The “3 A” Theory: The Secret to Memorable Street Photographs

(Above image from my “Korea: The Presentation of Self” series, 2011)

I am very interested in ideas and how they spread. Especially “viral” ideas. A while ago I came upon this study on virality that studied the most shared articles on The New York Times and the researchers had a hypothesis on what causes something to spread like a virus.

Their research suggested that the articles that got shared most applied to their “3 A” theory — awe, anger, and anxiety. Articles that evoked a strong emotional response from the readers.

Curious how you can apply this to your street photography to make more memorable images? Read on.


Translation: “Someone is watching you”.  From my “Korea: The Presentation of Self” series, 2011

The researchers in this study “What Makes online Content Viral?” (download PDF) analyzed 7,000 articles from the New York Times and categorized them into different emotional categories and also assigned them either as being “positive” or “negative”. Some of the categories they studied included awe, anger, anxiety, and sadness.

To sum up their study (very loosely) — they discovered that articles with strong emotional characteristics (such as awe, anger, and anxiety) tended to get shared more online (via the “most emailed list”). Also in general they found that positive articles (in terms of emotion) tended to perform better than negative articles.

Why did the most-shared articles tend to share awe, anger, and anxiety? One of my hypotheses is that it has to do with the fact that we are emotional creatures (see my last post on cognitive science) and that is what we tend to be drawn to and share.

Just because something makes someone react in awe, anger, or anxiety doesn’t mean it will go viral. Rather, it seems to a component in some articles, photos, or videos that prompt people to share them.

So how does this apply to street photography?

I propose that as emotional beings, pictures that are emotional are generally more memorable– and prompt us to share them more. So rather than creating street photographs that are just super neat, clean, and well-composed — we should strive to create images that evoke strong emotions from our viewers.

Below I try to analyze and break down each of the points:

1. Awe

Copyright: Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation / Magnum Photos

What is “awe”? It is something that makes your mouth open and gasp. It might be that one video you saw on YouTube of someone doing a backflip over a moving car, an article of a 100-year old woman picking up a car, or the cat that weighs 1000 pounds. It is generally something that surprises us and catches us off-guard.

Copyright: Estate of Garry Winogrand

There are many street photographs I have seen that have made me gasp in awe. Photos that come to mind include Cartier-Bresson’s man jumping over the puddle, Garry Winogrand’s shot of a man doing a backflip, or Matt Stuart’s shot of a dumpster that looks like a peacock. The images inspire us, are uncommon, and shock our visual senses to pay attention.

Copyright: Matt Stuart

It is rare that we see something that causes us to gasp in awe. Therefore I think that we want to share the same feeling (of seeing something so incredible) with others. This may be a reason why photographs that create “awe” are so popular on the Internet (and in general).

Therefore when you are out shooting street photography, you can strive to create images that create a sense of awe. Try to really hone in Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” by trying to time your shots that just an ordinary shot may be extraordinary by looking for certain gestures (hand, facial, leg) or actions. Look for that one glance, that one jump, or that one leg posture.

Look for interesting juxtapositions in which the subject and background have a certain relationship that may be strange, odd, or uncanny. Try to push yourself more than just getting someone walking by an interesting poster, and trying to find that “cherry on top” that makes the shot unique. Look for the majestic light, strong diagonals or compositional elements in the background, or exotic silhouettes. Create images that make your heart skip and your mouth drop.

2. Anger

“The Hand” – from my “Dark Skies Over Tokyo” series, 2011

Anger is an emotion that hits very close to our heart. It makes our eyes pop out, our blood boil, and our heart to pump furiously. Generally articles that are very controversial on the Internet that do with racism, hate crime, war, or politics in general tend to go viral and spread rapidly.

In photography the same concept applies. I think of many famous photojournalist shots of Nick Ut’s shot of the naked girl struck by napalm running in Vietnam, Kevin Carter’s shot of the vulture looking over the starving little girl in Africa (sadly after receiving a Pulitzer for the shot, he committed suicide years after), or the Eugene Smith shot Tomoko Uemura and her son in the bath. These are shots that make us feel a sense of injustice and anger in the world.

In street photography I think of photos that are controversial (that people have a strong reaction to). This tends to be shots of people who look very upset or don’t want to be photographed (A photo I took of a woman covering her face in Tokyo, another a shot by two cute dogs of a woman peering straight into your soul through an umbrella (and a menacing pair of eyes above).

I am not advocating that you should go out into the streets and purposefully try to create images that upset people (both the subject and the viewer). Whenever I get negative reactions from people, it is on accident. I see someone I want to take a photograph up (who looks pretty friendly), bring up my camera to my eye, and the second I am about to hit the shutter–they immediately look towards me and give me a meaning look. The times when I am too slow to catch their natural look before I click the shutter I get the negative looks to the camera.

Street photography is done candidly, but at times people’s reactions to your camera can be more interesting. Keep this in mind when shooting in the streets.

3. Anxiety

Copyright: William Klein

Think about anxiety as something that you feel as if you are extremely nervous, or that you are on a chair that is balancing on one leg, about to tip over. Anxiety is the feeling we get before we get a test from school (that we think we did poorly on), the fear of public speaking, or the feeling that we get before we ask a girl out on a date.

The study talks about anxiety as being a negative emotion, and cited certain articles being shared the most such as:

  • “For Stocks, Worst Single-Day Drop in Two Decades”
  • “Home Prices Seem Far from Bottom”

These articles are things that cause anxiety– as people get nervous about certain things that can cause mayhem or doom. Therefore I suppose that people share these articles with others to warn them as well of things that can harm them.

When it comes to street photography, there are also lots of images that evoke anxiety. One of the most famous shots include William Klein’s photo with a kid with a gun – pointing the gun straight at you. You see the look of aggression in his eyes, and you feel that he is about to pull the trigger straight into your skull.

Copyright: Estate of Diane Arbus

Another image that makes me feel anxious is the shot from Diane Airbus — the kid with the grenade in central park. The shot is shot in the middle of a park, with the kid looking at Arbus with total confusion and disarray, clenching the grenade in one hand, with the other hand disfigured and confused. Having one of his shoulder straps falling off to the side adds to the drama.

Copyright: Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

Another series that evokes anxiety is from Bruce Davidson’s Subway. Davidson shot the subways in New York City in the 80’s- where the subways were a dangerous place to be. The walls were full of graffiti, people would get mugged, and it would smell and be filthy. There is one shot in particular that he was with an undercover cop, and Davidson almost gets mugged by someone who sees his camera. The undercover cop then pops up, points his gun straight at the subject with an explosion of energy – that makes us (the viewer) heart pump and adrenaline rise.

To apply anxiety to our street photographs, try to seek out situations that aren’t always the happiest ones. Although I am a very positive person in general, I have lots of critiques about society and can be a pessimist at times. Look for situations that may put people on edge or feel uncomfortable – as life isn’t always happy. Don’t simply snap photographs of the homeless and walk on. Perhaps you can talk to them, get to know their life story, and ask if it is okay that you take a few shots (and probably give them a dollar or so).

Also you can provoke the scene to create energy (which doesn’t really count as ‘street photography’ per-se, but you can still make an interesting image). For example for William Klein’s Kid with Gun, he said to the kid, “Look tough!” and the kid turned around and pointed the gun straight to Klein. If you see one of Klein’s contact prints, you can see that the next shot he got was of the kids just fooling around and laughing.

Copyright: Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos

When Elliott Erwitt would take photos of dogs, he would provoke them as well by barking at them, or honking a horn at them. He would even do this with people to turn around to take a photo (not the barking part, but the honking horn part). Granted that this doesn’t necessarily create images that cause “anxiety” – but was used by Erwitt to provoke a response.


Graph of the study

To sum up the study once again, the researchers in the study collected over 7,000 articles and categorized them according to different emotions. They found awe, anger, and anxiety to be some of the strongest human emotions that drive us to share images, videos, or stories. Also interesting to note is that positive articles tended to get shared more than negative articles. Therefore if you consider yourself a much more positive person, know that there is a chance that those images will get shared more than negative articles.

Just because a street photograph you took evokes awe, anger, or anxiety doesn’t mean it will be a good shot or shared wildly. I think the take-away point is try to once again create images that evoke emotion. We humans are emotional creatures, not logical creatures– so images that have stronger content, stories, and action will probably be more memorable than shots that simply have good composition and framing.

Also there may or may not be a relationship between emotion shared in regular online content (articles) and photographs – but I suspect there is. This article I wrote isn’t as well researched and in-depth as I would have liked it to be – but I still wrote it because I thought it was an interesting idea to explore. Hopefully as I do more research on the subject, I can flesh out some more of my thoughts and do this concept more justice.

What causes you to share photos you see on the internet? Does any of it relate with awe, anger, or anxiety? Or do you not believe this concept at all? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!