Capturing Emotions – Sadness & Despair

On a recent photography assignment, I was capturing lots of smiling faces and street portraits. Later in the evening, when I was discussing with a friend of mine, he suggested that since I was already photographing on the streets, why not capture sadness and despair. So, here are a few photographs that try to show those feelings too. I’ll also try to decode the photograph itself to show why it gives those feelings.

Photograph of a sad man

(The sad old man! Photographed with Nikon Df and a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens. Post-processed on Affinity Photo)

The Scene

The photograph above was one of the few from a series. The old man sits with his back hunched, looking down. This posture itself conveys a feeling of despair and defeat. A lot of sculptor and artists have used this simple posture to convey these feelings. Slight bent of head downwards is a nature phenomenon that occurs when a person’s heart is heavy. Maybe it is an evolutionary thing when a person looses strength to even hold the head up or maybe it is for the hands to easily reach up to the face to hide the expression. Whatever it is, a bent head with a hunched back usually conveys sadness and despair.

The eyes have a dejected look. One eye is slightly visible with a blank distant look, while he looks down. The other eye is not visible but a white discharge in one corner points to his health. The old man was almost blind when I photographed him.

Apart from the posture, the hands when open, add to the overall feel. The person has nothing to hold on to. No hopes. No dreams. No future. The hands simply rest there.

The legs are drawn together, the bony structure highlights the weakness of the limbs and a malnourished state.

The light fell from the right side of the frame. Side-lighting highlighted the texture of his aged skin and the emaciated legs. This kind of light is the best for bringing out the textures. Even the folds on his shirt and the dirt on it becomes more pronounced due to this kind of lighting. There was a door on the right side and the natural light flowed from there. I didn’t have to use any artificial light sources.

An unkept face, with dirty clothes further add a factor of poverty to the already sad posture. The dirt is even more pronounced on the once white shirt. The heap of clothes in front are also dirty and torn.

The dark spots on the brick wall point to the use of fire to keep himself warm in the winters. A fire that usually consists of smoky branches or whatever he can grab hold of. The bricks are just standing bare adding to a feel of poverty.

Some amount of manipulation of the scene was also required. Among the steel vessels kept on the shelf behind him, I requested one of the team members to keep the glass side-ways. This shows an emptiness which is not noticeable initially but hits the eye after a person has spent enough time observing the main subject, that is the old man! This is totally ethical since the man actually lived in such circumstances. It’s just that a single photograph to convey the feelings has to be made stronger. Every step listed in this article helps in doing so. (It is similar to adding a graduated ND filter in a landscape to retain the sky texture or converting a colored image to black and white to remove distracting colors.)


The darkroom work or post-processing is an integral part of any good photograph. Here the first thing that needed to be taken care of was the saturation and color balance.

The yellow plastic bags behind him were too bright and reduced the impact of the image. They had to be de-saturated. Some amount of burning was required on the already dirty areas of the shirt. A little bit of dodging on the face to bring out his expression of despair. I also had to use a graduated ND filter towards the right side to reduce the obvious brightness due to light coming from the side.

Though the photograph is not exactly low key, reducing the overall brightness increases the sad impact. Low-key works for bringing out such feelings.

For color balance, I reduced the overall warmth. Added a little of blue and also a bit of magenta. Cool to neutral colors reduce the feeling of comfort.

Unsharp Mask (Sharpening) was applied to his face and legs at the first go. Then the image was resized as required and a little bit of overall sharpening again applied.

(The photographs in this article have been toned down a little, to reduce the sadness factor. The original ones stirred a lot of emotions and I want my readers like you, to continue visiting my site and reading these articles. The impact is also reduced a little due to loss of details while compressing. If you want to brood over the original photograph, visit me sometime and take a look at the print!)

Blind Man

(Blind Man – Nikon Df with Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens. Post processed on Affinity Photo)

This is yet another photograph of the same man. He was actually begging for death to come to him. Here, he tries to look straight to me and tell me about his problems. His eye condition is clearly visible. The sadness is there but in a different way. Instead of the dejected and depressed feeling of the first photograph, this one arouses a feeling of pain due to the problem visible on his face. The motion blur of the hand makes the conversation feel more active and happening. A sharply focused hand would have failed to convey the ongoing conversation.

In such photographs, to convey an animated conversation, some amount of motion blur adds to the drama. Among the images, I captured with his hand in motion, this is the one that has an open hand, in line with his plea (begging to God) for death.

Post-processing was done on the same lines as for the first image.

What happened after the photography?

The photographs made a lot of viewers quite sad. Even while photographing and knowing his story, I was also close to tears. It was quite overwhelming. Street photography can be tough on feelings at times. Though I did change the scene, I did so minimally. In essence, this is still street photography, and even anthropology to some extent.

Well, the story did not end with the photography. Here is another photograph from what happened. The community health worker from the team that accompanied me, examined the old man and the eye hospital that is running the health project in the area will soon be doing a sight-restoring surgery on him.

The old man used to be grave-digger but had to quit work due to failing health and poor eye-sight. However, soon he will be helped and will be able to see again.

Here is a proof that this was not just a heartless street-photography session. I hope this satisfies you Kenny, my friend. I am naming you since you were the most vocal about photographers being heartless at times, when I showed the originals to you.

Eye being examined

(A torch-light primary eye-examination being done by a community health worker.)

Kevin Carter : Vulture and The Little Girl

Recently, there was yet another discussion about Kevin Carter’s famous photograph, as has been happening for last few decades. It was an impactful photograph. People say that it was inhuman from Kevin’s perspective to not have followed the child till the end. UN plane picked up Kevin Carter from near the scene just after this photography and he did not get hours to spend with the child. The child was actually already identified as a beneficiary by UN mission (and so the wrist band), but the photograph made an impact on the masses and raised awareness.

During the photography of this old man, I also came across many other such subjects. It is near impossible for a photographer to follow up and check the outcome of each and every subject photographed. And, yes, it is very very depressing and overwhelming. I have had my colleagues cry on such assignments. One of them went into depression for a long time.

Even the famous photographer Kevin Carter committed suicide, one of the reasons being depression from the photography he did in that region.

To know more about the organizations helping the old man:
Operation Eyesight Universal – The Canadian NGO that is running such health projects at various locations, and is primarily involved in providing eye care services.
C L Gupta Eye Institute – The hospital in the region where one such project is being implemented and will be helping out this old man.

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