Contrasting emotions

On the previous page, we looked at how images might represent the emotion of the subject and to evoke an empathetic version of the same emotion in the viewer.

But some images and scenes try to evoke an emotion beyond what the subject is feeling.

Let's look at some examples.

Below are a series of images. For each one, jot down how the characters in the image feel and how you feel looking at the image.

How do the subjects feel? How do you feel?
Henri Cartier Bresson Barrio Chino
How does the subject feel? How do you feel?

Do you notice how with these first two images you feel something different to what the subject feels?

  • In the photo of the strongman lifting his son up to feed the giraffe, the subjects are happy, excited, fascinated and focused on the giraffe—but we are impressed, surprised, fascinated because we are focused on the man.
  • In the photo of the fruit seller, he is tired from his day's work—but we are amused because he parallels the graffiti on the wall behind him.

This is an important idea: that the viewer or reader can feel something different to the subject or character in the art.

John Kenn Mortensen kid on rocking horse
How does the subject feel? How do you feel?

This is another example of feeling something different to the subject.

  • The child in the image is happy, calm, relaxed, focused on the rocking horse.
  • But we see the monster behind the child, and we feel anxious, afraid, concerned, creeped out.
How do the subjects feel? How do you feel?

We've already seen how we can feel empathy for a different species. 

This image works because we first empathise with the chicken—it's hot, it wants to cool off—and then on top of that we find it funny because the chicken, in cooling off, adopts a human pose, and not just any pose but a pose of complete self-confidence and relaxation.

So we can feel what it's like to be that chicken in a bucket, as well as look at it from a distance and think, "This chicken is ridiculous!"

A Comforting Arm David Peat 1968
How does the subject feel? How do you feel?

We read this as kids comforting each other, but we as viewers feel something beyond that as well: sadness, melancholy.

The melancholy comes not from the kids but their surroundings: the empty building, the broken street, the grey light.

The contrast between the vulnerability of the children and the desolation around them makes us ache.

What have we learned on this page?

Some art deliberately sets us up to feel something beyond what the subject feels.

For instance a subject can be:

  • happy while we are afraid
  • relaxed while we are amused
  • comforted while we are sad
  • proud while we are humbled.

These are all examples of contrast—this time between what a character feels and what we feel.

This contrast is reinforced by context—it's like we have one emotional response to the character and then a different emotional response to their situation or surroundings.

The combination creates a heightened mix of emotion for the audience that feels like 'our' emotion instead of just the character's emotion.