Wednesday, 23 November 2016
Empathy in Photography
I'm looking forward to giving a talk on my work together with Olivia Arthur of Magnum Photos and Jess Crombie of Save the Children in London on December 8th.
The talk will focus on the idea of empathy (it's running in connection with a retrospective of David Chim Seymour's most beautiful, sad and joyful work on children in post-war Europe at the Magnum Print Room in London. It really is tragic work and fitting that Chim was the first photographer for the nascent Unicer). I'll be talking about my work and then be in conversation with Olivia Arthur (who made the wonderful Stranger ) and Jess Crombie of Save the Children.
There is a lot of talk at present of what photography is for, who it's for and how can it expand it's community.
Empathy is at the heart of that dialogue but I can't help but feeling that in photography it needs to extend beyond the idea of empathy that we have; the empathy we have with the subject.
We also need an empathetic audience, and to reach that audience and make them empathetic, we need empathetic forms of communication. Instead of expecting audiences to lap up our documentary ideas, or our lame concepts using the detached language of theory, we need to engage them and reach out.
Story-telling is a kind of empathy, simultaneously the purest and least pure form. How can you change the world if they stories that you tell are uninteresting and indeed painful to listen to, if the voice they are told in is painful to listen to. Or, as is often the case in photography or anything really, boring to listen to as well as to look at. That's the killer mix.
So I wonder if empathy in photography can't learn something from film, from fiction, from illustration, from advertising even. Advertising has no ethics, no morals, no values beneath what momentarily fits. But it does a job and it does it really well. It sells us stuff. It sells us ideas, most of which are really bad.
But then there is fiction and film and theatre and dance. There's music, the plastic arts, there's light and sound and there's pleasure. Pleasure's important. And emotion. Pleasure and emotion should be at the heart of most photography and using all those other elements mentioned above to hook us into that combine of pleasure, emotion (even the most tragic of emotions) and photography is something I really appreciate.
Maybe we need to be a bit more selective in what we say and how we say it, what we show and how we show it, and if we need to recognise that pleasure and entertainment has a part to play in our communication of images and the ideas behind them then so be it. Otherwise we're left with a world where everybody talks like they're in a meeting and that doesn't really do it for me on any level. Or for too many other people - except for those who like meetings.
If we can do that, then maybe we can communicate some ideas that are better than the ones that people are buying into right now and see how empathy can attach to advocacy and action. Because that's what we need right now; empathy, advocacy and action.Anyway, there's not too much advocacy or action in the pictures I make so what do I know?
Nevertheless in London, I'll be talking about the elements of empathy in my own work. With my Sofa Portraits, I'll talk about generational and spatial empathy, of remembering what it was to be a certain age in a certain space.
With All Quiet on the Home Front, I'll talk about what it means to be a father, when you don't want to be a father. How do you create empathy in a role that you have no empathy for. How do you create your own empathy if you like.
Here are the details of the talk. I'll love to see you there!
Frobisher Auditorium 2, Barbican Centre
8 December 2016
What compels photographers to record historic events? Why do they choose to engage in dangerous, difficult work? How do they stay emotionally involved, and what is their legacy today?
Join Magnum photographer Olivia Arthur, Director of Creative Content at Save the Children Jess Crombie, and writer and photographer Colin Pantall, as they reflect on the role of photography in relation to empathy. In association with an exhibition of David Seymour's work in the Magnum Print Room, speakers will explore the emotions at the heart of documentary photography.
Magnum co-founder David Seymour (1911-1956) was known for his empathetic relationship to photography, which led him to engage deeply with the consequences of WW2 in Europe. In particular he became well-known for his work with the war orphans he photographed for UNICEF. He said of his work:
“We are only trying to tell a story. Let the 17th-century painters worry about the effects. We've got to tell it now, let the news in, show the hungry face, the broken land, anything so that those who are comfortable may be moved a little.”
This event is part of the Magnum Photos Now talks programme at the Barbican Centre. Tickets can be purchased from the Barbican Centre here.