Posted by: ahmed22k | November 23, 2015

WHAT’S IN A FACE? Whom should we fear- whom should we trust?


This is a photograph of Lewis Thornton Powell or Lewis Payne.

He was also known as Lewis Paine.

Now on first glance I don’t think anyone is paying too much attention to specific detail because the viewer’s eye is drawn to stylistic elements of the photograph; the composition, the lighting, the contrast, the background, and of course, the subject’s gaze. His expression is not intimidating but confrontational. It is not super serious but full of concentration.

The shackles are not obvious. They are depicted on the bottom left of the photograph. When I asked a friend from outside class what she thought of it she said “a video game console?” and then she got confused. She did not think he was shackled. She did not perceive him to be a criminal.

Paine was as an American citizen who was unsuccessful in assassinating the United States Secretary of State William H. Seward on on April 14, 1865.

You might remember his name.

He was a co-conspirator of John Wilkes Booth.

On the same night, Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

Titled,“Powell in wrist irons aboard the monitor USS Saugus,” and photographed by Alexander Gardner, in 1865, Paine was on his way to be executed. So there is definitely a story behind this image- just not an obvious one- because Gardner didn’t depict him as a criminal. The storytelling, the purpose- the intent is ambiguous.

This image was not taken for prison records, it was not taken by a prison guard- but by a famous photographer.  Thus, this image does not serve as a police photograph. Neither does it serve the “honorific function of bourgeois portraiture” (Sekula 10). But it does “inherit” and “democratize” the traditional purpose of photography and takes it beyond the domestic sphere by emphasizing the social audience. This is a “private moment of sentimental individuation” but it is overshadowed by “public looks”(14). We all insert our own narrative.

I have been thinking about the image ever since Professor Martin mentioned that student once said he looked like a “Banana Republic Model.” I know I’m not the only one who thinks he is a very good-looking man. He does not resemble a terrorist.

This got me thinking about how society dictates the way we look and think about different people. There are many labels and markers surrounding how we think about class, race and status. This process of normalizing, profiling, categorizing, and stereotyping can be very detrimental to both the viewer and the subject being scrutinized.

What happens when we start judging people based on appearance and mistaking their character, instead of realizing their true identity?

“This paradigm [photography] had two tightly entwined branches, physiognomy, and phrenology. Both shared the belief that the surface of the body, and especially the face and head, bore the outwards signs of inner character” (11).

***Phrenology: The detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities (OED); the supposed art of judging a character from facial characteristics.

Physiognomy: A person’s facial features or expression, especially when regarded as indicative of character or ethnic origin.***

And this photograph of Payne is perfect proof of the “broad appeal and influence of these practices on literary and artistic realism.” All the students in class began to focus on his face- in addition to other aspects of the photograph like lighting. But there was something arresting about his expression-or was it his features? Initially,  the setting, what he was feeling (etc,) was all speculation. We inserted our own comments to fill in the blanks, or rather clarify the ambiguity. The moment we discovered some context, everything changed.

I think we sympathized with him to an extent. At least, I did; he didn’t look like a bad guy. The culture and impact of photography is not fully understood without recognizing the “enormous prestige and popularity of physiognomic paradigm in the 1840s and 1850s” (12). Thus, Sekula was apt in saying “the proliferation of photography and that of physiognomy were quite coincidental” (14).

Interestingly, not only do we project our own expectations onto someone, we can idealize a face, or subject it to negative criticism based on certain facial characteristics. These societal prescriptions have been studied and proven based on how we read faces.

In light of the recent incidents in Paris, Beirut and Syria, I realize the extent to which our perception of terrorists, criminals, the innocent and the victims is obscured by the media. That is no doubt; our bias is painted by the images we see.

But it’s more than propaganda that affects our perception. Humans naturally trust or fear another human based on their facial features.

What’s in a face? According to scientists at Princeton University, plenty!

A pair of Princeton psychology researchers developed a computer program that allows scientists to analyze what it is about certain human faces that makes them look either trustworthy or fearsome. “In doing so, they have also found that the program allows them to construct computer-generated faces that display the most trustworthy or dominant faces possible” (

I will simply be exploring the study that tested trustworthiness in human faces, and the implications on how we view criminals.

Image result for intelligence and face structure

These examples show computer-generated faces displaying the common features the Princeton researchers’ test subjects rated as trustworthy: from most trustworthy at left; to neutral in the middle; to least trustworthy at right. Credit: Oosterhof & Todorov

A trustworthy face (at its most extreme) has a U-shaped mouth and eyes that form an almost surprised look. An untrustworthy face (at its most extreme) is an angry one, with the edges of the mouth curled down and eyebrows pointing down at the center.

Watch the transitional video:

After asking participants to make faces, making others rate those faces, scientists were able to make caricature representations of different expressions. Once those models were established, the scientists could  show different faces to other test subjects to confirm that they were “eliciting the predicted emotional response,” and find out what facial features are critical for different “social judgments.”

Taking what they have learned over time — people make instant judgments about faces that guide them in how they feel about that person (whether right or wrong). “The scientists decided to search for a way to quantify and define exactly what it is about each person’s face that conveys a sense they can be trusted or feared” ( Scientists discovered that people make split second decisions regarding whether or not they should approach or avoid a person they see for the first time.

Could we say Lewis Payne’s face is inviting? I don’t think so, but it definitely isn’t threatening either. After discovering his true identity- could we say the face looks dominant, maybe even menacing? His character looks strong not weak. Or is it his face that gives such an impression?

Scientists chose those precise traits “fear and trust” because they found they corresponded with a whole host of other vital characteristics, such as happiness and maturity. “Humans seem to be wired to look to faces to understand the person’s intentions,” said Todorov, who has spent years studying the subtleties of the simple plane containing the eyes, nose and mouth. “People are always asking themselves, ‘Does this person have good or bad intentions?'” (

But if someone “looks” like a criminal, but they aren’t- that’s a problem. If someone is a criminal but we sympathize with them, because they don’t fit the profile- that’s also a problem.Maybe Payne had good intentions- but his actions say otherwise. Maybe he was actually a decent human being but his assassination attempt labelled him a criminal- a terrorist, regardless of what he looks like. It’s too bad he didn’t fit the profile.

I guess it’s true when they say don’t judge a book by its cover.



Sun, Dec 6, 2015, 11:21 PM
Dear Khadija,

I am catching up on the blog and commenting on people’s posts. I just finished reading your stellar post on the Gardner photograph of Lewis Payne. I am so impressed by the way that your consideration of the photograph — interstitial as it is between honorific and disciplinary photography, a fantastic point — moves into an all too relevant set of ideas about the assumption that we can read danger onto the body. The connections that you make to the contemporary panic about terrorism are urgent! The idea that we can “tell” through seeing who is a terrorist, who is dangerous, leads to many forms of racism and Islamophobia. I also really enjoyed your fun post on Irene Adler and Scandal in Bohemia which laid out a number of interesting theories about the story. You are doing a fantastic job contributing to the blog.
Best, AM

Amy E. Martin

Chair of the English Department
Associate Professor of English and Faculty Member in Critical Social Thought
Faculty Director of the Speaking, Arguing, and Writing Program
Mount Holyoke College


  1. I thought this blog post was incredibly insightful and relevant. I remember our in depth discussion on the the photograph of Payne. The most frequent comment was that he did not “look” like a criminal. Yet what should a criminal look like?
    It was the truth then and it is the truth now that visual media alters the way we view one another. Popular culture has skewed public perception of what the face of a criminal should look like. As we have seen with hundreds of police shootings, people of color have been the target.
    When I first started reading this piece I hoped you would mention the recent attacks in Beirut, Paris and Syria. This made your post combine the historical with the contemporary. Unfortunately in the United States, people, especially politicians, have been anxious to pin point the image of a terrorist. Fingers have been pointed at the Syrian refugees and more specifically, all non-Christian refugees. But how can you determine that? “Terrorist” does not equal skin-color or religion. If a white Christian man commits a terrorist act, do we go ahead and blame the entire white-Christian population. No. Even before Payne’s photograph, criminality has always been assigned to a specific look.
    When we looked at Payne’s photograph we didn’t want to accept that he was a criminal because he was white and handsome. It’s not our fault for thinking that because popular culture and media have brainwashed us to associate criminality with other attributes.
    Again thank you for bringing this discussion to the blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: