What do you see in this picture?

What happens when eight writers interpret one photographer’s images? A collaboration between Belgian photographer Dirk Braeckman and literary magazine DW B gave us the answer.

The results reminded me of one of the most-publicly known psychological instruments: the Rorschach test.

Hermann Rorschach and his famous ink blots

Invented in 1921 by Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach, the Rorschach test became one of the most well-known psychological tests. For those unfamiliar with the term, the test can be summarised as ‘What do you see in this ink blot?’. It consists of cards depicting several ambiguous ink blots.

Rorschach Inkblot

Although the blots don’t have any meaning in themselves, our brain is trying to find meaning in them.Differences in our answers should thus show differences in how we react to the world and find meaning in it. Rorschach himself used it as an instrument to diagnose schizophrenia. Later, others started using it as a personality test, albeit a very controversial one.

Braeckman’s photographs as Rorschach stimuli

This week, I encountered what seemed like a photographic version of the Rorschach test. In an evening program of Belgian literary magazine DW B, an interesting collaboration between photographer Dirk Braeckman and eight writers was discussed.

Dirk Braeckman, Belgian photographer and artist, is known for his mysterious photographs, often dark, always analog. His images will represent Belgium in the upcoming (2017) Venice Art Biennale. In his talk, Braeckman focused on different aspects of his work, like intuition, painting with light and darkness (in the image-capture, but also for a big part in the darkroom) and the uniqueness and tactility of analog photography. He did not, however, want to discuss the content of his image and left this interpretation to the viewer. His images are supposed to be open-ended and timeless.

DW B gave eight writers the challenge to interpret these images. They received a set of Braeckman’s images and had to interpret them as if they were real autobiographical pictures of his life.

As a result, the open-ended and timeless images turned into explicit stories, with a time, place and context. You could say that the authors were performing a Rorschach test on Braeckman’s ambiguous photographs.

From left to right: Cover DW B, Dirck Braeckman: KB 891 024 / 7 / 14, Dirk Braeckman: 1/1 - P012 d - 2015 - 1/1,

The audience had the pleasure of listening to two of the writers reading their resulting story. Interestingly, both stories were miles apart. Fiep van Bodegom’s story ‘Zeewaardig’ turned Braeckman’s photographs into evidence of a science-fiction story, with humankind floating around the universe in spaceships, only to come back defeated to our destroyed earth. Frederik Willem Daem took another interpretation, talking about ‘De kabbel’, a relationship in its final stages, moments of life and ageing, sour milk and a landlord that might or might not be waiting in the dark. Of course, the stories were much more eloquently written, but this is what I took away from the content.

That the same set of photographs can elicit such different interpretations was surprising to me. Even more interesting was that we, as an audience, had a hard time figuring out which picture had inspired the writers for their stories.

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are (Anaïs Nin)

This proves that even photography, one of the most ‘straightforward’ media in representing reality, seems to open for a wide range of interpretations.

As a photographer, you should never assume that your viewers will automatically read your images in the way you intended them. Of course, some photographs are more readable than others, but what might be straightforward to you might not be understood in the same manner by the viewer. Just like the Rorschach test, people’s interpretations of photographs always depend on their own personality, context and history.

In fact, reality itself is so full of ambiguous stimuli and all our individual brains are constantly trying to turn into meaning. Considering this, isn’t it amazing that we are able to communicate so effectively with each other through image language?