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Is it a trick?

The secrets photos keep - Find the hidden clues in your family snapshots - Donna Jackson -
My Generation, March April 2002, p. 16

That shoebox of family photos in your closet may reveal more than your legendary fashion sense. "Photos can be a powerful tool in helping us dig back into our history an unearth critical truths we never realized before," says Robert Akeret, a psychoanalyst and author of Photolanguage: How Photos Reveal the Fascinating Stories of Our Lives and Relationships. "When people look at photos in depth, intense memories often start spilling out," he continues. "Sometimes the memories are overwhelming and change the way we see the past." Follow Akeret's steps to mine your photos for new clues.


  1. Select 10 old photos that appeal to you, the ones you always tend to look at. Spontaneous shots yield richer material than posed photos.
  2. Choose one. What do you feel when you look at the photo? Curiosity? Joy? Sad because someone in the picture is no longer alive? Note the feelings that arise.
  3. Consider who's taking the picture. What is the interaction between this person and the subjects? Who is making eye contact with the camera-clicker? Is the photographer trying to structure what's going on? "You can't structure intimacy," says Akeret. "The photographer can't make you look comfortable being together if you feel awkward."
  4. Search for nonverbal cues: Who is touching whom, and how? Is someone uncomfortably reciprocating a hug? Who is gazing at whom and what do you imagine their eyes are saying?
  5. Pay special attention to the space between certain people. Do they look comfortable being close? If they could shift, where would they go?
  6. Who is positioned in the center--the place of honor?
  7. Imagine what the people in the photo might say to each other. What would you ask a person who has since died? Having a photo to stimulate your imagination will help you formulate your most important questions.
  8. Ask people in the picture what they remember about the day. "You'll be less likely to project things into the photo that may not be there," says Akeret.


Is it a trick?

This 1952 photo of vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon was taken after his famous "Checkers" speech in which he denied accepting any private gifts except one sad-eyed dog. "It's a staged event meant to show a typical American family at its best," says psychoanalyst Robert Akeret. Tricia (age 6, left) seems uncomforatble--why? Finally, look at the condition of Nixon's shoes. "It says, 'Here's a poor American guy and people think he's stealing money,'" says Akeret. "Was that intentional?"

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