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Friday, 9 December 2016

Removing the Barriers to Empathy

 image by Patrick Willocq for Save the Children

So speaking at the Barbican in London at the Magnum Photos Photography and Empathy was exciting.

I talked about empathy in domestic, family and historical settings through 3 of my projects, Sofa Portraits, All Quiet On the Home Front and My German Family Album - and basically started out with a bunch of questions and ended up with even more which is not how it's supposed to work.

Olivia Arthur gave a really interesting talk on the relationship between intimacy, trust, private space and photography centred around her Jeddah Diary project in particular.

And Jess Crombie, who works with storytelling at Save the Children, talked about the more experimental side of photography and how that is being developed to tell the stories and create three dimensional characters that sweep away the assumptions and blockages we have in understanding others.

There were so many questions raised that I don't know where to start and it might even be that empathy is not the right term to use (I used it a lot!).

But I wonder that though empathy can be useful in creating relationships and opening people up, can it also be a barrier to telling the stories that people either don't want to tell or don't want to hear - which is a point both Olivia and Jess raised.

Jess also touched on the idea that the projects she works with are small scale in terms of both cost and fund raising potential. The upshot of this is that pity and guilt (hi Ewen!) are still the emotions that work best.

And allied to that is the idea that we are just not that sophisticated. Images work on an instantaneous, emotional level and it's basic. Even for people who are intimately involved with photography, the natural processing is at a basic level.

The barriers to that processing, the barriers to empathy are also at a basic level; gender (let's start with that one), nationality, religion, race, skin colour, educational level.

And the storytelling that seems to work is that which essentially hits the Family of Man sentiment that really we are all the same despite all our differences. So when people see Patrick Willocq's amazing sets they see the richness of the interior life of children, at least partly because the interfering signs of poverty, disease and location that immediately trigger certain connotations are not there. The empathy blockages have been removed.

Of course there is much more going on than that. The image featured above was designed by, amongst others, Anicet, a Burundian boy who wants to be a  'malaria doctor' in his imaginary ward complete with dead mosquito kids on the floor and all sorts of things, It's fantastic. The kids who made it are fantastic. And so we go, look, these children have a vivid imagination, like kids everywhere, and here is a fabulous photograph (from a photographer with a fabulous imagination) to prove it.

And it works. I'm touched by it. But then I would be touched wherever it would be made because it's odd, quirky, a bit mad in the way that children can be. And that's what makes interesting stories, and interesting images ultimately; those images where there are cracks and imperfections and you have people who aren't completely clear cut but have an undercurrent to them. the undercurrent can be something beautiful and charming like a child's imagination, or it can be something more desperate and difficult.

Everything does not have to be perfect in other words, and if we pretend it is, then we are doing everybody a disservice,

The problem is sometimes people don't want to recognise the imperfections of life and that maybe is where empathy can be a barrier. Because people do like telling the truth, but they don't like telling the truth to power. What people are willing to say in private is not what they are willing to say in public, because that can bring repercussions or shame or embarrassment or be mishandled. So there's another question... how do you handle that.

I have no idea. And I haven't even talked about fake empathy or political empathy, or the pathetic fallacy, or the fact that ultimately photography is completely unempathic and so what!

What is really interesting from a photographer's point of view is that the work Jess is doing with Save the Children is being replicated across numerous institutions and industries. There seems to be a sudden interest in how images work, how they tell stories and how they can be used. This signals an opening up of opportunities for photographers and a realisation that if you do use images - in use, in advertising, in fund raising, in fashion, in editorial - then you have to know how to use them; on their own, with text, with film, with sound, with touch. Which means you can't just be a photographer anymore. But then perhaps that's a good thing.

The blog is almost done for the year, but I haven't done my Best Books list yet, or my other Best List. So that will be the next post and then it will the Babel Blog for 2017.

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