NPPA EyeTrack Study: Most Memorable Photographs Had Emotion, Story, Moment

A test subject in the eyetraking research at the University of Minnesota talks about one photograph in a set of images taken at a Bollywood awards ceremony in Tampa, FL. Photograph by Alex Garcia
A test subject in the eyetraking research at the University of Minnesota talks about one photograph in a set of images taken at a Bollywood awards ceremony in Tampa, FL. Photograph by Alex Garcia

Part Three of a four-part weekly series. Read Part One here, and Part Two here.

A sidebar Q&A where Kenny Irby of The Poynter Institute asks author Sara Quinn about her insights into the research and lessons learned from the study is online here.


By Sara Quinn

ATHENS, GA (February 11, 2015) – “What do you mean by quality?” 

A number of people asked this when I instructed them to rate each photograph on a scale of 1 to 5 in a recent EyeTrack study on photojournalism funded by the National Press Photographers Association.

I answered with a simple (and hopefully polite) shrug. 

“Oh, you want me to define quality,” many of them said.

“You can tell which ones are done by people who know what they are doing,” said a 21-year-old male participant, “whether it’s the focus, or the angle or the lighting, being allowed to be up close — all that stuff.”

At the end of a 15-minute eyetracking session, participants in the NPPA study at the University of Minnesota had looked through an average of 70 photographs. They rated each one on a scale of 1 to 5 in terms of quality and the likelihood that they might share the image.

The first question I asked when we turned to the exit interview portion of the study was: “Of the photographs you’ve just seen, which stood out as most memorable, and why?”

Most people didn’t need to pause for a second before they started to talk about the photographs that had stayed with them. Images they cited most often involved emotion, story, moment and unique perspective that had drawn them in. Here are a few of the most memorable photographs from the study.

A photograph by Al Diaz of The Miami Herald of an infant being given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by his aunt on the side of an interstate highway was among the highest rated and most often mentioned picture in the exit interview.

Among the comments about this image were:

“Vividly, I remember the one of the woman giving mouth-to-mouth to the small child—the baby. The action was so focused and centered.” — 19-year-old female participant in the test

“The aunt that was on the side of the road doing CPR on her nephew. I remember her face. It’s the people’s faces and their reactions. For me, the sympathy on their faces draws me in closer, if I can see them really happy, or hurting or really excited, it draws me in to the photo.” —  57-year-old female participant

“The one where the woman is giving CPR to the little boy. I thought this was a very good action shot, in the moment ... being on the spot. Considering that a real emergency is going on, this would be a very hard shot to take.” — 27-year-old male participant

Photojournalist Bruce Graner’s image for the Pensacola News Journal of two women who were walking off of a dance floor, laughing and holding hands, was remembered as a natural, joyful moment. People said they wanted to know more about the two women and what they were doing.

“The one with the two ladies leaving the dance floor. You could tell that they were happy. The picture itself told a good story. Not the caption — just the picture itself. — 55-year-old male participant

“There was a photo of two ladies, they were both laughing hysterically. The facial expressions are what stood out to me, most. The photos with clear facial expressions.” — 20-year-old female participant

“There was one of two women coming off a dance floor. I’d say it was the emotion that you see on their faces – it’s just really real.” — 22-year-old female participant

“So happy. It is a nice, candid moment with interesting emotion. It was shot well.” — 27-year-old male participant

A photograph by Christopher Gannon for the Des Moines Register was mentioned by a number of participants in the study when they were asked what images stood out in their memory.

“Well, like the player sliding in to home plate. I just thought ‘Boy, the photographer was in the right place at the right time and captured the exact right shot.’ Framed perfectly. Emotional.” — 56-year-old male participant

“I’m not a sports person, at all. But some of the sports photos stood out to me as being very high quality, catching the moment. The guy being called out on whatever base it was. I would not have thought that a sports photo would have necessarily been something that stuck out to me, but it did.” — 58-year-old female participant


Mark Baker, chief of bureau for The Associated Press in Southeast Asia, took this photograph in Jakarta. It was frequently mentioned by participants from the study and prompted interesting remarks.

“The little girl — there’s obviously the contrast between life and death. It just seemed like it was a natural photo that represented some very interesting ideas. And the moment that it captured ... She was focused on the ground. It seemed very genuine.” — 47-year-old participant

“The one of the little girl dancing on top of the graves: It was a pretty photo, a pretty scene, but then, it was sort of off-putting seeing her jump from one grave to the other. But, obviously, she’s so innocent, she doesn’t think she’s doing anything she shouldn’t be doing.” — 20-year-old male participant

“I’m thinking of the little girl who was jumping over the tombstones. There was just something rather appealing about that to me. An interesting take on kind of a sober subject.” — 58-year-old female participant

“Memorable? The girl jumping over the gravestones in the cemetery. It was just this girl being happy and young and carefree in this very, very somber place.” — 44-year-old female participant

Photographer Ryan Garza’s photograph for the Detroit Free Press of a 5-year-old boy dealing with severe health problems drew attention for several reasons, including the poignant moment he captured. Interestingly, another reason was the Green Bay Packers’ jersey worn by his subject. The study showed that words or logos within the actual photograph frequently drew attention.

“I saw one of a kid in a Green Bay jersey. I think he had cerebral palsy. The photo was emotional. Well, I also think I remember this one because I am a sports fan and I remember the jersey.” — 21-year-old male participant

“… the little boy who had cerebral palsy. That was such an emotional picture, so sad. To see his face so close up, it made it more meaningful.” — 20-year-old female participant

“The one of the little kid who had, like, a trachea tube. I remember he was born with health problems because his mother was a heroine addict. Before I read the caption, I saw that he was wearing a Green Bay Packers jersey. And I was like ‘Aw, a Packers fan!’ And, then I read it, and it was just so sad. He’s just a little kid and he looked so innocent. He didn’t have any choice in the way that he was presented into the world. I don’t know, it just kind of stays with you.” — 21-year-old male participant

Photojournalist Ben Garvin sparked a lot of discussion among participants in the study who were more than a little tired of the snow that stayed in Minnesota well into April. His photograph was from the St. Paul Pioneer Press 

“I liked the zeroing in on the grass, thru the snow. I mean, the photographer was laying on the ground!”  — 55-year-old female participant

“It’s not that it’s rare, it’s that someone has decided to see it. The grass coming up through the snow was memorable. Sharp pictures, close up to something.” — 43-year-old male participant


A sidebar Q&A where Kenny Irby of The Poynter Institute asks author Sara Quinn about her insights into the research and lessons learned from the study is online here.