This is part three in series of posts adapted from a paper titled Representing the Unrepresentable: Locating the Political in the Viewer-Image Exchange that I read at the Aesthetics of Catastrophe symposium at Northwestern University. Each post stands alone, but the series is best read as a whole starting here.
Throughout the history of the human race, empathy has served a complex and difficult to articulate role in helping one person to assess, evaluate, or understand the nature of another's existence. Empathy has evolved to operate between people who are in physical proximity and therefore are capable of processing the huge volume of cues, both rational and irrational, that culminate in an overall sense of the condition of the other. When we are physically present with another person, a relationship is possible and empathy can serve a number of purposes in establishing and enhancing that interaction. Empathy evolved as a function of person-to-person contact.
We photographers frequently see ourselves as standing in for that physical interaction. If we insert ourselves relationally into the physical space of the subjects, we can carry the viewer with us and thus give the subject visibility and a public voice. However, when the subject is connected to the viewer through a photograph, the audience response becomes problematic. The empathic cues within a photograph are limited. There is not enough information to form a more complete perception of another person or group. Photographs also vary widely in their emotional content, and in a single series of photographs made in a short period of time of the same subject in the same location, it is possible to make images that vary widely in terms of the data that they communicate empathically to the viewer. Even within the relatively narrow constraints of straight photojournalism and documentary photography it is possible to make work that achieves a wide variety of emotional outcomes and it is frequently in the editing of the images where the specific emotional tone and argument of the image series is refined or clarified.
Through photographs we are not relating to whole people or places but to fragmented depictions of them, dislocated in time and space. These fragments of self, presented as photographic evidence of the human condition, perform for the audience on a spectrum ranging from the specific political to the general mythic. In this case the word ‘political’ is synonymous with the word ‘real’, it being a descriptor of actual events, people and places that exist in real time and are interconnected in real, if not easily depicted or understood ways.
Again, it is the nature of empathy itself that is the problem here. Evoking compassion is something that should be done with specific care for the political interaction between the image and the viewing audience.
Empathy as practiced from person to person offers the potential for human relationship, interaction and intervention, all under the influence of the empathic person. Empathy that is mediated through a photograph requires no avenue for action, and in fact the images may obscure the political realities, or point the viewer in the wrong direction, creating an environment where the viewing public is bombarded with empathic information in a media environment where meaningful actionable political responses are unavailable or obscured.
Most humanitarian documentary photographers and photojournalists will say that their intent is to reduce social injustices. The conventional wisdom is that by exposing audiences to photographs of injustice and inequity, they will be motivated towards compassion and will act to direct material or political aid towards those in need. The chief flaw in this strategy exists not in the audience or in the plight of the subjects but rather in the evidence and accuracy of actionable response to the images.
Events and problems of a global nature are created and sustained by complex human systems that resist easy interrogation. Solutions are pushed forward by specifically targeted political pressure. Merely raising awareness offers only the hope that the audience will find and create that pressure on its own, or that outrage will fuel further investment into inquiry and response. While these do occasionally happen, they are not reliable or even likely outcomes for many if not most of the problems that we face.
Continue reading with Part Four.