A picture may be worth a thousand words

Blog Arik Cheshin

Here I am, looking at the building. I go in and feel the history that happened among these white walls, these stairs, the pillars, coming near. I am standing in the same physical place where horrible events happened. Only a few decades ago, practically yesterday when seen in perspective of the long history of this city. Then it strikes me. Everything looks so real and concrete, but the photos… the photos on a display are black & white. It feels abstract and far away in contrast to the physical surroundings that are so tangible.

This personal experience of my first visit to the Hollandsche Schouwburg has taken me on a journey into the investigation of psychological distance via photos. The Hollandsche Schouwburg in Amsterdam was transformed during World War II to a prison and deportation center from which Jews were deported to extermination camps. It is now a place where people come to commemorate. Also school classes come to learn about this recent past of Dutch History. From here I started the query on how the past can be brought closer, or pushed further away via actual photos.

How vivid or obscure can an event depicted in a photo become? How might manipulations of a photo affect the degree of its emotional impact on the viewer? Does color influence the degree to which a photo is later remembered? And ultimately: how might differences in the presentation of photos influence one’s actions?

Can photos of the past be used as a trigger that can change one’s whole perception of events that occurred in the past?

As a social scientist I decided to test and explore these concepts. Starting with lab experiments, my colleagues and I found that when people view photos in black & white as opposed to color, they deem the event in the photo to have happened in a more distant past. This finding, a mental scheme of black & white = old, is not at all surprising, but we found fascinating effects on social distance and closeness to the people shown in the photos. Viewers seemed to relate more to the people depicted when they saw their photos in color as opposed to black & white.

This also influences the feelings viewers had toward the people depicted. In the lab experiments it became clear it influences caring about people; participants who viewed color photos of orphans as opposed to black & white photos, chose to donate more generous sums of money to charities for orphaned children.

Recently we finished collecting data at the Hollandse Schouwburg. We asked visitors to rate World War II photos of the exhibition, both the black & white photos and the colorized versions we made of them. The older generation, which has had more exposure to photos in black & white, reacted negatively to the colorization of such photos. The younger generation much appreciated the colorization.

One could conclude that for the younger generation this colorizing of photos is a good way of bringing important events of the past closer. Teachers who teach about historical periods often wonder how to make students feel closer to historical events, making them more relevant, moving and memorable.

There could however also be a negative side to brining the past closer. It might be harder for groups to reconciliate when they cannot push the past away in terms of psychological distance. Identification with one party may go at the expense of seeing the other party as more as The Other (D’ANDER). When the past is too vivid, people in the present might not be willing to forgive and move on. We are currently conducting a research project that will hopefully answer this question.

Arik Cheshin is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Amsterdam. Previously he worked at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan. Arik’s main research interests is on the social influence of emotion.