Capturing the right emotion

There can be a vast difference between how you think a place should make you feel and how it actually makes you feel. Consider the image below:

For those who are not familiar with this particular scene, you probably see a rather boring picture, shot in harsh day light. Some, however, might recognize it as the entrance to the former concentration camp of Dachau, in Germany. Either way, I bet most of you didn’t get a sense of sadness when looking at this image. Even once you know what you’re looking at, the image might still not ‘do anything’ to you. Today I’ll discuss how you can use photographic creativity to help evoke the emotion that fits the story you want to tell.

About Dachau
A few months ago we went to visit the former concentration camp of Dachau. Created in 1933 and in use by the Nazis until the end of the war, it was the first Nazi concentration camp and it served as a model for many of the more than 300 permanent concentration camps that arose on the continent. From its opening in 1933 until the liberation in 1945, an estimated 200,000 people were sent here, of which about two-thirds were political prisoners from various countries (many of them German) and almost one-third Jews. Over 30,000 people died in the camp, while many more died after being sent to other camps.

Dachau was, after Auschwitz, the second concentration camp to be liberated by the allied forces. As such, it is often used as an example in high school history lessons, documentaries and books. After all, it was the reports and photos from (photo-) journalists at those two camps, that for the first time showed the outside world the true horror of the concentration camps. Slave labour, medical experiments, torture, deportation to extermination camps and executions had made people suffer beyond imagination.

After the rain…
The day before the visit to Dachau, it had been pouring rain, with continuous rain in the forecast for the next day. So the prospect of hiking in the Alps, or most other outdoor activities was somewhat unappealing. Instead we figured the ominous weather would be fitting for a visit to a place with such dark and sad memories.

…came sunshine
Despite all the great technologies available to us, the weather still proves hard to predict. On our way to Dachau the next morning it was clear that it was going to be a warm and sunny day. Some of the images I had in mind were definitely not going to be shot that day. Apart from the fact that some images were simply going to be impossible (e.g. no rain drops dripping down the windows of the barracks), it would just generally be challenging to take photographs that would evoke the emotions that most people associate with this place. Sure, seeing the watch towers, reading the information panels and physically being in the same place where six decades ago prisoners and their tyrants walked, gave a sense of how horrible a place it must have been. But the clear blue skies and several bus loads of somewhat bored looking international students surrounding us didn’t create the oppressive atmosphere we had been expecting. And since anyone looking at my pictures later wouldn’t actually be at the concentration camp or be able to read all the information panels, it was going to be challenging to get my images to tell the story I had in mind.

Creating the right emotion
In such situations a photographer has to make use of his /her creativity to help show others the story they want to tell. By purposefully excluding certain elements that distract, while focussing on others that enforce, we can control the message of our photos. Looking back at the first image, there are at least two elements that are clearly distracting: The people in their summer outfits, which you might even see smiling as you zoom in on the picture, and secondly, the bright blue sky and other vibrant colours.

Distracting subjects
Throughout the day I found myself waiting a lot for people to leave the frame of my prospective shots. My patience was especially tested for shots at the entrance and the prison hallway. Some of you photographers out there might be more bold than I am and simply ask people to please stand aside for a while, but depending on the situation and the number of people, that might not always work. The people that are featured in my photos were either dressed somberly or were back-lit, with a focus on form rather than colour.
Although in this case it was mostly people who were unwanted subjects in my frames, it can be anything, with living things being less predictable than static objects. Static objects are usually easier to exclude, simply by re-framing (e.g. a safety exit sign), but might occasionally be impossible to avoid. In those cases you either don’t use the shot or simply accept the unwanted subject if the rest of the image makes up for it.

Colours and contrast
With regard to colours and contrast, I could adjust both my shooting as well as the post-processing of the images. I looked for dark and high contrast areas, while trying to exclude bright colours from the scene. Deliberately under- or over exposing images further enhanced the effect. Subsequently I resorted mostly to black and white conversion and pushing of contrast during post processing in Lightroom. Even though the post-processing is done after the shoot, it’s important that you learn what kind of shots work best for certain manipulations. For instance, certain colour contrasts that you would never use in a colour photo, might work really well in a black and white photo and vice versa. At first getting a feel for which shots will work in colour or black and white may involve some trial and error, but soon you’ll find that you can pre-visualize a converted image as you are still shooting it.

Shapes, symbols and acts
Finally, one strong element is already present in the first image: the watch tower. It symbolises the relentless, ever-present authority. Focussing on particular shapes and symbols can be very powerful in creating the right atmosphere. Many of my pictures featured the prison bars, barbed wire and watch towers, which, even without additional text, make the viewer aware of the fact that (s)he is looking at a place of confinement. Recognizing typical acts, shapes and symbols of a particular setting and incorporating them in your pictures can help building the story. It’s no coincidence that a wedding photographer will typically take shots of the wedding rings, the bridal bouquet and the kiss; all symbols that immediately cue the viewer in to the fact that the photo story is about a wedding.

Now look at the image below. It features the same main entry to the camp, with the tower, a powerful symbol, prominently featured. As I was waiting for break in the crowds arriving at the entrance, I discovered this water puddle formed in the downpour of the previous day. To me the reflection of the tower in the water gives a sense of a dark and distant, yet vivid memory of what happened here six decades ago. This angle also made it easier to exclude wandering visitors and converting it to black and white gives additional power to this picture.

Improvisation and experience
Since the decision to make this trip was made just the day before and the weather throwing an additional last-minute surprise I wasn’t very prepared. Generally however, I believe preparation is very important for this type and most other types of photography. Reading up on your subject, planning and pre-visualizing will often improve the quality of your images. In this case I had to improvise. Although I didn’t do a horrible job, I did realize after the fact that I could have done better. This is where experience comes in, and I don’t have much of it yet. Shooting a lot and then analyzing your own work and having others criticise it will help develop skills on which you can rely on in unexpected circumstances.

Let me know what else I could have done to capture the right emotion, what you would have done differently and share your past experiences in the comments below.


5 thoughts on “Capturing the right emotion

  1. Very interesting article and experience I have also come across in my travels, but in the face of adversity I always see it a challenge to test and explore known (and unknown perhaps) skills that I may have. I have LIKED the ones that speak and have a sense of place for me. As a photo essay I would not have so many duplicate style shots ie abstract, there seems to be lacking some human personal content, maybe items left behind – were there any? I like to see the consolidated body of work either all mono or all tinted, the mixture of style is fragmented tho’ the colour one I feel has a place – maybe? My thoughts anyway…:)

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Lesley.

      “there seems to be lacking some human personal content, maybe items left behind” – You’re absolutely right, I also feel this is missing. However, there were surprisingly little, in fact hardly any personal items left on display. Other than the grounds and the buildings, there were a few pictures in a little glass display, of which I failed to get a decent picture. For the rest, the visitors get the information solely from information panels. There are many panels, which are very informative and I did take some pictures of those panels, but for obvious reasons I don’t really like reproducing images like that.
      Only on a few occasions I felt there was this personal touch, like for instance the lockers and the striped uniform. Other than that, we all felt that it was very impersonal. I know from other concentration camps that they have more personal items on display, which bring the stories a lot closer to home.

      As for the mix of mono and tinted: I’m not sure yet what I like best myself and I certainly see the problems with it.

      Again, thanks for the comments. It’s always good to get another eye looking critically at your work – this sort of feedback helps improving my skills.

  2. A very thoughtful and well-presented portfolio of a very challenging subject. I found the images of the uniform hanging next to the locked door, the view through the barred window at the distant roof- and treetops, and the second portrait-format one of the window shadows (#14) particularly striking–and the one with the slat table and the cane disturbing in the extreme. I would like to have seen the images of the Brausebad (shower) and the sign for the Krematorium less-tightly cropped to allow more of a sense of its place in the whole. And your image of the woman looking out of one of the two windows is spectacular.

    • I agree that I have few shots that give a sense of the place as a whole. Unfortunately the crowds (it was rather busy) prevented me from getting good overview shots (the ones I have show too many people, taking away from the charge the image should have). I’ve been standing at the entrance of the Brausebad for about 10 minutes to finally get a shot with no people in it – shooting wider would have made it even harder.
      Late afternoon the crowds died down quite a bit, but unfortunately so had my energy, so I couldn’t bring myself to revisit some of the locations to get some of the “missing” shots. You’re getting me convinced that I should return to fill some of the gaps… so many things to shoot, so little time…

      • Too right; I understand completely. A major part of our art is to do the best we can with the resources at hand and within the time that’s ours to dedicate to it. It seems that, all to often, we cannot do all that we’d like to. That makes the few times when we can all the more special. You did just fine!

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