Do you pay attention which side is your model facing in photos? And do you think this is important for the message? According to a recent study, it is. Simone Schnall, Director of the Cambridge Embodied Cognition and Emotion Laboratory, says in her report that the subject should be facing right. If we want to portray a person as dynamic, progressive, positive and forward-thinking, we ought to portray them looking right. But why is this so, and how can we apply it?
It appears that the viewers perceive the subject of the photo as dynamic, progressive and generally positive if they are facing forward. This goes for photos, but also for movies and advertisements. This is called spatial agency bias, and there are two factors that could influence it.
First, the fact that 90% of the population is right-handed can contribute to the theory. However, there is an interesting role played by language and culture. As a linguist, I find it particularly interesting. In Western culture, we write from left to right and this pattern seems logical to us. Therefore, we unconsciously perceive left-to-right movement as normal and positive, as moving towards the future and towards the goal. I even remember from photography classes that the tutor told us we should guide the viewer’s eyes from left to right.
But what about the languages that require writing from right to left, such as Arabic and Hebrew? Well, cross-cultural studies suggest that the pattern is actually reverse for them. Spatial Agency Bias works the opposite way, and they seem to perceive right-to-left movement as future-looking, positive and, so to say, normal.
Applications of spatial agency bias
Historical analyses of paintings revealed that spatial agency bias was used to indicate social and gender roles. For example, when there are two people in the painting, the more powerful one would be facing right. Women were often portrayed facing left, to suggest their weak and submissive role in society. Of course, gender roles change, so this is not the case any longer. But, the study still connects spatial agency bias with the display of power.
When a person in the photo looks from left to right, it seems as he or she is looking at the future, and it’s perceived as “natural”. Following this logic, looking right can express regression and looking into the past. The direction of looking can express a strong message.
Then, Schnall’s study suggests that the advertising could also benefit from this theory. For example, showing a car moving from left to right displays it as more powerful than when it moves in the opposite direction. However, I believe it depends on the market. If you, for instance, film a commercial for an Arabic country, you may want to mirror that footage if the theory is correct.
As I mentioned earlier, this theory is also used in movies, with the same purpose. Moving or facing left-to-right is positive, future-looking and natural, and right-to-left is the opposite. Some directors use this to subtly point out to the good guys and the villains.
The report ends with a joke “next time you take that selfie make sure it reflects you from the right perspective!” So, pay attention where you turn your head when you snap a selfie. Joke aside; you can take spatial agency bias into consideration and use it as a tool of conveying a message in your photos and videos. And pay attention when you watch the movies, maybe you’ll reveal something just from the direction in which the actors are facing.