Projecting Our Emotions Onto Photos of Other People

It’s common on social media to see a gorgeous image from the past with people sighing over it saying how much happier life was back then.

A photo like this one, for instance – a lady in a flowering meadow. The photo was taken in the 1950s.

The lady is smiling at the camera. And she’s pretty, and there are flowers all around her. Of course she’s happy, right?

We don’t know.

It’s important to keep two things separate:

1) The feelings a photo evokes.

2) The assumptions made about the world of the photo and the people in it.

A photo may stir up admiration, calmness, joy, nostalgia, an appreciation of beauty, a longing for something that’s missing in your life.

But what can you really say about the person in the photo? Was she happy? Possibly. It may be that she had a pretty good life overall. (No one is happy 100% of the time, but maybe she was generally contented and fulfilled in her life.) It’s also possible that she struggled with a great deal of misery. We really can’t say. The fact that she’s smiling in the meadow doesn’t tell us anything about her life outside the photo shoot.

Commenters responding to these photos often say something like, “Life was simpler back then.” Maybe in some ways. (Decades ago, people didn’t need to deal with a massive information overload from 24/7 media. They couldn’t use their phones to read an assortment of degrading comments from strangers and scroll through TV blooper compilations on YouTube late into the night.) But people in the 1950s still had their share of difficulties to contend with.

In any case, it’s important to keep separating the feelings that the photo evokes from what it actually shows us.

Photos may give us some clues about a person’s life, such as social class. But what the photo can tell us about the quality of that life and its joys and sorrows is much more limited.

A similar principle applies to current photos. Sites like Instagram are awash in photos of people having fun and doing awesome things. While scrolling through these photos, you may feel a mix of emotions, from longing to envy to FOMO (fear of missing out).

Maybe you also make assumptions about the people in the photos. A woman appears in one of these images smiling at a party. She’s holding a drink up, as if she’s toasting the camera. Clearly, she’s happy? Popular? Well-liked?

Maybe yes to all of those things. Or, maybe no. It could be she feels alone while surrounded by people. She may be enduring some private misery. Even people going through a terrible time often smile at a camera, because it’s the expected thing to do. What does a fleeting smile really tell us?

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