• Posted: Oct 02, 2011 16:47:12
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Several things got me thinking about empathy this week. For one, after checking out my previous post, a friend pointed out "just because someone exhibits sad eyes ... does not mean they are 'oppressed'". And she then quoted Thomas Hardy as saying "There is a condition worse than blindness, and that is seeing something that isn't there (or denying something that is?)." A fair observation. I wish she'd put it in a comment to the picture. But since she hasn't, I'll offer these thoughts.
The problem of how we know things is all around us. Religion addresses the problem with faith. Philosophy and mathematics address the problem with logic. Scientists and engineers use controlled empirical experimentation. Psychologists, pollsters, jurists, and journalists use questions directed outwardly. Artists, heros, and villains use questions directed inwardly. Cooks use the taste test. Musicians, many women, and many men rely on resonance with their own emotions. But how does a photographer, or any person observing another, know what that other is thinking, feeling, going through or has gone through? In a single word, empathy.
NPR's Science Friday had a segment this week reviewing recent research on human empathy. Across test subjects, there are huge differences. But what is empathy? Very simply put, it is the ability to imagine one's self in the position of another, including physical predicament, feelings, and possible thoughts and desires. And it is not something only observed in humans, it has been observed in animals. For instance, if I remember the details correctly, it has been reported in annals of animal research that a handler of a laboratory chimpanzee was trying to retrieve something from inside a cage, but couldn't quite reach it. The chimpanzee in the cage ambled over, picked up the object, and handed it to the handler. What the chimp did was observe the handler, understand the problem, and then offer assistance that resolved the problem from the handler's point of view. The chimp did not take the object and run, or hit the handler, or scream at the handler, or even ignore the handler. The chimp joined in the thought processes of the handler and danced with them, coordinating its own actions with those of the handler toward the handler's purpose.
People do that sort of thing all the time. For instance, when one person holds a door open for another, or adjusts their speed to smoothly merge into traffic. But on a intellectual emotional level, current research is showing that we do not all read each other's thoughts and emotional state with equal facility. And at this point, it isn't clear why there are such huge differences among us. Certainly, previous experience is one possible explanation for some of those differences.
I can remember back in high school, only a few years into my career doing photography, I found myself very troubled that while I could quite easily understand what children and people very near my own age were thinking and emoting while I attempted to photograph them, I felt more or less blind when trying to photograph adults. I really couldn't "read" them like I could younger people, certainly not well enough to tell compelling stories in my photographs. But something one of my music teachers said to me helped. We weren't actually talking about photographing people at the time, we were talking about understanding how to listen to and play music, music that is emotionally compelling to the listener. He said, "adults are little more than grown up children." What he meant was that although adults have a broader range of thoughts and emotions, thoughts and emotions that are also very much more nuanced, at their core an adult's concerns are not entirely different from what they were when much younger. For instance, a child fearful of being alone in the dark very likely will have the same trepidation as an adult. A child that was socially shy, might very likely be shy as an adult. One that was bossy as a child might very likely be bossy as an adult. That insight helped me better understand the music I listened to, and put more compelling feeling into the music I played. It has also helped me better understand, in human terms, people I've tried to photograph.
But relying on resonance with my own thoughts and emotions has not always opened the door to understanding people I've sought to understand. Sometimes, it has taken spending time with those others, listening to them talk about what grabs their attention, piques their interest, arouses their emotions. And it hasn't always turned out to be just as I'd think and feel. I'll relate something relevant to the previous post.
A couple of years back, I was traveling in the upper midwest with a guy whom I didn't know very well. He was black. I am white. He was from Detroit. I am from Chicago. He'd spent time in Viet Nam dodging rockets and bullets while dangling from rescue helicopters. I didn't. He'd also experienced hostility from strangers in this country of a kind I've never experienced. On the night in question, he was driving while I napped. I woke to find him off the interstate stopped at a green light, staring at an open gas station. "What's up?", I said. "Nothing, go back to sleep," he responded. "No, I mean it, what's up?" I insisted. It took a while, but I finally understood that the guy had to take a crap but was extremely apprehensive of going into that all-night gas station in this very "white" section of the country. I couldn't help him with his fear, because I really had no way to relate, but I could certainly sympathize. I said, "Come on. They won't say a thing if I go in with you." And in fact, they didn't. They didn't even take note of us. We did our business, bought a couple of rolls, a coffee, and went on our way. From then on, I've definitely known that look, that look suggesting doubt and uncertainty based on previous experience of unjust unwarranted oppression. And when I see it, while it is possible I might occasionally be reading into things something that isn't actually there, experience tells me that, more often than not, my empathetic surmise is very much correct.
Now, as to the wheels above. What I surmise is that someone, a youngish to middle-aged black male, has resurrected a bruised, battered, discarded car from a trip to the junk heap and added the interesting stylized touch of very shiny oversized wheels, making a quite distinctive statement of care, love, pride, and individuality entirely worthy of an empathetic "Yo bro, nice wheels!" Though to be sure, some may insist I personally do not qualify to use the expression "Yo bro." Prejuduce and oppression can be issued from many directions.
May your efforts in photography, art, music, or writing lead you to an ever richer understanding and appreciation of your fellow human beings.
Wednesday, September 15th, 2010
44.9 mm 213 mm