A WINDOW TO THE SOUL – Holly Foster Media


The face and eyes reflect a person’s inner emotion.

“According to the recent study, published in Psychological Science, we interpret a person’s emotions by analyzing the expression in their eyes — a process that began as a universal reaction to environmental stimuli and evolved to communicate our deepest emotions” (Cornell University, 2017).

Psychologist Robert Plutchik identified no less than a few hundred words in the English language that describe emotions, and suggests these emotions can be classified into eight categories — based on their similarity (2001).

(Contrasting and categorization of emotions, 2019)

Filmmakers often use close ups of actors when they market their films. It makes sense: they take advantage of our ability to “read” the emotions portrayed by the face and eyes.

Let’s take a look at some of the photographs filmmakers have used to convey grief, which includes its lesser intensities of sadness and pensiveness.


deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement

This is a movie poster from Jackie. Natalie Portman portrays First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the film, which recounts the events that happened immediately after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963. Her husband is gone, and she is left to grieve as the world watches.

This close up of Ms. Portman is a stereotypical, yet vivid depiction of grief. Her black veil and downcast eyes show the devastation she suffered in the wake of this egregious act of violence. Her mouth is parted as she views the American flag that drapes the coffin at the U.S. Capital building. Although I’ve described the details here, no explanation is required; the message of grief and shock is visually delivered.

As effective as this is, let’s compare it with a photograph taken by Elliott Erwitt at JFK’s funeral. Jackie carries the American flag that has been removed from the coffin, and her face is covered with a black veil. Her face and eyes, along with those of her brother-in-law Robert, reveal the heaviness of their grief encased in their furrowed brows and lost expressions.

Elliott Erwitt’s photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy at JFK’s funeral in Arlington, VA

A 2015 article in The Guardian described the details of Erwitt’s photograph.

“He captures the expression on Jackie Kennedy’s face with harrowing precision. Her features are scrunched up, her facial muscles collapsing in grief. Her eyes tell a story of unbelievable sorrow. Her mouth is a broken harp of sheer despair” (Jones, 2015).

Sophie’s Choice

affected with or expressive of grief or unhappiness

Sophie’s Choice is a 1982 film based on William Styron’s novel of the same name. Meryl Streep delivers a stunning performance as Sophie Zawistowski, a Polish immigrant who was interned at Auschwitz and later emigrated to America.

The story takes place in 1947 Brooklyn where Sophie lives with her lover Nathan, played by Kevin Kline. They make friends with a writer named Stingo who has moved to Brooklyn to write his novel.

The still below shows Sophie’s sadness as she recounts her time in Poland just prior to her internment. Her face is flushed and her eyes are fully open, which shows her sensitivity. They are also bloodshot and swollen from crying. Although she appears calm, her facial expression and the hurt in her eyes convey the sadness of her past.

Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice

The lobby card shown below shows the similarity between Streep and Klein, each with a faraway look in their eyes. This foreshadowing tells us their characters are troubled.

Lobby card from the 1982 film Sophie’s Choice

The proximity of the characters tell us they are all connected. The shadows reinforce the overall feeling of sadness, and the gray cast of the photograph hints at the melancholy mood of the film.

Les Misérables

Russell Crowe as Javert in Les Misérables

suggestive of sad thoughtfulness

Javert is a pivotal character in Victor Hugo’s classic tale Les Misérables, shown here as portrayed by Russell Crowe in the 2012 film. Javert is a police guard turned inspector who spends his life in search of the protagonist Jean Valjean, a prisoner who has violated parole.

In a twist of fate, Valjean spares Javert’s life. As a result, Javert is convicted by the act of kindness. Can Valjean be a good person and a criminal at the same time?

The story unfolds in Crowe’s expression. His brow is furrowed, creating a hood over his downcast eyes. This extreme close-up brings the viewer into Javert’s personal space, and we can see that he is troubled. His thoughts consume him, and his green eyes show the torture he carries with him.

“The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter” (Cicero, 106-43 B.C.)

Our eyes reflect our state of mind, and are ultimately the greatest tool we have to communicate how we are feeling. As a result, photographs that capture our facial features convey emotions that are easily understood. One might even say “in the blink of an eye.”

until nxt time …


Cao, J. (2015, April 7). Web design color theory: How to create the right emotions with color in web design. Retrieved from: https://thenextweb.com/dd/2015/04/07/how-to-create-the-right-emotions-with-color-in-web-design/

Chitwood, A. (2012, October 12). 4 Character Posters for LES MISERABLES Featuring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, and Amanda Seyfried. Retrieved from: https://collider.com/les-miserables-movie-posters/

Cicero. (2019). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cicero&oldid=923170353

Contrasting and categorization of emotions. (2019). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Contrasting_and_categorization_of_emotions&oldid=916109230

Cornell University. (2017, April 17). Eye expressions offer a glimpse into the evolution of emotion. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170417182822.htm

Definition of GRIEF. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/grief

Definition of PENSIVE. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pensive

Definition of SADNESS. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sadness

ESC. (2004, May 22). Eyes are the mirror of the soul—Phrase meaning and origin. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/31/messages/1165.html

Jackie (2016 film). (2019). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jackie_(2016_film)&oldid=916958754

Jones, J. (2015, February 5). Beyond the veil: Photographs can be more powerful than art. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2015/feb/05/elliott-erwitt-jackie-kennedy-photograph-andy-warhol-sony-world-awards

Lupton, E. (2017). Design is Storytelling. New York, NY: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Plutchik, R. (2001). The Nature of Emotions: Human emotions have deep evolutionary roots, a fact that may explain their complexity and provide tools for clinical practice. American Scientist, 89(4), 344–350.

Sophie’s Choice (film). (2019). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sophie%27s_Choice_(film)&oldid=921731540

McLeod, S. A. (2018). Visual perception theory. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/perception-theories.html

Header image reproduced from: https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/fandom/les-miserables-tv-series-fanfic/

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2 thoughts on “A WINDOW TO THE SOUL

  1. Hi Holly
    In the first image, you provide background information, which helps me understand what is occurring in the image. Without the context, I wouldn’t know that the character was Jackie Kennedy and that she was standing in front of her husband’s coffin due to the blur. It was hard for me to notice the American flag until you pointed it out. I even noticed a small child next to her to show that she is a mother and now possibly a widow due to visual cues. Even without the information provided, I was able to understand the emotion she is expressing through her parted lip, her sunken eyes, and her black headpiece (to symbolize death). I found it interesting that you compared a staged photograph to a picture that captured a real moment of grief. It shows how hard it is to recreate raw emotions when you have not experienced the same situation. Even in the second image, the viewer does not need to know the backstory of the image due to her ability to express emotions through facial expressions. Along with your analysis, I wonder if the black background contributes to her feeling of grief, being surrounded by darkness. I was a bit confused about why there was a second image included from the movie, Sophie’s Choice. In your last image, you wrote how his thoughts consume him, but how can you tell? Is it the wrinkles in his face or the furrowed eyebrows? I am also curious as to why one side of his face and body is in darkness while the rest is in light. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Holly, you do a wonderful job identifying how elements are grouped according to the Gestalt principles. I especially appreciate how you analyzed the proximity of characters and indicated that it signified their connectedness. I found myself wondering how you would interpret the colors and filters placed over several of these photos and what they symbolize. For example, I feel as though in the Meryl Streep photo you could have benefited from analyzing the shades of red and blue in the background against the gray. Is there some intensity or calmness there because both shades scream very different meanings according to Plutchik. Otherwise, great work!

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