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Couples: An Eclectic View

CouplesPhotographs by Max James Fallon
Introduction by Jeffrey Goodby
MustSeeBooks, San Francisco

Review by Daniel Sonkin, Ph.D.
Sausalito, CA
Published in The Therapist – Magazine of the California
Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.
Volume 22, Issue 6 – November/December 2010

“Romantic couples, wise couples, exotic couples, proud couples, passionate couples, the couples next store.”  So writes Max Fallon on the inner sleeve of his new book, Couples: An Eclectic View.  This book is all that and more.  It’s a compilation of Max’s finest shots of couples from around the world, who have so graciously allowed him to capture their soul, if only for the moment.  Fallon previous book, Striking Poses, was a photographic series of unique individuals who he met in his travels around the globe.  Couples take that concept, but from the viewpoint of relationships. 

As a therapist who specializes in relationships, and most recently interested in the social aspects of the brain, I find the this book not only wonderful from the perspective of viewing interesting and diverse couples, but each photo is also emotionally evocative, which means the viewer is affected, or infected, with emotion captured in the photos.  Max has a talent for taking interesting photos that not only capture the physical aspects of people but their emotional beings as well.  Traditional Native American culture has often been apprehensive of being photographed because they feared that it would capture their soul.  Well if the soul includes one’s emotions, then Max Fallon has proven this correct. 

Neuroscientists, studying mirror neurons, have recently discovered that our minds are wired to communicate.  When emotion is expressed by someone either verbally or non-verbally, the observer’s mirror neuron system simulates that emotion by activating not only the emotional centers of the observers brain, but their motor processes that affect muscle changes in the observer’s body.  That’s why when somebody smiles we begin to smile too.  This contagion process is a way of knowing others minds and intentions. This can occur in person or via a two-dimensional medium, such as photography or film.  The prefrontal cortex recognizes the physiological changes in our body and labels the experience as a feeling – happiness, sadness, fear, etc.  That’s how we recognize emotion in others, by feeling it ourselves first.  This happens so quickly, we don’t even know it’s happening. Through this implicit process, the mirror neuron system renders social communication more efficiently and effectively.  If every communication needed to be explicit, it would make social interactions more cumbersome. It is believed that these mirror neurons help to explain the phenomenon of human empathy – feeling other’s emotions.

Every photo in Fallon’s book is rich with emotion.  When I look at the photos, I feel happy, love, sexual, gratitude, sadness.  The non-verbal, two-dimensional representations of each of the couples are communicating something to my mirror neuron system and my body tells me what I must be seeing in their faces.  They say that a photograph is successful when a photographer is able to communicate through the photo what he or she was feeling at the moment the photo was taken.  This of course is true for all types of subject matter.  But when the photograph is of a person, perhaps one could say that another sign of a talented photographer is the ability to communicate through the photo what the photographic subject is feeling.  I think Max Fallon is successful on both accounts.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this book was the incredible diversity of couples – old, young, middle-aged, interracial, gay, lesbian.  He also included wonderful short comments by the subjects; some insightful, some wise, others humorous.  Most importantly, the photographs represent each person’s willingness to be vulnerable and trusting of this stranger, who will ultimately choose the best photo that represents their relationship, exposing their love and relationship to the rest of world to see, if not for eternity, at for least a very long time – the life of a book.

Why would a Marriage and Family Therapist want to buy this book?  Certainly if you had an interest in photography, this book would be a wonderful addition to your art book collection.  But as our license name implies, we are a profession whose interest and specialty is relationships.  This is book about relationships, but it’s also food for the right brain – that part of the mind that appreciates non-verbal communication free of the logic of our left-brain.  I can see this book, not only on the therapist’s bookshelf in the office, but also out on the waiting room table, with the People and New Yorker magazines as in our office.  I can imagine a couple coming in for their appointment and looking through the book as they simultaneously ponder what will occur in the coming hour.  Will they laugh? Will they cry? Will they get angry? Will they feel hope? Will they feel despair?  These are the emotions we confront in our daily work with individuals, couples and families struggling with their close relationships.  Perhaps, after looking at the photos in his book, that couple may also remember a moment they felt the joy of their relationship, a moment in time they may have forgotten their troubles because a stranger may have said to them, “Do you mind if I take your picture?”