Empathy and Alienation

A photo can't capture it all

by Rover; illustrations by Charlie Theobald

We’ve all gazed despairingly for brief moments—while watching network news or glossing over the pages of shiny magazines—at the now proverbial image of the gaunt African child, hopelessly ambling through a rotten encampment of refugees fleeing a war-torn country. The photograph shows this single child, age nine, his rib cage protruding from his gut, his tattered shorts draped loosely over his wiry hips, his eyes moist, his feet worn and rough, defenseless, poring over his severe surroundings. He’s displaced and alone, amidst clamoring hoards of dislocated people strewn across a temporarily constructed oasis of foreign resources distributed by international aid organizations. This refugee camp provides a respite for Africans fleeing the systematic savagery of a bloated para-military autocrat, or perhaps the devastation wreaked by a mass drought. 

People in the developed world—the “educated class”—are intimately familiar with the qualities of the scene described above. To some degree, we can imagine the historical and political circumstances expressed by the photograph. However, most of us are utterly unfamiliar—in fact, lead lives diametrically opposed, in material and political terms—with the experience of living in the circumstances pictured. Sociologists might refer to the well-known concept of “cognitive dissonance” to express this utter unfamiliarity. 

For a brief moment, we empathize with the subject of the photo—the starving boy. Often, for seconds, we appreciate the gravity and scope of his plight. Our belly might stir. Our hands might sweat. We may be shaken and compelled to lurch towards a computer screen and explore the ways in which we might ameliorate this boy’s plight, through charity or some channel of international activism. But the questions remain: Should we feel compelled to do something about these dire, foreign situations? How should we conceive of the role of these images, as far as their capacity to effect radical change and emotional identification? What would it all ideally achieve? An ALS Ice Bucket Challenge fundraising trend, perhaps?

There may yet be some latent pedagogical quality in the photo of suffering. But, insofar as that photograph teaches us about a circumstance, its function as a catalyst for empathy remains effective only to the extent to which its viewer can assimilate the realities of the photo’s subject in a lasting way. James Joyce’s precocious Stephen Dedalus, a projection of Joyce’s own youthful intellectual gifts, famously proclaims in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” that “pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the human sufferer.” 

It may be drawn from this insight that in the presence of a photograph that presents a situation of grave suffering, a feeling of pity should arrest our mind and body, temporarily revealing to the viewer the grim realities of the subject. But how far can this really go? We’ve all tried this. Yet, the physical and psychic limitations of the Self are not possible to dispense with—we cannot prevent ourselves from being conditioned by and expressive of them at every moment. 

More often than not, we neatly compartmentalize this boy’s plight, begin comparing it to similar circumstances, and rationalize away that short-lived activist impulse awakened during this experience of temporary empathic arrest. But it has yet to be determined if we should feel some sense of activism, and what the ultimate goal of the image of foreign suffering is.

 Some might argue that images of this sort promote sympathy rather than empathy in the viewer. Sympathy seems like a dispassionate response to suffering, lacking that unification of which Joyce speaks. Empathy seems like a compassionate response to suffering, abounding with a sense of emotional unification. But it remains a question of how we conceive of our role in these dire foreign circumstances. 

Some argue that due to the increasingly numerous media through which we encounter images of this sort—images meant to bring awareness to an issue, and often to promote some social activism directive—we have become increasingly desensitized to the situations that these photos deal with. Photographs on a newspaper page bear the unique quality of being physical and, in some ways, do more to subtly suggest the actuality of the circumstances depicted than television is capable of with its weight and three dimensional quality—its “realness.” 

In contrast, for Marshal McLuhan, a Canadian media and communications philosopher, images on television and the internet “become fleeting displays, trivialized as pop-ups, hyperlinks, and various digital distractions that flicker across webpages—such photographs are really just ephemeral pixels on a screen, subject to organizational needs and commercial demands.” Roland Barthes, French literary theorist, philosopher and semiotician, takes another step in the same direction, suggesting the pressures of the profit-seeking news outlets reduce “photographs to mere market commodities, banalizing and fetishizing them in fields like advertising.”

Both thinkers seem to suggest that our routine encounters with images of this sort might breed apathy toward the circumstances they present. Desperate situations of grave suffering become banal. The subjects and circumstances are objectified and trivialized to the point of becoming interchangeable and ubiquitous on television and in print media. Furthermore, as both thinkers suggest, tragic images of suffering are often attractive spectacles, easily co-opted and sensationalized by the news media outlets to earn higher ratings. 

Then again, we’ve always been attracted to spectacles of suffering. Look no further than the enduring celebration of the Greek tragedies. The goal of the Greek tragedy is not to trivialize and make banal the grim realities of life, but to celebrate the universal experience of the tragic in life. These plays are meant to inspire the imagination of the audience and cause them to have some experience of empathic emotional identification with the suffering subjects of the play—tragic catharsis. 

For Susan Sontag, an American writer and filmmaker, teacher and political activist, we routinely lack this experience of tragic catharsis. In a discussion about images of war and suffering in “Regarding the Pain of Others,” Sontag remarks that the moral problem of the “educated class” lies in “our failure … of imagination, of empathy” with suffering subjects. Given Sontag’s interest in photography, the question again arises: Can photographs promote empathy? 

Some believe, as Sontag might, that the viewer’s proper response to images of grave suffering should involve an earnest attempt at the displacement of the viewer’s Self and the adoption of the emotional, cognitive and physical realities of the subject of the photo. This is an imaginative act, she suggests. 

What may be compelling is to suggest that we lack an imaginative empathic capacity because photos of grave suffering are mostly situated as objects belonging to the high art world. Photojournalists acquire celebrity, while their subjects acquire normalcy. When we look at these types of photos, we don’t experience tragic catharsis. We experience a sense of voyeuristic gratification, of anesthetization and “unearned understanding,” as Sontag puts it. As Sontag contends, “Our exposure to photographs fosters the idea that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing,” leading to “a fragmented, atomized view of reality.” Furthermore, she suggests that to photograph people is “to violate them, by seeing them as they can never see themselves… it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” This is the problem—the idea that we possess some intimate familiarity with the plights of others just by seeing a photograph of them. 

Humans of New York, a compelling portfolio of New Yorkers and their diverse opinions and activities, recently expanded its scope to foreign nations as part of a United Nations World Tour. In one such photograph, a man from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is pictured. He stands with his arms folded next to a large poster board of an eager and hungry African boy holding out a plastic container for food or water. It’s akin to the hypothetical image described at the beginning of this article—an archetypal photograph of suffering in Africa. The man from Kinshasa has this to say about the image:

“We don’t like pictures like this. It is not good to reduce an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this. This gives us no dignity. We don’t want to be shown as a country of people waiting for someone to bring us food.”

Images of hunger in the DRC have reinforced the perception of the country as helpless and solely reliant on foreign intervention. The reality for this man is that photojournalists believe they’re bringing attention to suffering in the DRC by photographing young boys reaching for food and water but, in actuality, their photos reinforce the perception of helplessness in the Congo, and in turn, people in the DRC internalize this perception. The frequency of these images in the media and ourfrequent encounters with them have the cumulative effect of reducing entire countries down to a set of tropes and their corresponding symbols. For this man from Kinshasa, a picture is hardly worth a thousand words.