One Hour Photo: Viewing Humanity Through a Camera Lens

One Hour Photo starring Robin Williams
One Hour Photo starring Robin Williams

It is safe to say that there will never be an actor, quite like the beloved Robin Williams. While he may have starred in some poorer films, they feel irrelevant when compared to some of his best films. He made children and adults laugh on the floor with the fourth walls breaking humor in Aladdin. He also hammered in the importance of literature by simply standing on a desk in Dead Poet Society. He certainly knew how to pick a unique role, yet he always played a good guy because of his household name. That was certainly not the case in his 2002 film, One Hour Photo, in which he played a disturbed stalker.

In the film, Williams played Seymour Parrish, a.k.a Sy the Photo Guy, who works on developing customers photos in a one-hour photo lab. He sees a family that he has become very friendly with, but the more we step into his psyche, the clearer it becomes that he has grown an unnatural obsession with the family. In the wrong hands, this film could have become another formulaic thriller, but that is not what director Mark Romanek did at all. Sy is not a killer, nor does he show any real sexual desire to assault someone; he is just old man who is simply feeling alone. He does not want to hurt the family physically, he just wants to preserve the family’s happiness, as he sees them in their photos.

Sy’s Character arc

The important thing to ask regarding Sy’s character arc is what is his obsession with this particular family? The Yorkin family is just the same as any other white suburban family, so what makes them so distinctive from the rest? The most likely reason is because Sy continuously sees pictures of the family always being happy; therefore he sees them as a perfect and welcoming family. In the film, Sy keeps referring himself as an uncle to the Yorkin family, and in a way, it perfectly represents how he wishes to be integrated into the family. He does not want to sadistically kill the family, nor does he want to be in a sexual relationship with the wife. All he wants is to feel like he belongs in the family, which is an understandable emotion when someone is alone in life. However, it is not his reasoning that makes him a disturbed character, it is how he goes about trying to observe the Yorkin family.

Sy disturbingly watching the Yorkin family through pictures
Sy disturbingly watching the Yorkin family through pictures

It is clear that Sy is an insane stalker is when we see he has a wall of photos dedicated to the Yorkin family. An interesting way to interpret Sy is as a deranged guardian angel because of how he watches over the family, as if it is his duty. In particular, he watches over the son Jakob to make sure his life is as Sy thinks it should be, almost like Sy sees a little bit of himself in Jacob. While it is never deliberately stated in the film directly, it is possible that Sy had a bad childhood, and he does not want Jakob to go though the same thing. When a shocking discovery is made about the father Will, Sy sees it as his obligation to the family to help the wife through drastic actions. Another way to interpret Sy comes in the scene when Sy’s TV is showing the original The Day The Earth Stood Still. The film is about an alien coming down to earth and sending a message of peace and the shunning of war. Symbolically, this is describing Sy as an alien; not in the literal sense of course, but more that he is a man that is not well accepted into society, and studies other peoples’ lives to understand how to be normal. It makes sense, considering that he has no friends, family, or even a lover in his life. To further establish this, he puts a random photo of a middle-aged women in his wallet, and pretends it is a picture of his mother.

At this point, the audience knows that Sy is alone in life, but it is not specifically mentioned why he is alone. It is most likely because he is old, therefore implying he has lost his chance to have a family, or to even have an exciting life in general. One scene that is very symbolic of Sy’s old age in when he is walking through a yard sale, full of discarded and unwanted materials. Even his job is very obsolete, considering all photos now-a-days are digital, so there is no real point in photos being edited by other people. Without this job, he has no way to be with the Yorkins, as he can only understand their lives through photos. Disturbingly, he even keeps a picture of the Yorkins family, and says that he is Jakob’s uncle. This quote perfectly sums up why photography is so impotent to him.

“And if these pictures have anything important to say to future generations, it’s this: I was here. I existed. I was young, I was happy, and someone cared enough about me in this world to take my picture.” 

The Yorkin Family

The point of a family photo is to capture the good moments in life, almost as a way to distract us from our problems and struggles in reality. People do not take photos of bad moments in life so they never have relive those awful experiences. This is exactly what the Yorkin family represents: a family that looks happy in photos, but are actually dysfunctional in real life. The mother Nina spends too much money, and the father Will is neglectful, and does not pay much attention to his own family. This is because he is selfishly having an affair with another woman behind Nina’s back. At first, Sy sees Will as an ordinary suburban father in this family’s photos, but when he meets him in the flesh, he senses something troubling about him.

And then there is Jakob, who befriends Sy even though he feels sad towards him at the same time. Jakob is just a kid, and he does not understand how someone like Sy can hide behind a smile every day, even though they are miserable. At first his mom tries to reassure him by saying Sy probably has friends and a girlfriend, but she does not want to lie to her son, so she simply replies “not everyone is as lucky as us.” In other words, she is saying that people like them are meant to live a happy life with others, while people like Sy are just presumed to live alone. It is a defeatist way to view humanity, but it is sadly true. Not everyone gets to live with the ones they love, whether it is because of person’s own actions, or the person was just misunderstood. In Sy’s case, he either became deranged because he has always been that way, or people in society simply neglecting him, forcing him in to a life of seclusion.

By the third act of the film, Sy realizes that Will is the weak link in this perfect family. At first, he puts photos of Will cheating with the other women in Nina’s photo envelope. After stalking the family even more, he observes that nether Nina nor Jakob have the guts to confront Will, so Sy decides to take matters into his own hands. He breaks into a hotel room that Will and the other women are in, and threatens them with a knife to have sex while he takes pictures of them. He doesnot do this for sexual thrills, but instead to reveal Will’s true nature of being an adulterer. Will never thought twice about having an affair with another women, but now that pictures are being taken of their immoral acts, he is now ashamed and disturbed by his actions. Sy is soon put into custody, and Will is allowed to go back home with a guilty conscience. While his family is glad to have him back alive, he may never be able to live down his betrayal of his wife and son’s trust.


With a film so entrenched with pictures and images, it makes sense that the film cinematography itself would be very metaphorical. The cinematography was done by Jeff Cronenweth, who is known for doing the cinematography of most of David Fincher’s films Like Fight Club and Gone Girl. What specifically stands out is the use of color in the film, and how it symbolizes Sy’s unstable mind. One obvious example is the color red, and like most other films, it symbolizes a character’s anger and frustration. In one specific scene, Sy has discovered that Will has been having an affair, and he hides in the corner of a dark room. Since the whole scene is drenched in red, it shows Sy’s rage, but also his fear, as he does not know what he may have to do to fix the problem at hand. Then there is the color blue, which is supposed to invoke the feeling of comfort, which makes it ironic that Sy is shown wearing a blue vest. The color blue in the film is metaphorically saying that people need to be careful who to trust because the individuals that come off as kind and normal may be more mentally disturbed than one may think.

Sy's disturbing nightmare
Sy’s disturbing nightmare

Yet the color that is inescapable in the film is the color white. This stark color can be seen in the store where Sy works at, in Sy’s lonely apartment, and even in Sy’s clothing. The color white is certainly not symbolizing that Sy is heavenly or even morally good, but instead symbolizes his loneliness. He does not fit in the world, so the color white shows he is alone wherever he goes; whether it be his job, or even his own apartment. White also symbolizes that he is insane because the walls in his apartment and even in a dream sequence oddly resemble an insane asylum.The dream sequence itself has become the most iconic scene of the film, but what does it actually mean? Since the scene is so ambiguous, it can be interpreted in many different ways. One way the nightmare could be interpreted is Sy attempting to hide his inhumane side, as he can no longer hold back his inner insanity. Another way it can be interpreted is Sy has seen the true colors of Will, and now his pure image of the Yorkin family is forever ruined.

Since Cronenweth has worked on David Fincher films, he has mastered the art of slowly delving into a character’s psyche by showing disturbing and psychological images. He tells the audience that Sy is delusional using almost no dialogue, and instead relying on the method of ‘show don’t tell.’ One scene, for example, shows Sy’s delusional fantasy as he walks into the Yorkin’s home while they are out, and acts like he lives there himself. When the Yorkin’s do arrive home and catch Sy in the act, they are not frightened by him, but instead treat him like he is a part of the family. In this one scene, it is established that Sy has no social stills at all, and also how he is living in a fantasy that even he knowns he can never have. What really enhances the disturbing images is the haunting score by Reinhold Heil & Johnny Klimek. Without the soundtrack, the scene in which Sy breaks into the house might be interpreted as sad, considering it is a lonely man longing for a normal life. However, when placing a haunting score in the scene, it gives the scene a whole new unnerving feeling to the audience.

The last disturbing shot of the film
The last disturbing shot of the film

When getting right down to it, what makes Sy an interesting character study is that he is clearly delusional, yet at the same time tragically sympathetic. Don’t be mistaken, he is not a good human being, considering he stalked a family and threatened two people to imitate sex while he takes pictures. However, the fact that he is trying to warn a mother about her adulterer husband is actually commendable; because he just wants to see the family be happy. In the end: who is the real villain of the film? A man that would take drastic measures to expose an adulterer, or is it the man who would throw away all his family’s trust and respect for a hotter woman. Maybe they are both immoral men for different reasons, it is just that Sy’s motivation is more understandable. All Sy wanted was to feel like he would mean something to the Yorkin family, and in a twisted way, he got his wish. By the end of the film, the Yorkins will never be able to forget Sy, and what he did to their family.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Nicole Williams

    Wow! I had no idea that this side of Robin Williams, as an actor, existed. This movie sounds fascinating. I wonder why it’s not more well-known.

    • Aaron Hatch

      I think the possible reason that this film went underrated is because people did not want to see the lovable Robin Williams depicted as a mad man. If you want to see Williams in a totally different role, I have a feeling you will like this film.

      • That’s a very valid point. I’m figuring out more recently that Robin Williams had a huge spectrum of acting personas, and very confidently could play to comedy, thriller, horror, mystery, and in this case, psychological dramas. He quickly has become one of my favorite actors, not just because he was great in a few really good movies, but the fact that he was great in a great amount of movies. In others words, when I heard about him playing a leading role in this film, I was very interested to see it because I had already discovered his talents in multiple genres. Had someone only seen him act in comedy such as in Mrs. Doubtfire, I could see why some people would stray away from a film like this. However, they are mislead, and would benefit greatly from seeing this film.

  2. If you get the DVD, check out the outtakes. There you’ll see Williams doing his shtick, sort of showing the comic side of One Hour Photo. It is pretty funny!

    • Aaron Hatch

      I saw the outtakes as well. They were funny, and it’s a sad and strange thought that Williams is no longer with us.

  3. Pomeroy

    I was very impressed with this film. The plot is extremely creepy and thought provoking.

  4. This was super good, creepy and intense in a quiet sort of way as there are lots of scenes without any dialogue at all.

  5. Robin Williams always had his own style on screen, I’m interested to see his take on someone with some form of mental illness.

  6. DClarke

    I like your ending and how you say that Sy will never be forgotten. Much of the movie is about photos and how they capture something lasting, however, major experiences (traumatic or otherwise) leave us with the same indelible memories that are just undocumented. I suppose, in at least one way, Sy gets what he wants and that is to make an impact on the lives of the family that they will not soon forget

    • Aaron Hatch

      It is the most haunting image in the film, and much like how he Yorkin family will never forget Sy, we the audience will always remember that last shot of the film.

  7. Did you think the little revelation at the end of Sy’s own personal history took away from the film? I always thought Sy worked better as a bit of a blank slate that we develop. Actually knowing something about him takes away from that, I felt.

  8. Kim Akin

    Thanks, Robin. I miss you.

  9. As a former one hour photo worker, I can identify with some of the aspects of his job. Also I worked at Wal Mart and the filmmakers replicated its look pretty well.

  10. This has been filmed in a way that reminded me of Breaking Bad in that there are lots of scenes without dialogue, you just watch riveted and slack jawed as someone goes about their business.

    • Aaron Hatch

      What make One Hour Photo so similar to Breaking Bad is the usage of color. Color tells a lot of the story, with little to no dialogue.

  11. Siothrún

    This, in my opinion, proves that Robin Williams was a versatile actor. Knowing that he played such a morally ambiguous role makes me more saddened by the fact that his voice has stopped growing and changing over time. Also, this movie brings to mind the film Speed of Life, directed by Ed Radtke. Many of the themes you mentioned in this article are also reflected in that film. Great thought-provoking article!

    • Aaron Hatch

      I have not heard of that Street of Life, but if its anything like One Hour Photo, then it really makes me want to check it out.

  12. Selma Paz

    This movie is creepily satisfying.

  13. Shane Gilson

    It’s been some time since I watched it. It’s a haunting experience and full of brilliant performances.

  14. Robin Williams was a fantastic actor. Very sad how things turned out for this great man.

  15. Having watched Nightcrawler recently, I was in the mood to see some more great performances from actors playing disturbing characters. This was one of them.

  16. The premise of the story is really stimulating!

  17. Matthew Sims

    While I, personally, am, for the most part, indifferent to Robin Williams as an actor and simply see him as Robin Williams playing Robin Williams with his usual standup, silly faces and voices schtick, he has some unique roles: e.g. Good Will Hunting, Awakenings and seemingly, this. On my watchlist.

    • Aaron Hatch

      If you want to see Robin Williams in another roles similar to One Hour Photo, I recommend you watch Insomnia, in which he played a villain.

  18. It’s a shame that Williams’ didn’t get more acclaim for this part.

  19. Zachery

    Robin Williams is absolutely brilliant.

  20. Gabriel

    This was truly a great film, one of Williams’ best performances for the sheer fact that he never showed this side of his acting very often, but also just because it was a terrific performance.

  21. I haven’t watched this film in a long time, but it is one of the most unforgettable films I have ever seen. Reading this article makes me want to go watch it again! Excellent interpretation. I saw this when I was a teen and the points you brought up went way over my head. I feel like I will have a new appreciation of this movie now. Great article!

  22. Alia Frick

    His performance is so unique, miss Mr William.

  23. The use of the colours to depict the mood for different scenarios was done well I thought.

  24. Whitmore

    I think the first time that I saw One Hour Photo I couldn’t have been paying too much attention to it because I actually thought it was a very slow paced mediocre film. However, after recently watching it for the first time since it’s release and actually paying attention, it is definitely much better than I initially thought.

  25. I find it interesting that we find white to be such an inescapable colour, simply because it has none. I also find the connection of language to this same theme interesting, and how we use these different forms of communication in art to convey the psyche and how we operate in life.

    In terms of who the real villain is, I think if he really just wanted to help out, drastic measures need not be taken, and stalking and threatening together are clearly worse acts than a man who has fallen out of love.

    • Aaron Hatch

      It is certainly debatable if Sy is hero or villain of the film. On the outside, Sy may look like a bad guy because he threatened two people, but on the inside he was just trying to help a family learn the secret of there untrustworthy father.

  26. Reggie "Rusty" Farrakhan

    “Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails was initially chosen by Mark Romanek to provide the musical score for the film. Romanek, however opted not to use the score Reznor provided. Some of the compositions meant to be used in this film were reworked and released on the album Still by Nine Inch Nails.”

    Make you wonder how the score for The Social Network would of turned out if Romanek kept Trent’s in the film.

    • Aaron Hatch

      I think having Nine Inch Nails would make the music distracting, so I think Romanek made the right choose in the end.

      • Reggie "Rusty" Farrakhan

        I’m not entirely sure about that, since Reznor’s work with David Fincher has proven to be quite harmonious with the last three films of his, giving it a hauntingly beautiful and gruesome edge.

        Maybe Reznor alone may be the reason why the One Hour Photo score was rejected, and that Atticus Ross might be the guy that softened the scores of Social Network, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl.

  27. “This quote perfectly sums up why photography is so impotent to him.” You meant important, right?

  28. really like it, it is about as uncomfortable as you can imagine.

  29. Williams will be very missed.

  30. I LOVE this film and was a pleasure to read your perspective on it. Great job!

  31. I LOVE this film and was a pleasure to read your perspective on it.

  32. kgbell44

    very interesting read. definitely one my watch list.

  33. Such a beautiful post. This is the one film I have saved on the DVR and I am watching it again. It’s one of my favorite films but I know it’s an odd one to say that about.
    I think Sy is alone because he was an abused child. He is old now but when he described his illnesses to Jake they were terrible ones and the broken collar bone, to me, just more proof. His directing of the final abuse to the cheating Will was directed from a memory of his own twisted upbringing (IMO). The ability to be intimate was ruined by his own family’s torture in a similar way. He may not feel comfortable touching people- even his using of Will he didn’t allow them to touch. Pictures are the safest way he can be “in” a family, no real contact just watching the smiles and happiness.
    I read a funny post a few years ago about what a part two would be like and it was sympathetic to Sy. Yes he is a broken person but at least in his mind he was doing what he thought right. Will had no such excuse.
    On a shallow note, I want that Yorkin house it’s so gorgeous 🙂

  34. Blue vest to symbolize the comfort Sy’s work provided for him?
    He only went every car off the rails crazy after he was fired.

  35. Aaron,
    I just wanted to say that I loved your article. I am a huge fan of this film and I think your analysis was very accurate and factual. This definitely is a film every fan of Robin Williams should see as it shows how amazing and talented he was.

  36. Mika Jones

    Yup. He premeditated everything so in the end he would be the guy that saved our family to the Yorkins. Still think he’s nuts. He would go to any extreme to manipulate things to get what he wants. The scene with the Deepak Chopra book. He’s just a full on liar and sneak. He knows what he’s doing. It bothered me. Yes it shows he’s harmless but for how long and to what extreme. Great movie. Leaves a lot open for the mind in the end. Great acting by a well respected man in the film industry.

  37. Definitely an underrated film of Robin Williams.

  38. Jenny Visvalingam

    I miss robin Williams so much wherever you are robin I hope your at peace and thank you from all of us for brining us years of laughter and entertainment thank you

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