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Plot-Based Photograph Obfuscation

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Let me guess. That reflection is hiding some big plot secret?

Sometimes, being able to see someone would enable the viewer to wrap up some important part of the show's mystery well beforehand. Commonly, a character will have a photograph of himself next to someone who is obscured by Lens Flare, a deep shadow or some other obfuscation. Maybe the photo is torn. Maybe when the character sees the photo in its frame, another item blocks part of the picture. In any event, you can be sure that, whoever the obscured person is, he's going to be important to the plot. As well, if the character had seen that person, it would reveal something important.

See also Conveniently Interrupted Document, Plot-Based Voice Cancellation, and Removed from the Picture.

Since this trope is associated with plot twists, all spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware!


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Allison and Lillia, the only photo Lillia has of her Disappeared Dad is one where he moved during the exposure, so she has never seen his face. This is intentional, as otherwise, she would quickly recognize the man dating her mother as her own father with dyed hair.
  • A torn picture in The Big O shows a young Gordon Rosewater shaking hands with an unknown person on the damaged side. Near the end of the series, he puts the missing part back into place. It's Roger Smith. (Who hasn't aged at all.)
  • The photograph of herself as a child with another obscured person that Sylia looks at several times early in Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040.
  • Chobits does this with Chitose Hibiya's husband; in the family videos and photographs his face is completely obscured until near the end of volume 7 when he's revealed to be Ichiro Mihara from Angelic Layer. In fact, there's a direct reference to the game of Angelic Layer itself complete with flashback.
  • Tomoya's mother Atsuko in CLANNAD.
  • In Code Geass, Kallen Kozuki has a photo of herself, her late elder brother Naoto, and a woman whose face is obscured with a sticker. The woman is her biological mother, whom she felt ashamed of for falling in love with a Britannian and staying with him as a maid after he married. After realizing that her mother stayed with him to watch over her, Kallen removes the sticker, no longer ashamed of her.
  • Devil May Cry: The Animated Series: The photo of Dante's mother, Eva, has her eyes perfectly flared out in Episode 1, but this only becomes plot-relevant later in Episode 4. Initially, Dante is indifferent when Lady asked if he knew a "she-devil" who has lightning powers and wields guns in each hand, but when he looked at the portrait of his mother Eva, he smirks and remembers Trish. This is all a nod to Trish being a lookalike of Eva.
  • In ef ~ a tale of melodies, the ending sequence involving Mizuki has a photo with the faces obscured by a lens flare. Those people turn out to be Yuu, Yuuko, and Miki (her old self who was traumatized by the experience of her own parents trying to kill her), signifying how Yuu and Yuuko have transformed Miki into the current cheerful Mizuki.
  • Renton's big sister is discussed and shown repeatedly throughout Eureka Seven but we are never shown her face until near the end of the series and it turns out there was really nothing important about her appearance.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist:
    • A family portrait of the Elrics in Fullmetal Alchemist (2003) has a well-positioned glass reflection that obfuscates the father. Subverted, however in that there's no plot point that it would reveal since his identity is revealed the first time his face is shown ever. Seeing the face would change nothing at all. The only reason it was included was probably because the anime followed the manga relatively closely early on before diverging before the point where it became plot relevant in the manga.
    • The manga (and Brotherhood Anime Adaption), on the other hand, has a picture pinned to a wall, with a separate photo covering the top part, including Hohenheim's face. Unlike the first anime, it has two good reasons to hide it: first, he's a dead ringer for the Big Bad, Father, hinting at their shared past. Second? It's to hide the fact that despite the cheerful smiles of the others in the photo, he's crying.
  • A photo of a woman (whom Fanon purports to be the late Lady Hellsing) in a sari holding a baby Integra has the woman's face flared out in the Hellsing TV series.
  • In the first episode of K, when HOMRA threatens the gangsters in the hotel, Kusanagi shows one of them a still of the murderer from the video on his phone, asking if it's someone they know, and it's obscured this way. This is before the main character Shiro is introduced. Later, we see that the murderer is Shiro - or at least looks a whole lot like him - causing him to have to prove his innocence while being chased by HOMRA and other superpowered groups.
  • The photo of Ranka and her older brother in Macross Frontier.
  • The photograph of Fate and her mother in episode four of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. Interesting because the secret isn't what Precia looks like — she's shown in episode seven — but that she's smiling: the photo was taken before she went insane. Also, it's not really Fate in the photo, but her sister/original, although Fate has no clue.
  • A sub-plot in Maison Ikkoku involved Godai constantly trying to find out what his love Kyoko's deceased first husband Soichiro looked like, only to be constantly thwarted by ripped, stained, coloured over and missing photos. In the end, he sees Kyoko's wedding photos and comments 'Wow, now I finally know what your husband looked like' - but the part of the photo showing Soichiro's face is kept off-panel.
  • Early in Mobile Fighter G Gundam, Domon goes around flashing a torn picture of a man and asking if people have seen him. Shortly into the series, we learn that the man is his older brother Kyoji, and the missing part of the picture shows the rest of the Kasshu family, with an adolescent Domon sitting on Kyoji's shoulders. This isn't really a spoiler so much as an indication of Domon's current attitude towards his brother.
  • A picture of Mayura's family in Episode 4 of Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok has a strip of Lens Flare cutting across perfectly so that her mother's face is hidden.
  • Takahata-sensei's picture of himself, Negi, and an obscured man in Negima! Magister Negi Magi. (Effectively subverted because the series ended prematurely with a contrived finale that abandoned almost all the existing plot threads.)
    • Fortunately, the original manga is covering that.
  • Every image of Yui Ikari throughout the first half or more of Neon Genesis Evangelion, be it a physical photo or Shinji's memories of his mother, is obscured so that we cannot see her face. This is to help hide the fact that Rei is actually the clone of a younger Yui.
  • In Ouran High School Host Club, Tamaki's mother is shown only in flashbacks, where she either has her skin and face blacked out, is seen only from the back, or has only the lower part of her face shown. Later, when we are shown a photo of her and Tamaki that had their faces blacked out in the flashback, Tamaki's face is clear but his mother's falls victim to a convenient lens flare. This is mainly because she had yet to be fully shown in the manga when the anime was made.
  • The plot-important picture of Please Twins! shows a little boy and girl playing in a small baby pool. Throughout the series, this is taken as the boy (Maiku) and his twin sister (either Karen or Miina). Unfortunately, the girl is holding an over-large hat on her head, hiding her hair, which could have indicated which girl was the twin and which was the stranger. At the end, we find out that Karen is the twin and Miina is the stranger, but in a weird twist, the girl in the pool with Maiku really is Miina. In another instance of this trope (which could have informed them that all three were close as kids), Karen was inside taking an afternoon nap and hence was absent from the picture altogether.
  • In the FireRed/LeafGreen arc of Pokémon Adventures, Carr secretly picks up a photo Giovanni accidentally dropped, featuring a younger Giovanni holding his presumably toddler son. What makes it inadvertently hilarious is that while the viewer can't see the toddler's face due to the angle of the light, it's really obvious who it is thanks to the clothing.
  • A recent manga chapter of Reborn! (2004) has a photograph of Ryohei Sasagawa and some woman, obscured by unlikely glare.
    • Earlier, a photo in Kurokawa's room had her and some man with an obscured face. Fans put two and two together and discovered KHR's first Official Couple.
  • In The Royal Tutor, Heine has a photograph of him with someone whose face is conveniently covered by a speech bubble. Who that person is has not been revealed, though Kai (who caught a glimpse of the photo) thinks that the person looks familiar.
    • Heine has another photograph of two people, one adult and a child, and again, their faces are shadowed.
  • In one episode of (Zoku) Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, Itoshiki plays the part of a detective and investigates the mansion's twelve female residents, one of whom was going to marry the murdered master of the house. There's a photo of the master hanging on the wall, but it's completely in shadow to the viewer. Later, when the girls attack Itoshiki, lightning flashes to show the photo and the fact that the master is Itoshiki's Identical Stranger.
  • Tsubasa -RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE-: Later in the series, a few flashbacks show a photo of Syaoran with his parents, but the mom & dad's faces are obscured by the lens flare (somehow always perfectly placed, despite the lighting). Their faces are never shown in any other shots of them, either. But we know who they are, right, guys?
    • The same applies to a pocket watch regarding Watanuki in xxxHolic.
  • Marika of Twin Spica has a photograph of her and her father. The obfuscation is to hide that the age of her father doesn't match his current appearance, but the girl in the picture looks just like Marika.
  • The picture of Kureha and her mother in Yuri Kuma Arashi is part of a slightly bigger picture, the rest being bent behind it. They're holding hands with bear Ginko.
  • Zoids: Fuzors features a photograph of the "old" Mach Storm team; the face of RD's father is obscured in it. But then, every picture of his face is obscured. In a twist to the conventions of the genre, his identity is not important to the plot at all.

    Comic Books 
  • Used frequently during Mark Waid's classic '90s run writing ''The Flash. Waid was developing a grand myth arc involving the legacy and powers of the Flash being passed down over hundreds of years through many generations of the West family. It all started with Wally West (at the time the present-day Flash) who learned on a visit to the future that he would someday marry, father fraternal twins (one male, one female), and that his daughter was destined to one day become The Flash. Great lengths were taken to hide the identity of the mother, including several instances of family photos where the mother's face is obscured, usually by a shadow or glare.
    • In the present-day series, the twins have been born and have begun their superhero careers as Flash's sidekicks, so we now know that their mother is Linda Park-West.
  • At one point, Wallace Wells shows a blurry photograph of Gideon Graves to Scott Pilgrim, although this is meant more to hide Gideon's appearance from Scott himself.

    Fan Works 
  • In Drowning in Your Depths, the stained glass window in the captain's quarters on the pirate ship Mens Scapus has been mentioned repeatedly yet offhandedly in significant character moments, yet each time eludes actual description beyond a vague connection to "some prophecy." Considering everyone and their grandmother has repeatedly mentioned some ambiguous prophecy, particularly in relation to Dipper, it's not a stretch of the imagination to conclude that the actual contents of the stain glass image are plot-relevant and revealing.
  • In the Five Nights At Freddys fanfic Something Always Remains, Mike has two photos in his wallet that the Puppet steals. Neither are shown until they become important: the first is of his best friend, Vanna, who has ties to Freddy Fazbear's, and the second, revealed much later is of his missing foster brother, Jeremy Fitzgerald. The Puppet used this picture to help Jeremy snap out of his Ghost Amnesia.

    Film — Animation 
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire:
    • When Whitmore is showing Milo the files of each of the crew members, Rourke has his face partially obscured while everyone else's is not, hinting that he turns out to be the Big Bad.
    • Another example actually happens at the end of the film: When the heroes all get their photos taken before finally going home, both Milo and Kida are seen only from the waist down while everyone else is shown completely, hinting the fact that the former actually chose not to go back to the surface like everyone else, and decided to stay in Atlantis instead, which ultimately results in him marrying Kida.
  • Chicken Run: A large amount of the plot wouldn't have happened if the chickens had seen the complete circus poster of "Rocky the Flying Rooster", and realized he is merely the chicken equivalent of a Human Cannonball.
  • There is a lot of emphasis in Coco on the torn-off part of the picture showing the head of Miguel's UnPersonned great-great grandfather. The missing part is integral.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Taken to ridiculous extremes in the Charlie's Angels (2000) movie: at one point, Eric Knox shows the heroine a photo of his father "and the man who killed him" (whose face isn't visible). Later, in a Flashback, her mind zooms in on the other man's name tag: Townsend — as in, "Charlie" — and realizes that Knox is out to avenge himself on Charlie. Viewers were way ahead of her — after all, a photo of a man with no face, who else would it be?
  • The Eleven O'Clock: In the scene where Dr. Phillips at his desk is observing Dr. Klein walk into the office, a coffee cup with pencils in it is staged carefully in front of the photo on the desk. This is to avoid giving away The Reveal, that Dr. Klein is the real psychiatrist and Dr. Phillips is the insane impersonator.
  • In Interstellar, at one point we get a pan across a bunch of photos of the first batch of scientists who went into space to search for a new inhabitable planet for humanity to settle on. The pan cuts off right before the final photo of one Dr. Mann whom the characters talk about immediately after. On a first viewing, one might not even notice this, but it ends up being relevant, as if the pan had continued just a little longer, the audience would have seen Matt Damon's face, spoiling that Dr. Mann will in fact be an important character to the story.
  • In Spectre, James Bond finds a photo that features him as a boy with his long-deceased mentor and another boy, but the second boy's face is not shown as part of the photo has been charred. This actually foreshadows Bond's relationship with the other boy, who has now grown up to become the Big Bad and is now after him for being favored by his father, who regarded him as a second son. Jealous of Bond's relationship with his father, Franz Oberhauser commits patricide and fakes his own death, before re-emerging as the nebulous leader of Spectre and orchestrating all the tragedies Bond faced since Casino Royale (2006), before taking the central stage as the Big Bad in Spectre. A copy of the original photo is later seen at Oberhauser/Ernst Stavro Blofeld's Supervillain Lair.

  • In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry finds a torn photo, and the missing half is accompanied by the reveal that Snape loved Lily, and had taken the other half because of his obsession/love for her and as a memento.
  • Lemony Snicket of A Series of Unfortunate Events never shows his face in photographs, either "in-universe" or in the author photos. In The Film of the Book, he's a silhouette with a typewriter.
    • Happens even more directly in the books when the Baudelaires find a very important photo in the Archives. He's the sole person turning his back to the camera for no reason at all, despite the fact that he's with friends and allies.
    • Near the end of the film there is a brief shot which reveals he was on the photo found in Josephine's house and was a past friend of the Baudelaire parents.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Hell on Wheels: Bohannon recovers a photo of the Union Army squad that murdered his wife and son. The faces of the men he's already found and murdered in revenge are clear, but the face of the remaining sergeant is blurred beyond recognition, giving no real clue who the man is. Justified as photography in the late 1800s was in its infancy and capturing a clear image could take several minutes of complete stillness. The man appears to have looked away at some point, causing the distortion.
  • Kamen Rider Gotchard: A photo of Hotaro Ichinose and his parents have his father's face either covered by a business card or conveniently blurred out.
  • Netflix's adaptation of A Series Of Unfortunate Events features an exaggerated example. Uncle Monty has a photo of himself and the Baudelaire parents, but none of them are actually visible because they're all hiding inside a grand piano for some unexplained reason. Needless to say, the Baudelaire children are just as confused and skeptical as the viewers, but Count Olaf ends up independently corroborating the story later, claiming to be the one who took the photo in the first place. It does serve to hide the fact that the parents who have been making a daring escape to reunite with their children are not the Baudelaires, but the Quagmires.
  • In the Supernatural episode "What Is And What Should Never Be" (S02, Ep20), Dean drops a framed photo in surprise and it lands face down so the audience never sees the photo.

    Video Games 
  • At one point in Ghost Trick, Lynne tells you about that one time when she was saved from a criminal who had taken her hostage 10 years ago by Detective Jowd. While she's remembering, we see an illustration of the event with young Lynne and the two men. We can see every face clearly... except the stranger's. His head is completely obfuscated by shadows. As it turns out later on, showing his face (or hair) earlier than that would've been a major plot twist: the criminal was Yomiel, a man who looks exactly like Sissel. Or more accurately, Sissel just took Yomiel's appearance when he woke up at 7 PM thinking that was his true appearance.
  • In The Gunstringer, the titular character's Roaring Rampage of Revenge is guided by a photograph of his traitorous old posse, which has been torn in half horizontally. During the epilogue the Gunstringer finds the missing upper half of the photo, revealing the identity of the last, previously-hidden posse member: you, the player.
  • Early in Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, Toadbert gives you a drawing of the Shroob Princess and Princess Peach, with another part obscured by dirt. Much later in the game, you rub off the dirt, revealing another Shroob princess.
  • During the prologue of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Snake is given a photograph of himself, Miller, and an unknown soldier whose face is covered up by Snake's thumb. When you replay the prologue at the end of the game, the soldier is revealed to be the custom character you created at the beginning of the game, followed by the reveal that you were playing as that character the whole time.
  • In the backstory to Team Fortress 2, someone is obscured from the photograph of Zepheniah Mann and company, and his section of Zepheniah's will is similarly obscured. His will shows that he left the entirety of his something to somebody, and swore them to utmost secrecy in its keeping.
    • This continues in Loose Canon, which reveals that a 3rd Life Extender Machine was built for someone.
    • It has since been revealed that the obscured 'something' (which turned out to be "miracle gravel") was for his maid, also obscured, and the third Life Extender Machine, which was more advanced, was for Gray Mann, the previously unknown third son of Zepheniah Mann.
  • Our first glimpse of Eri, Shiki's best friend in The World Ends with You, is a selfie of the two, with the unfamiliar face obscured by glare on the cell phone's screen. One wonders why, until in a Tomato Surprise moment, Shiki is revealed to temporarily taking on Eri's appearance as her entry fee — so it wasn't Eri's face that was hidden, but Shiki's.

    Visual Novels 
  • In CROSS†CHANNEL, you can sometimes see glimpses of the murder at the then-Shinkawa mansion. Upon closer inspection, you can see that Youko's knife had no blood on it.
  • Several examples form the last clue to the identity of the Mastermind in the final trial of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, with four of the surviving students sharing a photograph given to them by Monokuma. Each photo shows what appears to have been a different snapshot of their school lives that they have absolutely no recollection of, with most of the original fifteen students present. The one conspicuously absent in each photo is the person who received it, but that's not the only thing... The Mastermind's face is obscured in each one somewhere in the background because the other students had their memories erased of what she actually looked like, while a mystery girl is also clearly visible up front in one of them. She turns out to be the sixteenth student, Mukuro Ikusaba. Mukuro is also the twin sister of the other student at the school who also claimed the title of Ultimate Despair as well as becoming the sole Mastermind behind the Despair after betraying her. It was Junko Enoshima.
  • The Great Ace Attorney episode three has a smashed photo frame where a face is conveniently covered by the cracks. Of course, the player is likely able to see who it is anyway from the body shape- John Garrideb's wife Joan, who poses as the family maid to give the Garridebs the appearance of being middle-class. And if not, it's revealed within minutes.
  • In Hatoful Boyfriend, if dating Kazuaki, he at one point drops a picture of someone with their face scribbled out. When confronted, he admits that it was someone he was very close to, who left him (strongly hinting they died), and he scratched out their face because he couldn't bear to remember them. In the Bad Boys Love route, we learn that the loved one he couldn't bear to remember was his foster-brother Nageki, who committed suicide five years prior to the plot, and who is also a potential love interest for the heroine. Seeing him in the photo would give away their shared backstory.
    • Induces some Fridge Logic when you remember that the characters are birds, mostly of different breeds and species. Surely the heroine would be able to recognize Nageki's body, as she'd been surprised to meet that kind of bird in Japan in their first scene.
  • Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney:
    • In "Turnabout Goodbyes", a witness's camera took a photo of the boat the defendant and the victim were standing on at the time of the shooting. Because it was nighttime, shadows obscure both faces, and because they wear similar clothes, it's impossible to know who is who. Not even a zoomed version of the photo clarifies the matter, but it does prove that the defendant was not firing the gun, but rather the other man, who wasn't even the victim but his real killer in disguise (It Makes Sense in Context).
    • In "Rise from the Ashes", a videotape shown in court shows a violent confrontation inside the evidence room, but the Blue Badger's movements strategically obscure the face of Jake Marshall, who was disguised as the victim, Bruce Goodman, at the time.
  • A variant in Sepia Tears: In the prologue, Mark encounters a girl whose hair ribbon has something written in it, but the writing is obscured. The writing on the ribbon is later revealed to be "Don't cry", as the girl is actually Mark's crush who dumped him three years ago. It's also significant for another reason: Myra picked up the ribbon and wore it, which is the vital piece of information that Mark didn't remember.
  • Tsukihime:
    • Not a photographic example, but there's a very good reason that Shiki's childhood memories of Hisui and Kohaku initially aren't in color. Seeing their eyes in color would reveal that Shiki is mixing up the cheerful girl and the girl in the mansion...
    • In the manga, Akiha is occasionally shown with a framed Polaroid photo of herself and Shiki ripped down the middle. Close examination will reveal that there is an arm around each of their shoulders that doesn't seem to belong to either of them; eventually the full image is shown, with SHIKI in the middle of the picture.

    Web Animation 
  • Homestar Runner: In the Strong Bad Email "the chair" Strong Bad shows off a picture of his parents apropos of nothing, but the actual picture is obscured by his new high-backed chair. Decompiling the Flash file to see it reveals that the photo is completely blank, with a message reading "nice try, dodongo!" mocking any viewers who attempted this.
  • RWBY: In Volume 8, Pietro explains how the P.E.N.N.Y. Project came into existence, showing Ruby and Weiss a photograph of the five competing scientists Ironwood had to choose between. His thumb is obscuring the face of one of the scientists. Once he puts the photograph back down, his thumb reveals that the scientist is Salem's agent, Arthur Watts. However, this is an in-universe example; it's obvious to the audience that he's obscuring Watts, but the heroes don't even know Watts exists at this point, so it prevents Ruby and Weiss from seeing who he is for a little while longer.

  • Final Fantasy VII: The Sevening plays it for laughs, of course, by having Zack's face replaced with a question mark on the photograph.
  • In Not a Villain, when a photograph of Kleya's parents is shown in Reality, the part with her father has been ripped off.
  • Sleepless Domain: An interstitial features Anemone speaking (with the implication that she's Talking to the Dead) to a framed photograph on her wall, depicting a mysterious girl with a white dress and light golden floor-length hair. That's as much of the photo as can be seen at this time, however, as Anemone's speech bubble obscures the girl's face.

    Western Animation 
  • The Owl House:
    • When Eda is shown King a scrapbook from her high school days in "Wing it Like Witches", one of the photos shows her with a previously unknown bard track student whose face is covered over by a raffle ticket. It's revealed in the first half of season 2 that this was her ex Raine, who goes on to be a major supporting character.
    • A family photo from Luz's childhood is briefly shown in "Yesterday's Lie", but her father (who up to this point in the series had never been so much as mentioned) has his face obscured by a glare. While his actual appearance isn't actually relevant (and is shown without any fanfare in "Thanks to Them"), it does hint at the fact that he's long dead.
  • Happens by accident in part 1 of the The Simpsons two-part "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" Homer, hoping Mr. Burns doesn't forget him for once, sends him a box of chocolates with a family portrait at the bottom. This trope comes into play when he and Smithers eat all but one of the chocolates, which happens to be the one obscuring Homer's face. Upon receiving the letter thanking everyone but Homer, Homer asks the kids to go upstairs, goes outside, then lets out the loudest swear to be cut short.
  • Though White Diamond is She Who Must Not Be Seen, Steven Universe actually uses this trope with Pink Diamond more often: though she is heavily foreshadowed in the symbolism of Gem architecture and artifacts, Pink Diamond's existence was only acknowledged as late as the last episode of Season 3, and the only reference for her appearance for much of the show's run has been her mural in the moon base. Despite this, her mural was conspicuously avoided by the episode that introduced it, showing White Diamond, Yellow Diamond, and Blue Diamond in full, but only showing Pink's legs, as the rest was obscured by shadows and by shot composition; Pink's mural was only shown unobscured much later, after information about why she was so particularly significant to Earth and the Crystal Gems was revealed.


Video Example(s):


Cracked picture frame

Kataoka accidentally bumps into his drawer, knocking down the picture frame of his family. The face of his wife is not revealed, but he and his daughter are when she was going to elementary school. Kataoka later flips it upside down, highlighting a bad time in his past.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (2 votes)

Example of:

Main / PlotBasedPhotographObfuscation

Media sources: