When words fail you: researching emotions that don’t yet have names

christopher doyle

Researchers spend a lot of their time turning words into images, images to words, words to film. At its worst, this can be a rather arid and mechanical game, which simulates progress – transforming positionings into mood boards, mood boards into consumer responses, responses into polished visual charts – but without the ideas actually affecting anyone’s life or changing very much along the way. A sort of white-collar version of the scheme for full employment.

At its best, though, something much more interesting happens. Researchers when they are on top of their game help people to articulate emotions, experiences and ideas that they didn’t think they could articulate – they turn ‘feelings that are hard to put into words’ into words.

This often needs several rounds of translation. A respondent may find an image, an object, or piece of music that feels like the feeling they are trying to articulate. But things then stall as you return to talking in words and ask them to try to express what it is this image has captured. They find it impossible to give an explanation, or the explanation they give feels hollow, or even misleading.

The editor Walter Murch describes the frustration that can occur in film-making when trying to analyse and discuss the emotions a director has captured on film. Even people as erudite as Murch and Francis Ford Coppola, with whom he worked for much of the 1970s, would struggle to define the feelings they saw in pictures. “What word expresses anger tinged with melancholy? There isn’t a word for it…But it is there on the screen in her expression, in the angle of her head and her hair and her neck and the tension in the muscles”.

To get round this, Murch and his partners developed a system of capturing hundreds of still images from rushes. They would use these stills to provide a short-hand for discussing the emotions in their film, even, or especially, when they couldn’t define them. He describes how “if you can simply point to an expression on an actor’s face, you have a way around some of the difficulties of language in dealing with the subtleties of nameless emotions. You, as the director, can say “That’s what I want. The sequence we are working on should have more of that, you know. I want it to embody the nameless but familiar emotion I see in that photograph”.

This kind of approach can be very productive when working with teams whose own output is visual. Rather than trying to say in words what respondents are feeling, you work harder at getting them to show you in images.

What about when the output does, though, need to be captured in words? Recently another film-maker has made a practical intervention. Christopher Doyle’s app Away With Words is designed to translate between images and words. Users post images, which others can seek to describe in words, in turn triggering more photographs. Doyle, who has lived in Asia most of his adult life, gives the example of photographing a billboard in Shanghai, which he felt captured current feelings around consumerism in China. He wasn’t sure if he had the right word/s to describe it, so he uploaded both an image and description, inviting others to respond. You can start translating here.