Perceiving the photograph: the meaning-attribution process
Can the affective response influence our interpretation process, or even our perception of an high impact visual stimulus ?
Muller (2011) formalized an exhaustive theory-based model, the Visual Communication Process Model (VCPM), that shows the entire process of visual perception. According to that model, the perception is substantially influenced by two interconnected variables: the aroused emotion and the background knowledge.
Broadly speaking, two are the competitive theories for understand and organize the emotion. One of them is the dimensional approach. It is based on the appraisal of an event that arouse the emotion inside the person. The appraisal is a dynamic process that continue till the end of the external/internal stimulus. The latter theory instead, circumscribes all the affective states inside basic and discrete emotions: they are fear, anger, happiness, disgust, sadness, surprise. An approach widely used by Paul Ekman for his FACS system in order to recognize human emotions by the movement of the face (Ekman et al. 2005). Furthermore, this latter approach is being used by the affective computing researchers in order to apply inside the machines’ software the ability to understand and simulate the human emotions (Nissan & Ephraim 1999)
Even though the categorical approach is so widely used, the appraisal theory model fits better the study of the visual press stimuli. In fact, the role of emotion regarding the study of photojournalism is circumscribed to a bidimensional area, arousing and valence. Muller (2012) claims: ‘The advantage of the appraisal approach is that it gives an understanding of what it is in an image that ‘works’ for an individual or a group of individuals with certain shared properties or values ((e.g. supporters of a particular politician or idea)’.
Before to proceed to show some relevant methods of research, It is important to emphasize the “why” we should measure the emotion and the “how” it can contribute for a deep understanding of a photograph.
Starting with the why, Muller (2012) claims that it is necessary for understand what works and does not work as visual stimuli. Moreover, it is relevant understand the valence and arousal of an image that could influence the production or distribution ( e.g. press agencies or photo editors) of the photographs.
The “how”, instead, is strictly connected to the physiology changes of our body during the visual stimulus exposure. Speaking through a methodological example, after knew the baseline of our subject, if his skin conductance raise during the stimulus (e.g an high-impact photograph), it means that the Sympathetic Nervous System has been activated (SNS), and the arousal has been elicited. Furthermore, the corrugator supercilii contraction or relaxation detected by a non-intrusive electromyography (EMG) could suggest the valence of the emotion aroused (e.g. appreciation or repulsion) (Dimberg 1989).
It is important to emphasize the definition of ‘emotion’ in our contest. Generally, it is considered as a status such as fear, happiness or sadness. Nevertheless, here, ‘emotion’ has to be considered as an multimodal response to events that are appraised in a particular way (Muller et al. 2012). According to scientific literature, discovering and analyzing data from this ‘response’ seems be possible only through scientific tools and biosignals such as Eye-Tracking, HR, EMG, EEG, GSR.
We have seen, on the whole, how is possible reveal an affective status through biosignals and eyetracking. This approach, assisted by an iconological analysis, can return detailed, articulated and, above all, empirical data about the entire process of perception, selection and meaning-attribution of an high-impact press photograph.