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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Sustainable Prospects – Facial Expressions

It is a long-held belief amongst psychologists that there are six basic facial expressions: happy, angry, sad, surprised, fearful and disgusted. The roots of this trace back as far as the great thinkers including Aristotle and Darwin. They promoted the notion that people can only express a handful of emotions.

A cognitive scientist in the USA, Aleix Martinez, challenged this and, along with colleagues, he conducted a study into the emotions and compound emotions that 230 volunteers were able to produce based on scenarios given to them. The study defines compound emotions as “an important type of emotion categories . . . which are formed by combining two or more basic emotion categories, e.g., happily surprised, sadly fearful, and angrily disgusted.” (Du, Tao and Martinez, 2014: 7)

Using a computer program to analyse and break down the expressions by which facial muscles the participants used, he was able to identify 21 emotional states that we can express and read. Some of the newly defined emotions include those that seem contradictory in their descriptions – “happily disgusted” and “sadly angry” for example.

The computer software has 22 sample pictures that are used in the analysis. These are neutral and each of the six basic emotions and 15 compound emotions. See figure 1.


Figure 1: (Du, Tao and Martinez, 2014:2)

As a species, we generally form an opinion of people when we see them. This is true whether we view them in person or in a photograph. In a photograph, the viewer only has the visual clues to go on, no verbal clues are present. However, this may only be true of some cultures. The perception of emotion is specific to each culture and this will affect the viewer’s interpretation of displayed emotions in photographs. Because of this, it is imperative that the emotions and intention are expressed clearly in each photograph I create.

For example, in Japan “saving face” is a value that is inherent in the culture. As a rule, Japanese do not show emotion in the same way as we do in the UK. From a young age, children are taught not to show their emotions in their faces. They experience the same emotions as we do, but just do not show them.

So how do the Japanese express their emotions? The key elements are tone of voice and often subtle body language. They may also use particular words that may subtly reveal their emotion. Consequently, as a rule, this mean that the Japanese pay less attention to how emotions are portrayed in the face. Ultimately, this could impact how a Japanese viewer may interpret my images and I will consider this further in an additional post.

The significance of Martinez’s research for me is that when I plan a photoshoot where the model is portraying an emotion, it needs to be able to be read easily by the viewer. Knowing how the facial muscles move to produce each emotion helps me to direct the model to produce particular emotions.

In the UK, we are able to quickly interpret the emotions of other people. The study showed, with 230 volunteers, that not only are we able to make compound expressions consistently, but we are also able to read these emotions as well. The consistency enables the emotions in photographs to be interpreted in the same way by different viewers from the same culture.

It is almost impossible to create a portrait that has no emotion. Expressions and emotions add depth to photographs and should not be overlooked in the planning and execution stages.


Du, S., Tao, Y. and Martinez, A. (2014). Compound facial expressions of emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(15), pp.E1454-E1462.


Figure 1: Du, S., Tao, Y. and Martinez, A. (2014). Compound facial expressions of emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(15), pp.E1454-E1462.

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