Image credit: Sroyon Mukherjee

An Experiment in How we Interpret Unknown Images – a Group Project

This is the 3rd group project from the Photography Books and Theory Facebook group and, if I do say so myself, another thoroughly interesting one!

This particular experiment was inspired by the book “Another Way of Telling” by John Berger and Jean Mohr. Inside they describe showing 9 individuals, 5 unrelated images that they had never seen before, and asked each one to describe what they saw and what they thought was going on. The results were pretty fascinating, as the reader after seeing the guesses we could read the real story and this is something I have tried to replicate here.

We live in an age where we have an awful lot more access to images than before and so I made sure to choose individuals that are less well known and asked them to provide me with images that hadn’t been made public before. This was to try and limit the possibility of anyone having seen them.

I would like to preface this by saying that the final 2 images are of the same person which is something that I hadn’t expected to be quite such a key feature in people’s responses as it was. It is however interesting to see how that point was interpreted.

Each image will be followed by the comments from our volunteers, for ease I have used their initials but I would like to thank our volunteers: David Hume, Ruediger Hartung, Bill Brooks, Andreea-Cristina Rau-Neacsu and Brenda David.

Image 1 –  By Joris Koolen: @jorri_photo

Image credit: Joris Koolen
Image credit: Joris Koolen

DH: What I see – A man is with a heavily laden delivery bicycle. He’s in an urban environment; perhaps European. The bike is leaning against a wall as the man looks out over a wall. I think it’s probably a building courtyard and the view is over a low area. He is in a heavy coat indicating cold weather, but it is fine.

What I think is happening – I think this guy is a Postie in a European country. Everything is official: the orange panniers are heavy duty govt. issue. He’s wearing a jacket with a badge, but not safety gear so it’s not the UK. It looks like he’s delivering packages but it’s not like he’s a bike messenger. He’s got a big load and scheduled deliveries. What’s happening? Not much. The guy is aware he’s being photographed but there is no obvious reason. I don’t think it’s a pivotal moment. I think he’s just sopped and having a rest. He’ll be on his way soon.

RH: A man between skyscrapers – probably on a vantage point. He has at least one photo bag with him and looks at the view outside of the image.

BB: This first photograph shows a man leaning against a heavily laden bicycle. He has a grey goatee beard and seems to be middle-aged. His right hand is holding the saddle, his left forearm is leaning on some bags which are visible above the bike’s handlebars. He is wearing an outdoor coat and a black baseball cap. The cap has the word Lotto on the right-hand side and a word cryptically beginning with brand above the peak. Behind him are some multi-storey buildings. There are no balconies on the buildings, they look more like offices than homes. In front of him is a white structure of uneven height, against which his bicycle appears to be leaning. The man is gazing at something – or someone – beyond the right-hand frame of the photograph. His eyes are partially closed, his mouth slightly open. He might be smiling – or perhaps simply squinting at something in the distance.
Bob’s Story

Three years have passed since Bob lost his supervisor’s job at the department store. Like many large retailers, his former employer had failed to anticipate the rise of the online giants and was now, slowly, dying the death of a thousand cuts. Bob’s severance package had been quite generous, but not so generous that he could simply retire. His lifelong passion for cycling had inspired him to work as a courier, cycling round the city, delivering urgent documents to clients. In this picture, Bob stops to catch his breath. He watches two young children, playing. On Saturday he’ll see his own grandchildren, something that he often thinks of as he cycles through Toronto’s busy streets.

A-CR-N: What can I see here is a man on top of a building, probably a very tall building, as the other buildings in the surroundings seem sky-scraper tall. The man seems amused by something, maybe a joke that the one taking the photography has made, or maybe something that he sees, that is in his eye-sight as from the position of the head he seems to look straight in front of him. He is probably a photographer (the handbags) or a photographer’s assistant or a camera crew. The bags near his right hand are a bit special. They seem full of envelopes and materials. The colors in the photo match, from his coat and bags to the building behind him and the sky. Brown, blue, blue grey and ochre. The white part is confusing me, I cannot make sense out of it. It may be the edge of the building. He seems to have finished something and waiting for the other to go.

BD: At first glance my eyes searched this image for a subject, bouncing between the block of open sky, the tall buildings, and the man and his right hand. It was only then that I saw his bags, recognizing two as camera bags, stacked in a cart or trolley. The two bags in the foreground appear to be kevlar-type weather proof bags indicating a prepared and experienced traveller. These bags are opened toward the camera and might belong to the person making the photograph, likely a companion. A narrative quickly develops of the man as a photographer either arriving or departing from an assignment or other professional event.

The actual story: This is Theo, who I know well. He delivers the mail in the neighbourhood where this photo was taken. As I ran into him on this bridge, I asked him if I could take his picture. As I was doing this, he got into a conversation with some other friends who were passing by.

The (emotional) context: In this neighbourhood, everyone knows Theo and Theo knows everyone. Since he’s often out delivering mail, there’s always a fair chance to run into him. And when you do, you will always run into a few other people who know him.

Next to his daytime job as a mailman, Theo is a photographer, an artist and a poet. He helps to organise events, like open mic sessions, where people can share their creative work. Even on the street, he’s always trying to introduce people to each other who he thinks could benefit creatively from it. The same goes for his photography: his goal is to put other people in the spotlight, to help them blossom. In this way, he has meant a lot for me, too.

That’s why it was nice to take a picture of him, and to put him in the spotlight for a change.

Image 2 – by Sroyon Mukherjee: @midtonegrey

Image credit: Sroyon Mukherjee
Image credit: Sroyon Mukherjee

DH: What I see – A person is in national or religious costume, dressed up for a festival of some kind. They are sitting on the ground next to two children; sisters who are looking at something out of frame.

What I think is happening – This is a festival day of a culture not of the country in which the photo was taken. Indian? Does the caste mark on the elder girls head tell us? But wrought iron lamp posts, gravel, grass and walkways with a white stone building in the background. We’re in the UK I think and the girls are in western dress. Their proximity to the figure makes me think he’s their dad and the photo is taken by their mum. She has been supervising up to the point of the photo and while the dad was in the parade. The festival is taking place nearby and that’s what the girls are looking at. Either that or it’s all over and this is a last shot of the girls and dad before going home. There are no other people nearby, so they are a smallish group who are celebrating their culture nearby. It is not a protest meeting. They are happy and safe; there is no danger.

RH: Two children (probably Indians) and a man in a costume of the elephant god Ganesha (Hinduism). But the children seem to be interested in something else outside the frame.

BB: The second photograph shows three figures, sitting on a lawn. The person on the left is sitting cross-legged. He (or she, we can’t see their face) is wearing an elaborate costume with an elephant’s head mask and a very ornate semi-circular headdress. Around his/her shoulders is what appears to be a wooden yoke. In front of this, around the neck, is a large collar, similar in appearance to the headdress. The remainder of the costume is lilac in colour and decorated with embroidery and beads. The wearer of the costume has no shoes. He/she has turquoise rings on the middle fingers of each hand.

To the right of this individual we see a young girl holding an even younger child. The girl is dressed in white trousers and a sleeveless white blouse, the young child has multicoloured clothing. Although seated next to the person in ceremonial costume, both the young girl and the child are looking to our right, towards someone else, situated outside the photograph. Both are smiling. The girl has a red bindi mark on her forehead, perhaps suggesting that she is from a Hindu family. Behind the grass upon which the group is seated we see a large stone building, perhaps colonial in style, and to the right of that, a green lamp post.
Sunetra’s Story

This was one of the last days that I remember in India. Shortly afterwards, my family moved from Kolkata to San Francisco, where I have lived ever since. Ten years on, I am now close to completing my master’s degree at UC Berkeley, a life that I never imagined as a young girl.
On that day in Kolkata, my Uncle Govinder was taking part in a festival; he had spent the whole morning dressing up as the god Ganesh. My little brother Sunil and I were told to pose for a photograph with our uncle, all sitting on the grass in front of the old museum building. Sunil, of course, was much more interested in the ice cream vendor off to our left – I just managed to stop him struggling away!
Will I return to India? Who can know what the future may bring?

A-CR-N: There seems to be a celebration or a special day, given the costume of the person in the left side of the picture. The surroundings feel like the park/garden of an important building / monument given the big, white building and the person in the background. The children or the family wanted a picture with this probably well-known character. The clothing seems to be something traditional, from the point on the girl’s forehead I would say Indian, but the cloths I would say South America. Maybe the family is from India and visiting South America. There is an interesting element, the bow in the masked person arm, covered in green, and although the material doesn’t seem to be natural, it wanted to mimic grass or some leaves. The wooden piece on the masked person’s back, I thought at first, it’s a guitar or a similar, smaller instrument, but on a closer look I saw that the element is on both sides of the masked person’s back. The mask is interesting, its colors contrasting with the white of the head piece, the drawing on the mask feeling cartoonish, contrasting again with the intricacies of the head piece. Somehow, to me, the head piece (and shoulder) and what the person is wearing on the feet and the little piece of fabric coming out do not match. The kids seem to be related, if not sisters, and the way the big one is holding the little one speaks of care and affection. Her smile is delicate, gentle. The little one is a fussy, like she wants to run out of the arms to her parents. The photo seems to be taken by another person, not someone from the family. It seems to be an overcast day.

BD: The subject of this photograph appears to be the costume with its elephant mask and elaborate headdress haloed by the dark contrast of the tree canopy. The children are joyfully engaged with someone out of the image to the right as if posing for someone taking their picture. Although they may seem incidental to photograph they are important to the composition. The older girl is adorned with a red bindi on her forehead which informs the identification of the elephant costume as a representation of the Hindu deity Ganesha or Ganapati. Annual Ganesh Chaturthi festivals in Hindu communities celebrate the birth of Ganesha, possibly the location of this photograph.

The actual story: Chhau is a semi-classical dance form from Eastern India. The photo, taken just prior to an open-air performance in Kolkata, shows a Chhau dancer dressed as Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god. He’s sitting on the grass, and behind him, a topiary tree mirrors the shape of his headdress. To his left, two children in everyday dress are posing for another camera; they, like me, had come to watch the show.

Image 3 – by Jay Lacey

Image credit: Jay Lacey
Image credit: Jay Lacey

DH: What I see – We are in Venice near the Rialto Vaporetto stop. Rialto and the Grand Canal are in the background. This is the side closest to San Marco. It is sunny and warm. A teenager is in summer clothes, but they are wet. Because she is the same person from pic 4 who is holding a UK passport I suspect she’s from the UK.

What I think is happening – This is a bit odd – it’s unlikely she fell in the canal. There is a figure next to her, also female wearing a very similar red top, and that person (or the part we can see) is dry. So I think she’s on a group trip to Venice as part of a tour with a group who wear the same outfits (school or sport). Someone has thrown water at her as part of a joke or ritual, and this has been recorded by a member of the group. She’s not happy, but she’s not distressed. It’s more of a “You really did that?” look. But if I’m right that pic 4 is a selfie then why do we have these two pics? Did this girl give her phone to someone and ask that they took a photo? I’m overthinking it – time to send this to Holly.

RH: A wet woman looking at the photographer. In the background is a gondola (Venice or “Disneyland”). She probably fell into the water or was in the amusement park on a water slide.

BB: This photograph shows a young woman, possibly in her early twenties. She is wearing a red blouse above a black and white skirt. Both garments, as well as her hair, are soaking wet. To her right is a canal – possibly the reason for her wet condition. Behind her is a white bridge which looks very much like the Ponte Rialto in Venice. She’s looking forward, but not straight to camera – maybe at another person, outside the photograph. Her expression is hard to interpret – possibly one of surprise at her unexpected predicament?

Sophia’s Story (chapter 1)

I was feeling quite keen on Paolo before the bastard pushed me into the Grand Canal. Well, not exactly pushed, he was trying to help me onto a water taxi but he moved one way and I, the other. My immediate concern was that I hadn’t swallowed too much water – but as you can gather, I’m still here to tell the tale. Fortunately my backpack was still on the boat and I had dry clothes. Anyway, it was a good reason for him to pay for lunch. From this shaky start, the rest of the week went rather better – well actually, very well, as Paolo and I are now an item, living together in London.

A-CR-N: From the souvenir stand in the background, I guess the photo was taken in NY. Although near the water, it is a surprise that the person is wet (in the middle of the city), although her t-shirt seems more than then her skirt. Probably she was splashed with a pretty big quantity of water. Probably an event is taking the streets and some games are being played. She doesn’t seem upset, on the contrary, quite amused. There is a bridge near her, but she seems to have come from the opposite direction. The silhouette behind her is probably someone that accompanies her. The photographer is pretty close to her, but she is not protesting the fact that her picture is taken, doesn’t seem bothered by that. The time of day is somewhere in the middle of the day, given the shadows on her face.

BD: I saw these two photographs simultaneously and they fused together like two panels of a dyptic. The cinematic film still style begs a story someone should write of a young woman being plucked from the canals of Venice fully clothed with no belongings or identification followed by a flashback of her excitedly displaying her passport as she readies for a vacation abroad. And what of her memory?

The actual story: My parents had been very cautious and ensured I was not going to fall into the Grand Canal while getting on and off the boat. On the bank, Mum asked me to step towards the boat we had just been on, so that my brother could take a photo of it. I was told to step back, and the next thing I knew was that I was in someplace warm, dark and cosy. I looked up to find ripples above me, and I couldn’t move. My brother and mother froze (brother didn’t even take a pic while I was in the water). Father and a group of other tourists fished me out. The overall feelings were bewilderment, and surprise. Didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I got new clothes and an ice cream out of it, and it remains one of our favourite holiday memories.

Image 4 – by Eve Lacey: @evelacey53

Image credit: Eve Lacey
Image credit: Eve Lacey

DH: What I see – A young woman or teenager is smiling and holding a UK passport up for view. The shot is taken in front of a building, possibly a warehouse. The English language of the building signage indicates the shot is taken in the UK.

What I think is happening – Given that this person is in pic 3 in Venice, this may well be a pre-departure photo taken before a trip from the UK to Europe. The letters “sfer (transfer?) Atlas and Agent on the sign indicate maybe this is a place of departure and arrival to the UK. The passport is held in a way that indicates it’s new – a rite of passage, and that this is a pre-departure photo. The pose indicates this may be a selfie; a quick moment to record for herself or share with her family as there are no other people present. Not the group photo. There is a glimpse of what may be a lanyard round her neck, indicating group travel, but this is unclear. It records a moment of excitement and anticipation.

RH: A woman with a British passport, which she holds up to the camera. She is happy. It could be an immigrant who just got naturalized and is proud of it (or she just found her passport again).

BB: In this picture we see what seems to be the same young woman as in the previous photograph. In this one she is dry (!) and dressed in an orange T-shirt over which she is wearing a blue sports top. She’s holding up a UK passport, seemingly very new, with no signs of wear on the edges. Behind her is an modern industrial building – possibly a warehouse? The roof of the building announces that the occupier is an “Atlas agent”. The woman is wearing glasses this time, looking at the camera and smiling.

Sophia’s Story (chapter 2)

A little drier today than last time we met! And before you ask, yes, I’m still with Paolo. But over the summer, he was accepted on a course in Milan. He moved back to Italy in September, ahead of the new term. Like an idiot, I found out that my passport had expired, just as I tried to book my flight with EasyJet. Please enter expiry date. Oh shit!
Still, as you can see, I’ve now got a new one and I’ll be off to see him in a few weeks’ time. This job at Atlas is going nowhere, so if Milan works out, who knows, maybe I’ll stay there?

A-CR-N: One happy person. The happiness seems related to the passport that she is presenting. The photographer is rather close, the closer elements are a bit deformed. Most probably someone close, a friend or a relative. What intrigues me is the building behind her, that seems to be a deposit of a transport company. I cannot find a reason for her being there. By the way she is holding the passport and smiles I would have guessed that she is proud to be an UK citizen or finally coming home after a long trip (maybe she is at the custom).

The actual story: I was so proud of myself for being able to organise my relocation from the USA to the UK. Everything had gone smoothly – I had sold my car a couple of days before, I sold all my furniture and my bed was due to be sold in the morning of my flight. My shipping container had been packed and was at the warehouse… with my passport in it! I realised my passport was not on me the night before my flight. I had panicked, and then I planned how to find my passport. I took an Uber to the Warehouse in the morning and was stressed about the time I had left to find my passport. The Uber driver did not make me feel safe and did not take the quickest, most direct route. Instead she drove through some woods in a dodgy car and I lost my mobile phone signal. I feared for my life. Once we got to the warehouse, my crate was opened and the passport was in the first box I looked in! This is a photo of relief, just before I realised that I was hailing a ride back with that terrifying Uber driver.


I love doing these group projects and I’m always surprised by the responses. It really does bang home that everyone has a different lived experience and that shapes their approach to different subject matter. What did you think of each of the pictures before you knew the story behind it? Were you surprised by the stories?

If you’d like to be involved in one of these group projects, come and join us in the Facebook group. You can also follow me on Instagram or see more of my writing on my website, school of holly.

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About The Author

6 thoughts on “An Experiment in How we Interpret Unknown Images – a Group Project”

  1. I really enjoyed Bill’s stories because they reminded my of an experiment I made with a friend more than 10 years ago.
    You still can see the result here
    With a little help from web translation tools some of the captions can be appreciated by non italians also.
    The idea came from observing friends and relatives look at my first experiments in digital photography.
    “We live in an age where we have an awful lot more access to images than before” and it is harder and harder to keep the viewer on a photo, unless you have a story to tell.

  2. Brian nicholls

    Holly, I am a huge fan of photographic ambiguity (eg: found photos), or perhaps I am a frustrated fiction writer.
    Regarding the fellow with the bike. ‘Richard’ works for a Local Authority as a Housing Officer. He now manages an on-site admin centre dealing with the day-to-day needs of residents in a large high- rise council estate and is pictured here in his working environment. He has been in the job for twenty five years after being made redundant from a local steelworks and loves being his own boss. A couple of years ago he introduced the postcode lottery and proudly wears the Lotto ‘Brand Loyalty’ cap for which he still gets a lot of banter from the residents. With his ‘goaty’ beard you would be forgiven for assuming he is an ‘arty-type. In fact, he runs his own Ukulele band and plays weekend charity gigs. It was ‘Rich’ who introduced the annual Christmas party for children at which he always plays Santa. ‘Rich’ and his three hands-on staff get around the estate on bikes supplied by a local distributor through lottery funding.
    (‘Rich’ is a composite character based on a true story).

  3. Hi Holly – It was fun doing this, and fun reading others’ responses. It was also instructive to see how we all see things differently, or see different parts of things. Lots to think about from this, so thanks for running it!

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