It's in the Eyes

The human eye is incredibly powerful. We all understand the incredible things that our eyes do every day to see the world around us, but that’s not really what I am talking about.

The human eyes have amazing power to communicate, to build intimate connections, tear down barriers and tell entire stories. To look into another person’s eyes can be a pivotal point in personal interactions. It can also influence how we view people portrayed in photos and films. 

As photographers, how we photograph a person, specifically how we show their eyes, wields incredible power over how other people will view that person. We can change the viewer’s perception of a person, based simply on where their eyes are focused when we take the photo. If the subject is  looking away, not making eye contact or  looking up and out of the frame, it can make them seem dishonest or untrustworthy. 

If they are looking down it can portray poverty, shame, lack of confidence, and subservience. 

Certain forms of direct eye contact can feel aggressive even in a photograph. 

The eyes and consequently the facial expression in each of the photos above portray a different mood. In the first photo the boy was living in a children’s home because his home environment was not safe. His expression and the look in his eyes in this portrait reflect the difficulties in his life without portraying him in a way that inspires pity.

The eyes of the second boy are are kind of blank, when combined with the facial expression possibly even a little confused. He looks cute and calm but maybe slightly confused. Depending on the story I was telling, especially if I was telling his personal story I would want to make sure that I had other photos that added more of a positive, happy feeling to the story. As it is, this was just an outtake from the story of the first boy.

The third photo is the most challenging case of the three. His name is Levi and I photographed him at the Bethel China home for visually impaired orphans in China this summer. Because he is blind, his eyes tend to wander all over the place and it can make for very awkward photos. I spent a lot of time and took hundreds of photos trying to get the eyes in the right place to make the best impression.

With all photography of people it is important to be conscious of how we present people. However this is especially true in humanitarian photography where the people being photographed are often misrepresented and marginalized. Their eyes can easily give away the difficult life they have lead and these expressions of their history can lead the viewer to pity the subject of the photograph. 

Inspiring pity should never be our goal as humanitarian photographers. We should always strive to lift people up, to portray them in a way that shows their value and encourages the viewers to respect and admire the subject. 

This summer I photographed and worked with visually impaired children. I immediately realized that the eyes were going to be a big deal for this project, because for the most part the children’s eyes rarely focused on the camera or the person they were talking to. Since they are not taking in information they often roam about, making for seemingly weird expressions with lots of white eyeball and no iris.

This makes the children look much less intelligent and needy than they really are. I soon realized that I needed use a high frame rate so I could pick the best frame out of dozens or more shots to get their eyes in the best possible place.

The old expression “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” can be true, but in a photographical sense that view through the window can be misleading. A fleeting glance up and to the right, a quick squint in reaction to a flare of sunlight can change the viewers perception of the subject in ways we never intended.

While we don’t always have control over how much time we have to get the photo we need, in the end we do have control over what images we choose to represent that person to the world.