What Does This Photo Mean?


I came across this photo the other day and was immediately taken with it. Besides being visually striking, it seems like a Rorshach test. There are so many different possible interpretations, and the one that comes to mind first probably reflects a lot about who you are, or where you are in life.

Because I’m a fairly new mom, my first thought was: there is a father hoping that his own daughter’s dreams will come true. I also thought: he is looking at that child and trying to re-connect with his own childhood dreams.

But when I look more closely, I see that something’s bothering him. His shoulders are hunched and his hands are covering his mouth. He’s wearing a dark jacket in a white-walled gallery, while the girl in the picture is all reds and golds and floppy bows.

What do you think it means?



  1. Danielle on 12.05.2011 at 07:35 (Reply)

    Dear Susan:

    Based on her clothing and the people in the audience, I’m thinking perhaps there is some kind of competition, perhaps dancing, pre-Olympic floor exercise and such or maybe skating. Perhaps she’s eyeing the competition and seeing herself a winner in the future. There’s only one way to know what you have left to learn to be the best and that’s by watching the best at work, honing their skills. Only then can you think up a plan to get to where you want to go in the future. As for the gentleman, I really can’t say. Has he lost a young child which she reminds him of? His shoulders do seem hunched over. He does seem apprehensive, doesn’t he? He seems to have his hand on his chin. He’s wondering about something. He seems to see only the child but not the rest of the picture. He’s concentrated only on her. I too wonder why. The colours are bright and not austere. She is indeed all reds and golds and floppy bows. But he doesn’t seem to take the background into consideration. All he sees is her and he seems worried or apprehensive for the lack of a better word. But we’ll never know why. He fears something, but is that something from the past, the present or the future? Don’t know.

  2. Niel Malan on 12.05.2011 at 08:26 (Reply)

    Does it have to mean anything? Certainly it was created to evoke emotions, but does it have to have meaning?

    1. Susan Cain on 12.05.2011 at 11:59 (Reply)

      That’s an interesting point. No, I don’t think it does have to have meaning. But it does seem so rich in narrative possibilities — the jumping off point for any number of stories — that I am curious what stories it makes you all think of.

  3. chel on 12.05.2011 at 09:18 (Reply)

    I think it means it’s Photoshopped 😉 (Not trying to be snarky, just couldn’t resist!)

  4. Danielle on 12.05.2011 at 09:32 (Reply)

    Chel, you just might be right. It isn’t a painting, so he isn’t looking at the composition or mastery of the artist’s paintstrokes. And he seems way too close to be admiring the overall picture. It just may be Photoshopped after all. I thought his proximity and staring at only one spot seemed odd. I think you just may have hit the nail on the head. Good job.

    1. Sabrina on 12.05.2011 at 18:27 (Reply)

      But if he’s a photographer, he may be wondering what lens was used. I know that I immediately thought it was an impressive picture and for it to be so clear at that size I was admittedly envious! I am a hobbyist and LOVE to look at other’s work. If the photographer shot this with little editing (just cropping) they have done an excellent job and have a truly good eye for composition. To evoke this much thought from one moment in time is a testament to his or her ability. Well, at least I think so!

  5. Judy on 12.05.2011 at 09:41 (Reply)

    I have no idea what it might mean because as an introvert AND art historian I got sidetracked by WHOM the artist of the painting/photo was. Gerhardt Richter?

    1. Susan Cain on 12.05.2011 at 09:47 (Reply)

      You know what, I have no idea! And I can’t remember where I found it, unfortunately.

  6. Danielle on 12.05.2011 at 11:26 (Reply)

    Dear Susan:

    Sorry for raining on your parade. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I hope you understand.

    But it did give us a good reason to think about the meaning of it. I hope the picture has or will inspire someone. I know the child in the picture has reminded me of how and where I got my inspiration to move forward in life. Seeing others work at getting what they wanted in life helped me create a game plan for my own life, and that I’m grateful for. Game plans help you find your way a lot better than stumbling along without one.

    Thanks for bringing this subject up. It was a good one. And I hope you manage to find this picture again. I would love to get Judy’s take on this as well. Perhaps it is not Photoshopped. I, for one, would like to know if it was Photoshopped or not or if it is legit. I’m sure it could teach us a lot.

    Best regards,




    1. Susan Cain on 12.05.2011 at 11:56 (Reply)

      oh my goodness, you didn’t hurt my feelings at all! not to worry.

  7. Patricia on 12.05.2011 at 12:43 (Reply)

    I don’t know what the picture means…but I think he is standing to close to actually see it.

  8. Judy on 12.05.2011 at 13:54 (Reply)

    Probably NOT Richter.

    If this was manipulated in some way or was taken by a photographer for artistic reasons I guess it could be read as a meditation of Age upon Youth, Innocence vs. Experience (thanks William Blake), or Art vs. Life. However, on first glance, I just thought it was a photo of a man closely studying a work of art in a gallery. Of course now I have assigned other potential deeper meanings to might just have been a snapshot.

  9. Danielle on 12.05.2011 at 14:05 (Reply)

    Thank you Judy. I had not thought of that, but yes, now that you mention it, I can understand that it could be a meditation of Age upon Youth, Innocence vs. Experience.

    I learned something new thanks to your input and will go to bed a little smarter tonight because of it. Thanks to Susan for bringing this picture to our attention.


  10. Poppy on 12.05.2011 at 14:21 (Reply)

    Since I’m an amateur photographer myself, my first thought was that he’s giving the picture a very disapproving look, as many art people tend to do when you can’t see the face of the person in the picture. (probably a very extraverted-culture influenced preference).

    But I think the picture is ‘shopped. The lighting on the face of the picture is nonexistant, whereas the shadow of the frame indicates that the light in the room is almost right above the man’s head, so there should be some difference of light on the picture itself. That, and the amount of detail visible in the frame (especially in the upper corner) and the amount of detail visible in the picture in that upper corner are different, and shouldn’t be.

  11. Danielle on 12.05.2011 at 15:04 (Reply)

    That little girl is so cute that it makes me think of all the moms out there who spare no expense to shuttle their kids around to various activities so as to help them become well-rounded individuals and to keep them safe and off the streets.

    Being a mom is a very demanding job, 24/7. I admire all of you. MOMS RULE!

  12. Sam on 12.05.2011 at 16:06 (Reply)

    What I see? I see the girl, young and dreaming of all the things her future could hold, wishing to grow up and be amazing.
    And the man.. he sees her hopes, and he realizes that his time for hoping is ending and he may not have acted on the dreams he once had.

    1. Susan Cain on 12.05.2011 at 19:05 (Reply)

      I had a very similar reaction, Sam.

  13. Sabrina on 12.05.2011 at 17:54 (Reply)

    I was immediately struck by the composition, lighting and aperture settings and thought WOW I wonder if they are a Canon or Nikon user? That said, with the focus on the girl with the deliberate Bokeh (blurred) background of the audience or performance I knew it was meant to create a sense of mystery. It also cause people to wonder HOW they got the shot since most point and shoots and basic DSLR lenses do have have settings low enough to get that effect.
    I thought he was thinking the same thing… “How did the photographer get such a great shot? I wonder if it was shot in raw and with a tripod? What f/stop was used! Impressive!”

  14. Christy on 13.05.2011 at 18:59 (Reply)

    I don’t get anything ominous or sad about the man’s body language. It looks to me as if he is very thoughtful, not necessarily more than that.

  15. Julie on 24.06.2011 at 02:31 (Reply)

    My eye went straight past the man to the girl. I didn’t even see him until I read other comments. The picture whispered of curiosity, an introverted girl full of wonder, taking in the scene from a balcony. How wonderful to take it all in from her vantage.

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