectives might fit into my project since, while we commonly read emotions displayed into a photograph in a similar way, being my images open to personal interpretation and to internalisation, their reading might change depending on those eyes observing them.
Something interesting has been written by Roland Barthes in his “Mourning Diary”, created after his mother death: “Each of us has his own rhythm is suffering” (Barthes, 1978). Then what if the same person would observe one of my photographs during a moment of happiness and then during a moment of sadness? Would his personal interpretation be the same? Would his emotional state influence his ability to judge what he is looking at?
I can guess that the provided interpretation on an intellectual level would remain the same, or at least similar, but on an inner level, grounding a response on an emotional level, things could drastically change. We tend to mirror ourselves into the outside world and the same happens when we face a photographic image. We often use our personal and cultural background alongside what we feel in that specific moment of our lives to understand the contents of a photograph, something similar to what we do when we misinterpret a sentence said by someone in a moment in which we are upset: likely, we would never provide the same interpretation to those words in a more serene one. Ansel Adams once said “Photography, as a powerful medium of expression and communications, offers an infinite variety of perception, interpretation and execution” (Adams in Scala, 2012), relating, in my case, not only the role of the viewers with the one of the sitter, but even to my interpretation. Those emotional process I depict have an impact not only on a potential audience, but also on my inner-self while shooting. I once said that I suffer and I feel relieved with my sitters and for my sitters and this is still true and, at the same time, I read their expression, I have a personal idea of what they might feel through observation, like any other viewer.
Adams Ansel, quoted in About Photography, Andrea A. L. Scala, 2012, Lulu Press, North Carolina, USA, pp.7.
Barthes Roland, Mourning Diary, 1978, re-published in 2010 by Hill and Wang, NY, USA, pp.162.
Darwin, Charles, The expression of emotion in man and animals, 1872, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
Darwin, Charles, The expression of the emotions in man and animals, 1872, John Murray, 1st edition, available on Darwin Online website http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?pageseq=1&itemID=F1142&viewtype=text
Ekman Paul, Keltner Dacher, Facial Expression of Emotions, in M. Lewis and J. Haviland-Jones (eds) Handbook of Emotions, Second Edition, Chapter 15, 2000, Guildford Publications, Inc., NY, USA, pp.236-249 https://www.paulekman.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Facial-Expression-Of-Emotion1.pdf
Ekman Paul, Paul Ekman Group’s official website http://www.paulekman.com/
Matsumoto David, Reading facial expressions of emotions, article released on the American Psychological Association’s official website, May 2011 issue http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2011/05/facial-expressions.aspx
Nassif Claire, Shellow Greer, Facial Expressions and Emotions, article posted by Alexandra Murphy on Developmental Psychology at Vanderbilt official website, May 2014 issue https://my.vanderbilt.edu/developmentalpsychologyblog/2014/05/facial-expressions-and-emotions/
Paul Ekman Group, Are There Universal Facial Expressions?, on Paul Ekman Group’s official website http://www.paulekman.com/universal-facial-expressions/
Shepard Roger N., Mind Sights: Original Visual Illusions, Ambiguities, and other Anomalies, 1990, WH Freeman and Company, NY, USA.
Shimamura Arthur P. Ph.D., How We Frame Emotions Through Facial Expressions, article released on Psychology Today website, April 2015 issue https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-the-brain-the-beholder/201504/how-we-frame-emotions-through-facial-expressions
Tomkins, S. S., McCarter, R., What and where are the primary affects? Some evidence for a theory. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1964, Springer Publishing Company, NY, USA, pp.119-158.