What Secrets Can We Learn from Looking at our Photographs? The Photograph as a Way of Thinking. (Part 1) Written by Dr Linda Berman.

‘Seeing is for me a way of knowing, photography a way of thinking.’
Anne Whiston Spirn



(This post departs temporarily from the usual themes; however, photographs are often used in psychotherapy. They certainly make us think. Understanding how to look at a photograph can be highly relevant to an increased understanding of the self.)

How can photographs help us think? In this digitally-driven, quick-fire, fast-thinking world, staring at a photograph may become a rare experience. Yet doing so can slow down our thinking and encourage us to use our powers of perception more deeply.

Most images are given a cursory glance as they flash up on our screens and some of us have learnt only to skim the surface, unaware of the richness that lies beneath.

Anne Spirn uses the term ‘visual illiteracy, the inability to recognise and interpret visible signs and phenomena’ and she regards it as having potentially serious consequences, ‘impoverishing the spirit.’


Using the power of visual thinking, we can learn to think ourselves into the photograph, to explore more deeply beneath the immediate image.

In my book Beyond the Smile: The Therapeutic Use of the Photograph, I commented on a photograph taken in the Warsaw Ghetto by Roman Vishniac.

‘Try to look at this picture in a new way, examining every part, perceiving the smallest nuances and expressions. In this way, it may actually be possible to perceive more than the actual photographer himself saw at the moment of taking the picture. We can view the moment at our leisure, as the photographer could not do, although paradoxically, we are seeing less than he of that real moment in time.’


Without any other information, let us now discover what can we see and know about the photograph of two women above. If we look, really look, there are aspects that we can perceive and think about that might surprise us.

‘Separating photographs and text frees the reader to view the images unencumbered, to discover, to bring into play his or her own memories and associations..’ (Spirns)

Let us begin with some questions.

What might be happening in this photograph?
What time of day is it?
What time of year?
Where are they?
What might their body-language reveal to us?

There will be some aspects within this photograph that are fairly clear and obvious. Some questions will be left unanswered, some left to our imagination. Each person looking at this photograph will have a different understanding, a different imagination. There is mystery; the photograph has its secrets.

‘That, it seems to me, is precisely what photography is: a meeting of the actual and the imaginary, where each adds to, rather than detracts from, the power of the other..’ (Richard Howells.)

What can we be fairly certain about? Here are two women, sitting on the grass on deckchairs. Their shadows are short, indicating it might be around midday. Perhaps it is lunchtime and they are having a break from their work?

Do their clothes give us any clues? The woman on the left looks as though she has been working in a domestic setting, wearing an apron. It seems she has worked hard; her hair is a little unkempt and her apron possibly well-worn. Their dresses look simple; patterned, thin cotton, long-sleeved, with no jewellery, although they may wear wedding rings.

Why is one woman wearing a Russian hat? Is she from abroad? The photograph looks old and is black and white. It is hard to judge how old it is. Women’s dresses in Britain began to have shorter hemlines in about 1910, so it could be any time from then onwards. However, we cannot be certain that this photograph was taken in the UK.

The trees behind are in full leaf and the rough grass looks abundant. Perhaps we can say it is summer. The deckchairs are out.

There is barbed wire on top of the fence and there is possibly a washing line. Beyond is the end of a barn. Are they beside a road or in a garden? Is that a book on the grass?

There is a strong sense of immediacy in this image; gesture and body language create an intriguing scenario that ‘speaks’ to us. This is a ‘noisy’ photograph. Listen. Can you hear what the gesticulating woman is saying? The other figure is definitely silent. Her posture indicates that.

There is movement,  even though this is a still shot. The woman on the left is moving her lips and her hand. In a sitting position, legs apart, she does look quite a strong figure, perhaps someone tending to be ‘in charge.’

What might she be saying? Her facial expression and gesture might lead us to believe that she is animatedly talking about someone else and perhaps not in an altogether complimentary way. There is some supposition here, but our general experience of people’s expressions would indicate that this might be the case.

Her pointing thumb-gesture is often used when gossiping, as in this painting by Norman Rockwell,  although this woman is not gesturing behind, but to the side.


‘The Gossips.’

Desmond Morris’s book Peoplewatching explores such gestures in some detail:

‘…there is also a more general, directional thumb-point. It has the flavour of a rather surly action- a grumpy or irritated gesture.’
Desmond Morris

Morris describes how the thumb point, up or down, has traditionally been used as a gesture of power. He sees the ‘thumb-jerk’ as

‘ a gesture that hints at hidden power; it is definitely not for use by subordinates towards their superiors.’

It has also been said that

‘The Thumb Thrust gesture is not common among women, although they sometimes use the gesture to point at people they don’t like.’ (westsidetoastmasters.com)

In fact the woman in the photograph is pointing four fingers at herself. Interestingly, in Navajo culture, any kind of pointing is seen as very bad form:

‘When you point a finger there are three fingers pointing back at you.’

She could be referring to ‘’er next door.’ Or perhaps not. That is my imagination. What words can you put into her mouth? What can you read into her gesture?

In next week’s post, this exploration of this photograph will be continued and the known facts about it will be provided.

(Please scroll down if you wish to leave a comment on this post. Thanks.)




  1. This photograph is of my late grandmother (left) and late great-grandmother (right) taken in the early 1900’s. I found it after my dear mum passed away and, as my dear friend Linda Berman says, it speaks volumes.


  2. I enjoyed reading this, especially because I do love to look at historical photos. Sometimes, I’ll load them up in a photo editor and blow them up, and just look for missed details.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Elisabetta! I’ve written a book on this subject, if you’re interested: ‘Beyond The Smile:The Therapeutic Use Of The Photograph.’ Published by Routledge.
      Glad you liked my post. 🤗💝Linda.


      • Thank you for your reply! I know your beautiful book and I was searching the internet to read more from you on the topic. I then stumbled onto this blog and I am enjoying reading your posts, and not only those on photographs. I am currently writing my doctoral thesis on the therapeutic use of photograph and of course your book is amongst my references.

        Liked by 1 person

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