When six photographers are tasked with taking portraits of the same man, the results are astonishing. Here’s the twist: each photographer is told a different (fake) personal history of the man. As portrait photographers, it’s their goal to portray this man, as they see him, in a single photograph. Though he comes to each photo session dressed exactly the same, carries himself the same way, and speaks with each photographer in the same manner, the photographers treat him differently and photograph him completely differently depending on the background story.
This “experiment” is a perfect illustration of how we all deal with preconceived notions about the people we encounter, and how that affects the way we view them and even the way we treat them. The experiment is titled “Decoy” and was developed as an exercise for photographers that are seeking to improve their craft. Each photographer is assigned one of six histories: millionaire, fisherman, life-saver, psychic, former prison inmate, and recovering alcoholic, and asked to capture this person’s essence in a portrait. When all of the photographers are brought back at the same time to see their portraits together, they realize immediately that each portrait is radically different. It’s as if they were all photographing a completely different person. In a way, they were.
Though this experiment was designed to teach photographers about perspective, it clearly reveals something important about all of us. We see and judge people based on their histories and how we perceive those histories. Though the subject presented himself to each photographer in exactly the same way, they each treated him in a different manner. Before they even met the man, the photographers had already decided his character. In reality, they knew very little about the man. Here’s the important lesson: the labels we give people do not actually determine who they are, only how we perceive them.