An ex-FBI agent on deception, espionage, interrogation, and reading people.

Analyzing Photos - 10 Important Things To Think About

Why it's so difficult to determine true sentiments or intentions from photos.

            I am asked far too often by folks on social media to look at a photograph for my analysis. Usually no context is given and sometimes the request is quite demanding. “Does she like me?” “Do they look like they are breaking up?” “Did he do it? “Are they more than friends?” And my favorite, “Is he lying?” My answer is usually the same:  “I don’t know, I can’t tell.” I can say that with ease because most of the time little or no context is given. Plus, deception is hard enough to detect face-to-face (we succeed maybe 50% of the time – a coin toss); it is even more difficult if not impossible from just a photograph.

            Perhaps television has done this to us as profilers, depicted in TV dramas, seem to be able to do this so easily. In any case, the photographs just keep coming. Now, I will admit that there are times when a single non staged photograph speaks volumes about what is going on, how people feel about each other, or the photo reveals that there are some issues – but that is the exception and not the rule. Photographs are notoriously stingy as to what people are thinking, feeling, desiring, or intending, especially if they are staged, so we must be cautious. And the reason is simple: we don’t often know the precise context nor what significant events have taken place before or at the time the photograph was taken.

            So here are some things for those who are interested in nonverbal communications to think about when analyzing a photograph:

1. Context is important: When was the picture taken, where was it taken, why was it taken, who took the photograph, what was going on at that moment and that day?

2. Was this a public or a private event and how many people, including the photographer, were present? Keep in mind that with politicians and often with actors, photo opportunities or presentations are very well staged.

3. Was the photograph taken with their knowledge or was it taken surreptitiously? This can make a big difference as “nanny cam” photographs can attest.

4. What events took place prior to the photograph? In other words are we seeing in the photo a reflection (legacy behaviors) of behaviors from 5, 10, or 20 minutes earlier? Humans aren’t spigots and we tend to carry with us negative emotions for hours and these eventually leak out nonverbally. So when we see a particular behavior on camera we have to ask: Did something cause emotional distress or its opposite, euphoria, before the photo was taken?

5. Is the subject of the photograph shy and introverted and did they resist or object to being photographed? I know some folks who smile all the time but put them in front of a camera and they look absolutely constipated – they just don’t like their photo taken.

6. Does this person like to be photographed or are they accustomed to being photographed? This is significant because some people, politicians in particular, will put on a great mask that may hide what they are thinking.

7. If we are seeing displays of psychological discomfort or distancing we must wonder why. Is it because of the picture taking process itself, those that are present in the photograph or perhaps even because of the photographer or someone behind the camera? (This was how the mystery of the missing girl in the book series by Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” was solved). In real life, some family photographers can be very annoying with their constant herding of people together for yet another photo and that accounts for some of the faces we sometimes see.

8. Beyond the everyday behaviors of interest and extreme comfort (smile, hand holding, head tilt, etc.), look for: hip-to-hip standing (things are good); palmer touching with the full hand versus finger tips or a fist (these show distancing and reserve); crossing of the legs while standing (if they were to fall they would fall towards a specific person – this is a high comfort display and also a show of preference), or any other number of displays that say: I like this person or I am uncomfortable at the moment.

9. As in physics, intrusive observations affect what we are observing, so don’t be surprised when people are caught by the paparazzi and they are upset (showing cues of psychological discomfort). Like Sean Penn, I would not want photographers lurking outside my house everyday with cameras.

10. When it comes to “selfies,” perhaps these are the most unreliable photos to analyze because of: poor quality, low resolution, fuzzy image, the necessity to clump together two or more faces to the exclusion of the rest of the body. Keep in mind there are other parts of the body that are more reliable than the face when it comes to true feelings (What Every Body is Saying,).

Conclusion: Remember, when we see a photograph we are witnessing a moment in time that may or may not reflect the reality of the moment. We may be seeing reactions by individuals to their environment, what has transpired in the recent past, what may await them when the picture taking is over, or who is present in the room, as well as how they feel emotionally at the moment – but even then it is difficult to discern the true cause. So, we have to be careful with any analysis of a mere photograph to not go beyond what we can logically say and we must always be mindful to keep these ten things in mind next time someone asks you, “Do you think he is lying?”

                                                              * * *      * * *      * * *

Joe Navarro, M.A. is 25 year veteran of the FBI and is the author of What Every Body is Saying, as well as Louder Than Words. For additional information and a free bibliography please contact him through Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/spycatcher or at www.jnforensics.com – Joe can be found on twitter: @navarrotells or on Facebook. His latest book Dangerous Personalities (Rodale) is available on Amazon.  Copyright © 2014 Joe Navarro

Joe Navarro is a former FBI Counterintelligence Agent and is the author of What Every Body is Saying. He is an expert on nonverbal communications and body language.


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