One of Buzzfeed’s regular collections of photos that people are sharing around the Internet is titled 40 Of The Most Powerful Photographs Ever Taken.

“A moving collection of iconic photographs from the last 100 years that demonstrate the heartbreak of loss, the tremendous power of loyalty, and the triumph of the human spirit. Warning: Some of these will make you weep.”

It’s a nice collection, by no means decisive but then these things never are, and it got me thinking about what pushes a photograph from a mere record of an event to an emotionally charged representation.

The answer is it’s desperately complicated and multi-layered. Many of the photos in the Buzzfeed collection require knowledge of the event in question to really drive home their importance, and cultural signifiers abound. A photo of a crying soldier holding a baby in a war zone is going to pack some weight no matter how it’s taken.

So the first thing you need for an emotional photograph is an emotional subject. This stuff can’t easily be faked. But once you’ve got that, how can you really amp up the emotion?

Composition.

I’ve taken six of the forty photos and taken a look at how they’re composed. As I said, this isn’t the sole reason why they work, but it makes a difference, and understanding why will help you make photos that people can’t help responding to.

Images are linked to their original on Buzzfeed for context, credit, etc.

Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is something of a cliche because it’s so incredibly simple and powerful. By dividing the image into three sections, horizontally and vertically, we introduce demarcations and tensions between the subjects.

In the above the fence is demonstrably dividing Himmler and his cronies from the POWs but by positioning it at a third its power is magnified.

Below we see another phenomena of the Rule of Thirds. The four points at which the lines cross are points of tension. Thirds are in play but by having the eyes and knees of the old lady at those points we are drawn to her and her strength of spirit. Similarly the child’s face is not in a third but crossing them. The rest of the subjects, while neatly composed, have nothing interesting on these points of power.

Fibonacci Spiral

The Fibonacci Spiral is a close relative of the Thirds and often an image will incorporate both. Where Thirds mark the relationship between objects, the Spiral directs us through the image.

The soldiers embracing above are composed with thirds but we’re immediately drawn to the faces. Partly this is because, as humans, we’re always drawn to faces, but look where the eye goes after that. Face, face, hat, dress uniform, then the kick of the missing hand, past the combat uniform and finishing on the flag. If the photo has a thousand words the spiral turns them into a narrative.

Below the soldier is obviously looking at the baby, and we could simply follow his line of sight. But look at the swoop of the image. It’s not just about him and the child. It’s about where the child came from and how it was rescued. Soldier > baby > other soldiers > mud and wreckage. We start with intimacy and end with enormity.

Narrative Depth

Related to the Fibonacci Spiral is the notion of leading the viewer through the image in three dimensions.

Above we see Jewish refugees running from a train to their saviours. The three elements – foreground, middleground and background – inform each other and add volumes through their juxtaposition.

Below, we start with the boy and the soldier reaching for each other (intimacy, joy), then we notice the mother failing to hold him back (caution, fear) and finally the regimented mass of soldiers moving through a civilian setting (awe).

There are as many ways to compose a photo as there are photos and, like all rules, you should always be prepared to break them. But if you want to do an emotional scene justice with your photography thinking about some or all of these can help push your photo from a record that needs context to something that stands alone.


If you’d like to study these techniques further they turn up regularly in our Photographing the City course.