by Cissy Spindler
When I am photographing, I do whatever I can to create a state of personal empathy with my subject. I have learned that this concept applies equally across all genres of photography.
I’ve experienced empathy with the landscapes that I shoot, the still life images that I make, of course with my portrait work and most importantly with my reportage or street photography.
Regardless of the genre, one must make a connection with one’s subject in order for it to be conveyed truthfully and honestly through a photograph. And, if I am successful in making this connection I am able to communicate to my viewers a deep felt intimacy with the subject and my intention has been met. My efforts have been successful.
What I’ve noted from looking at the massive amount of photographs I see on the internet is that achieving this connection with the subject can be quite elusive. I find this to be especially true with reportage work. Many photographers have their hearts and minds in the right place, but miss the moment because they have failed to make an empathetic connection between themselves and the subject. They will shoot from too far away, they will shoot from behind the subject rather than confronting the subject and their composition skills don’t quite achieve the level of the “snapshot aesthetic” and are nothing more than snapshots.
Simply pointing one’s camera at a homeless person on the street doesn’t necessarily make it a great or even meaningful photograph. Again, it takes making that empathetic connection with the subject as well as using camera technique, lighting and composition skills to accomplish this.
Now the question comes up, how does an instructor convey this idea? Is it something that can be taught or does it simply come from spending time with your camera and your subject, many hours, and a lot of quiet observation. The answer is both of course. One must get inside the subject and be affected by it and then apply the tools of technique.
Like any art form, in photography there is a joining of intuition and technique, a synthesis if you will. We can certainly teach technique. And indeed, solid technique is a must. But the intangible aspect is communicating a means and a method of developing one’s own intuition. And I believe that this intuition can be developed through learning to make these empathetic connections with your subject.
Here are some approaches that have worked for me over the years:
I make the effort to carefully study my subject from a feeling as well as a visual standpoint. I look at the lighting, how does it make me feel? I look at the in camera composition, is it strong, is there a sense of unity there, or is it more chaotic in nature, how does that make me feel? These are some of the questions I ask myself.
Proximity is an important aspect of creating this connection. I ask myself it I’m as close as I need to be and am I in the right position to get the shot.
My effort is to be non- judgmental as I view all of these aspects of the subject. I try to let it tell me what it needs before I apply my pre-conceived thoughts or intentions behind making the image.
I encourage my students to take time for them selves in introspective thought. This is key to creating an open and empathetic state.
Visual empathy begins with a state of mind. The deeper you go into it, the more meaningful your images can become.
by Cissy Spindler