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Photography Experiment: Six Photographers, One Portrait, And A Twist

By Hanssie on November 4th 2015

Photography is a very personal matter. Not only for the subject but the photographer as well. As photographers, how much can our perceptions shape an image? Can our perspectives skew an image? Can how we feel, what we think, what we know (or think we know) about a subject change the final outcome of the portrait?


In conjunction with Canon Australia, The Lab created the following fascinating video that explores just how much our perceptions can shape an image. Called “Decoy,” six photographers were invited to photograph one subject for the experiment. Each photographer was told the subject’s name, Michael, and in a twist, each photographer was individually told a piece of fictional information about Michael. One photographer was told that Michael was a self-made millionaire while another was told that Michael was an ex-inmate. Each of the six photographers thought Michael was something different – a millionaire, an inmate, a psychic, a fisherman, a hero who saved someone’s life or a former alcoholic.

Placed in the same warehouse studio with the same possible setups, the photographers set out to capture the essence of who they thought Michael was, and each of the six portraits are vastly different. As the photographers looked at the images at the end of the video (before the reveal that Michael was none of the things they thought he was), you can hear some of the photographers remarking on how in one image to the next, Michael looked like, “a totally different person.”

THE LAB: DECOY – A Portrait Session With a Twist


It’s interesting to see the bias of each photographer come out in the interaction with the subject but especially with how they use light, composition, and posing to convey an image of who they think the subject is. Armed with one fact about the man, they draw their conclusions, and each tries to tell Michael’s “story” with what they think they know to be true.


I would’ve liked to see the experiment done a bit differently, with each photographer knowing the same detail about the subject and see if their images still look so vastly different. Nevertheless, I found the experiment to be extremely interesting. What do you think? Comment with your thoughts below.

If you’re interested in being a part of future experiments, check out Canon’s website here.

[Via Shutterbug]

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Hanssie is a Southern California-based writer and sometimes portrait and wedding photographer. In her free time, she homeschools, works out, rescues dogs and works in marketing for SLR Lounge. She also blogs about her adventures and about fitness when she’s not sick of writing so much. Check out her work and her blog at Follow her on Instagram

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Stephen Glass

    So telling. It is very interesting. Every portrait has a context and that these photographers listened to the story and sought to portray that is much in their favor.

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  2. Jason Chute

    It is only a twist because its the same actor pretending to be different people with each photographer trying to create a visual representation of each fake persona. But it becomes slightly deceptive to then spring it to the photographers that they took pictures of the same person and then say…now look here this proves that its the image maker that shapes the final outcome when in the context of this exercise it was the actor who created a fake persona. however if you turn it on its head and strip away that context which at the heart of this exercise and look at it for what it really is: its just shots of a bald guy trying to be something he is not.

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  3. Tanya Goodall Smith

    Which is your favorite? I like the 3rd from the left.

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  4. Will Taylor

    The reason they all had different photos is because he acted as those different personas. He wasn’t going to act like a millionaire for the lady who was told he was an exconvict. I believe if everyone knew him as one persona the pictures would’ve been very similar.

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  5. Gerald Crockett

    Just goes to show that a photograph is created by the person; the equipment and setting are secondary.

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  6. Peter Nord

    I found myself wanting to see more of the interaction of the photographers with the subject, a bit more of the details of the shoots. I suppose what they had was enough to illustrate the point. Would be interesting to show the photos to different groups of people to see if the different personas can be recognized.

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  7. Keegan Carroll

    A Camera is merely the tool to capture the world. People, Places and Things. Every photo has a feeling and watching this video you can see each photographer expressing their feeling and telling the story of that character. This is a moment in time Snapped, freezing it forever and sucking the viewer in wanting more. This is what makes a brilliant photographer. Looking at the images and not knowing the back story you could almost know that the man was a fisherman or Billionaire. They say a picture is worth and thousand words, this is why I love photography and this is what gets me up in the morning.

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  8. Lynne Bardell

    What an excellent project and has now mad me really think again about how I approach people, brilliant, many thanks.

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  9. David Hall

    This was great. Would love to see more of these type of interactions.

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  10. Peter McWade

    Well, all the photographers I have interacted with like to try to tell something about me. They interact with me and try to get a brief feel for who I might be and then try to convey something that would be me. So all the photographers did what they should have done and with that they all got a different piece. Real or not they did what they should have done. Resulting in a unique perspective on how a person interacts with their client. My last session with a photographer where my wife and I were photographed in B&W was spot on. Korli took the time to dig a bit and to get us comfortable in front of the camera. No matter if they told the photographer the person was this or that each person would have gotten a bit different part of that person and taken a photo according to what they found out. Being told ahead of time creates a prejudice against the client. Not fair. If I were to know ahead of time I would have to work real hard not to allow that prejudice into the shoot.

    Let’s see how 6 photographers shoot a single person and not tell them anything about that person. Let each photographer ask their own questions and interact with the person on a personal basis. That might be an interesting outcome as well.

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    • Stan Rogers

      One needs to keep in mind that these were editorial pictures shot by editorial photographers, and that the subject would have given answers appropriate to the persona if asked. The whole point of the exercise was to demonstrate that a portrait is more than a likeness, it’s a portrayal (thus the name); its job is to tell a story. With editorial, that need to tell a story at a glance is even more important, as is the need to understand the story in words that it will be illustrating.

      My goal when creating a “normal” portrait is to produce picture that the people who know you will recognize the same way that your mother could recognize you from behind, three blocks away, at night, on a crowded street. For a corporate shot, I wouldn’t feel the urge to tell prospective shareholders that you can be a little goofy at times. For editorial, I don’t want to emphasize how relaxed and jovial you are right at the moment if the story is about your resilience or perseverance. It’s not about prejudice, it’s about telling the right story.

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  11. Colin Woods

    A fascinating three minutes, thanks for posting it.

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  12. Ben Perrin

    Thanks for sharing. That’s a really cool experiment and the actor did a great job at convincing these photographers of his different personalities.

    I’m not sure what the lesson learned should be. Should it be about treating people equally no matter what their background is, or is it to see something unique in everyone and try to tell that story? Certainly some food for thought.

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