"Can't You Tell That I Am Not Afraid?"

Face-Reading Software Interprets Emotions In Famous Portraits

Reading faces

Understanding what emotions people feel towards products, brands, and advertisements is one of the cornerstones of consumer research. To demonstrate the potential of automated emotion detection, we ran five iconic portraits through FaceReader, a facial recognition suite by a Dutch company Noldus that captures and describes 500 different key facial points.


Guerrillero Heroico

Better known as a T-shirt silhouette worn on college campuses around the world, this photograph of Ernesto “Che” Guevara was taken by Alberto Korda in 1960 at a memorial service for compatriots killed in the La Coubre explosion. The photo is popularly described as evidence of Che’s stoic determination in the face of adversity, and FaceReader confirms: El Comandante sports a neutral expression tinged with a heavy dose of anger.


The Young Lion

The most famous in the “The Young Lion” photo-session by Joel Brodsky (1966), this picture cemented Jim Morrison as an idol of his era. FaceReader interprets The Doors frontman’s expression as mix of sadness and anger, which other researchers have shown to be exactly the expression you would want from a sex symbol. Also, Morrison was drunk during the shoot.


 How would you feel if you were able to hear for the first time in your life? Young Harold Whittles reacts very differently than you might expect after receiving his first hearing aid: he displays fear at the novel sensation, as well as some surprise. (Undated photo by Jack Bradley)



Run on the cover of National Geographic, this picture of a then-unidentified Afghan refugee came to symbolize the consequences of the region’s conflict in the 1980′s. The Afghan Girl’s face reflects the refugees’ sad plight, and displays no other emotions. (Steve McCurry, 1984)

Afghan Girl


The Mona Lisa’s expression has remained inscrutable to generations of researchers, and now a computer algorithm has failed as well. A bit of sadness among momentous flashes of other emotions was all FaceReader could discern. (Leonardo DaVinci, c. 1503-1506

Mona Lisa

With Remy Lupica