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The power of photographs

In a digital world, printed photographs still have the power to provoke strong emotions and boost our mood

by Psychologies

Yesterday The Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries reflected on the emotions provoked by photographs taken on family holidays. Of a photo taken of his late father Jeffries wrote, ‘Dad is forever framed in mid-action... those days are gone for ever and eternally present. The colours fade, but not enough to stop the photograph breaking my heart.’

It seems, when looking back, there is always mourning, for a person or simply time having passed. At a time when technology’s presence is increasing, I wonder what it is about a printed photograph that makes it so special. Peter Naish, senior lecturer in psychology at The Open University, carried out a study for Orange on the effects of photography on happiness. He found that while activities such as eating and drinking increased mood by 1 per cent, looking at photographs increased mood by 11 per cent. So, reminding ourselves of positive times can improve how we now feel.

I love photographs. When I recently began decorating, it took an afternoon just to remove blobs of Blu Tack from walls that were once adorned with printed memories. I often hold up photos to my autistic younger brother and excitedly exclaim, ‘Look, it’s you!’, willing him to take some delight in seeing himself. For him, photographs don't arouse the same sentimentality they do in me; they are mere objects from which he withholds emotional attachment. Indeed, a photograph is immediately devalued without its viewer projecting sentiment on to it.

I often take photos of my brother. I treasure a set of three photographs I took of him, aged three, lying on the floor laughing. I would have been 10 at the time, and given that these images remained stuffed in a Hello Kitty album for years, I don’t think I appreciated them as I do now. Those images remind me of his innocence, his vulnerability, his beauty and his place in my life.

They also remind me that, just as that photo has frozen his childhood, he is much like a child still. What I love about each photo of him is that it is a photo of him; I am simply reminded of our relationship. It is as if having something we can hold and stare at begins to articulate the overwhelming love we have for a person.