I recently read a quote that went something like this: “If everyone knew how much suffering there was in the world, and how much pain, anxiety, and sadness that their enemies had (and also knew how much love they had in their lives), the world would be a much better place.”
Pretty much the concept was this: we are often suspicious, jealous, envious, and hateful of others. However if we realized that those we hated the most also went through pain and suffering in their lives, and also had joy, hope, and love in their lives— we would treat them with much more empathy, kindness, and love.
My personal difficulties with being empathetic
I am far from a saint. I feel the common feelings of anger, jealousy, and resentment towards those who say negative things about me. I take criticism very personally, and it hurts me deeply. I often treat my photos like my children— whenever anybody insults my photos, I think like they’re critiquing and judging me as a human being.
For example, whenever I get negative and hateful critique of either my photos (or myself as a human being) on this blog or on social media— I want to hunt down that anonymous (or sometimes real-life) troll. I want to find out who they are, where they live, and kick down their door and just yell at them, “Why are you torturing me so much, and what have I ever done to deserve this? Who are you to judge me? You’re even a shittier photographer than me, and a worse human being than me. Go bother someone else.”
I often let these negative thoughts and feelings of resentment boil up inside me— it is hard to have love and empathy towards those who have nothing but negative things to say about you (that aren’t constructive).
However as of late, I have been trying to have much more empathy to those around me— both to those who I might call my “enemies” and also to those who are my close and loved ones.
Empathy towards your “enemies”
I don’t really have any “enemies.” Nobody out there is plotting to “get me” or anything like that.
I think the world is just full of misunderstanding and miscommunication— which leads to arguments, flame wars, physical violence, and even (in the worst case scenario), death.
I remember there was this one person who said a lot of negative things about me on the Internet — and I ended up holding a lot of resentment towards this person. I thought to myself, “Why was this person such a horrible human being to me? What did I do to deserve their hate? Did they have even an ounce of love inside them?”
I soon discovered that this person had a daughter— and then I thought about all the love that this person had towards their daughter. I imagined this person (who I thought was a horrible human being) being loving towards their daughter, making their daughter breakfast, worrying about her while she was at school, giving her hugs and kisses, reading her bedtime stories, and wishing that she grew up to be a beautiful human being.
Once I started to empathize with this person (thinking this way)— a lot of my negative feelings about this person started to fade away. Of course I had no idea how this person treated their daughter, but even having this thought experiment made me more open and loving towards this person (who I thought was just a horrible human being).
I have no doubt that this person is a loving, kind, and genuine person in their life. But what caused this person to be so negative and hateful to me?
Later on I found that this person was going through a divorce and also suffered a major death in the family. Of course going through these negative experiences in your life doesn’t give you an excuse to be mean and negative towards others.
However at the same time, knowing this pain and suffering this person was facing— I felt much more empathetic towards them. Rather than hating them and resenting them for saying negative things, I began to pity them. I thought to myself, “Wow— this person has gone through so much pain and suffering in their life that they had to resort to attacking others to relive their own self-suffering. How painful that must be. Perhaps I should ask this person if they are okay, and try to bring some more love into their lives.”
Jesus once said, “Love your neighbors like yourself.” Regardless if you are religious or not— I think the message is apt.
Empathy in street photography
I think empathy is one of the main reasons we are all interested in street photography. We see pain, sadness, people lost in thought in the streets— and can empathize with their feelings. We want to capture those moments and feelings— because we have gone through it ourselves.
This doesn’t have to just be pain and sorrow we are trying to capture. We can also capture happy moments— those positive, uplifting, loving moments as well.
I have been reading a lot more neuroscience lately— and there is a concept of “theory of mind.” The concept is that we (as human beings) have the ability to mind-read the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of other human beings through social cues (what they say, how they say it) and body languages. Unfortunately a lot of autistic people (or people with Asperger’s syndrome) aren’t able to detect these social cues— which make it difficult for them to interact in society.
However when it comes to “theory of mind.” — it allows us to be empathic towards other people.
For example you might be out shooting street photography, and see a man sitting by himself at a cafe, slouching over, finger pressed against his temple, and eyes looking down. Based on his body language and gestures, we can probably safely imagine that he is sad, depressed, and lonely. How do we know that? Because generally when we are sad, depressed, and lonely— we mimic the same body language.
How to know what others are feeling (or thinking)
I recently picked up a psychological trick (not sure where I learned this)— but it goes like this:
If you want to know what others are thinking or feeling, simply mimic their body language.
So if you see someone with their arms and legs crossed (and want to know what they are thinking or feeling), simply mimic their body language. You will discover that this means they are uncertain, close-minded, or unwilling to budge their opinion.
If you see someone slouched over and their eyes are looking down, they are probably lonely, depressed, or simply tired.
If you see somebody hugging someone else, kissing this person, and smiling— (obviously) you can probably tell that they are happy, in love, or jubilant.
If you see someone with their two fingers pressed against their temple (side of forehead), you can probably interpret them as being “lost in thought” or deep in thought. About what? We don’t know— but possibly about their family ties, relationships, or finances.
So a simple way to be more empathetic towards others when you’re shooting street photography: Observe the body language of others, mimic it yourself, and just imagine what kind of emotions or thoughts they are experiencing.
Why be empathetic?
A question I didn’t really touch upon in this article is “why be empathetic?” I mean, who gives a shit about the pain, suffering, and difficulties that others are going through? Don’t we already have too much shit and worries happening in our own lives to worry or be concerned about others?
I think as human beings — regardless of all the empirical bullshit about us being selfish, greedy, and uninterested— we are loving, kind, and selfless individuals who (I think) do have an “altruism” gene. We are hard-wired to help others. Perhaps we are hard-wired to help others (because we expect something in return)— but regardless, helping other human beings makes us feel fully human.
I don’t know about you, but my greatest moments of joy and happiness have been when I helped others (and not myself). When I have given away my Canon Rebel XT, Canon 5D, Ricoh GR1v, and Leica M6 to my close friends (who needed it more than I did)— I felt an overwhelming sense of purpose, generosity, and happiness which has glowed within me ever since. Giving away cameras to those who needed it more than me has brought me more joy than any camera I have ever purchased for myself.
Similarly, the time I have volunteered in teaching photography others has brought me more joy than any amount of money I have earned. My favorite experience in terms of teaching photography has been teaching a photography course to “at-risk” teenagers at a continuation school (school for “bad” kids”) at Phoenix High in Los Angeles. They all came from difficult backgrounds (parents are alcoholics, drug-dealers, in jail, etc.) — but the amount of creativity and self-meaning they were able to create through photography really uplifted them. Some of my students were into gangs and drugs before my class, and after my class— ended up wanting to pursue photography full-time as a career. I have also done a few workshops where 100% of the proceeds went to charity, and those have been the most meaningful uses of my time.
Psychological studies on altruism (helping others)
There have also been a lot of psychological studies, which prove that helping others often brings us more happiness than ourselves.
There was a study in which there was a study in which students were given $20 and told to either spend the money on themselves (or on someone they knew). Then afterwards they were polled on how they spent the money, and how they felt.
So can you guess? Who do you think was happier— the students who spent $20 on themselves, or the students who spent $20 on someone else?
You guessed it— the students who spent $20 on someone else felt much happier than those students who spent $20 on themselves.
I think it makes sense. I have easily spent $20 on myself, buying a t-shirt, or a nice lunch and a coffee. This doesn’t really change my happiness that much— it feels routine.
However in the past I have bought photography books for friends, and the amount of happiness and surprise that $20 has on them far outstrips the amount of happiness it has brought to myself. I have bought coffees for friends, food and beer for friends, surprise presents of plants for Cindy, or even little fragrances for my mom. All of this money spent on others has brought me much more happiness.
So I don’t think we really need a “reason” to be empathetic. I think it is hard-wired into our DNA.
But at the same time— it does feel good (perhaps in a selfish way) to be empathetic towards others. By better understanding how others feel, we can better understand ourselves.
Being empathetic in street photography
I know at this point you’re probably like, “Oh Eric— you’re talking about being emphatic, but you’re the one who is an asshole and just shoots flash in people’s faces. How would you feel if someone did that to you?”
That is a valid argument. I will retort by saying this:
Honestly shooting with a flash in street photography (especially during the day) isn’t that big of a deal. I have had people take photos of me with my flash before, and I barely see it go off. Shooting with a flash at night (however) is a different story. That shit can blind me (so I have tried to stop shooting with flash at night).
Funny enough— strangers have photographed me in public before (just watch my YouTube video on Digital Rev when I am dressed up as a pirate in Hong Kong). I personally love being photographed— I love the attention. It makes me feel like a rock star.
Of course not everyone likes being photographed (even though I do).
However my ultimate goal as a street photographer is this: I want to capture emotions on the streets.
I think street photography is like driving. Sooner or later as a driver, you’re going to get into an accident, a speeding ticket, or a parking ticket (whether you intend to or not). Street photography is the same way— no matter how sincere your motives are, sooner or later you’re going to piss somebody off (whether you intended to or not).
Generally when I shoot street photographs of strangers (without permission), I try to make eye contact afterwards, smile, and say “thank you.” This generally leaves about 95% of people looking back at me, smiling, and saying “you’re welcome” or “no problem.” This leaves me feeling good (and I assume) someone else feeling good.
I also love to shoot street photography with permission. A lot of people say that if you ask for permission in street photography, it isn’t “street photography.” I call bullshit on that— just look at the work of Diane Arbus or Bruce Davidson (where they often had implicit or explicit permission) to take photographs of strangers in the streets.
The great thing about asking for permission is that it gives you the chance to make a more personal, human, empathetic, and emotional connection with your subject. I actually think it is much more difficult to ask for permission to take photos of a stranger (than shooting them without permission). Why is that? Well, when you ask for permission— you make yourself vulnerable to getting rejected. When you don’t ask for permission, you can just take the shot (without letting the other person have a say).
I briefly touched upon the importance of ethics in street photography— and how to have more empathy for our subjects in the streets. I am certainly not the most empathetic street photographer out there— but everyday I am striving to become more empathetic. This empathy isn’t being cultivated in terms of shooting on the streets. It is being cultivated in my everyday interactions, the real-life people that I interact on a daily basis, those who I feel hatred and resentment towards, and even to those who I love.
Some quick take-aways in terms of how to be more empathetic to others in street photography (and life):
1. Mimic their body language
Once again, one of the best ways to better empathize what others are thinking or feeling is to mimic their body language. So if they are crossing their arms, cross your own arms (and see how it feels). If they furrow or scrunch their eyebrows, try the same (and see how you feel).
2. Imagine being in their shoes
Try to imagine what it feels like to be in the shoes of the other person. Try to imagine their back-story, their life. Think about their pain, sorrow, and misery. Think about their hopes, loves, and dreams. Try to see the world through their eyes, and cultivate this “theory of mind.” No matter how mean or hateful someone else might seem, they are a human being and are also filled with love and compassion.
3. When in doubt, love
I know this sounds cheesy— but try to make love your life’s mission as a street photographer. You’re not out there to become Flickr or Facebook-famous with your photography, are you? I think we should make our mission as street photographers to capture emotion, life, and the experiences of others in the streets— to highlight the beauty (and pain) of everyday existence.
Love in street photography can be shown in many different ways:
- a) Smile and say “thank you” at your subject after taking their photo.
- b) Offer to email your subject their photograph, or print them out a photo.
- c) Show them the LCD of your camera of their photo, and compliment what you find interesting or beautiful about them.
Think about other ways you can show more love through your street photography.
The more we strive to understand others, the more we can discover ourselves.
How are ways you better empathize with your subjects in street photography? Why do you think empathy is important in street photography (if at all)? What have your personal experiences been (positive and negative)? Share your thoughts in the comments below.