Empathetic Photography

Busan, 2013. From my "Grandfather" series
Busan, 2013

Empathy: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

Sometimes I can be a cold bastard. I see other people in the street suffering and be indifferent to their pain. I often am wrapped up in my own world, and unable to have the time to communicate or connect with others. I am so self-centered and interested in myself and my own dealings, that I can sometimes become calloused to those around me.

However I think one of the greatest things I love about photography is how it has helped open up my heart to others.

Before street photography, I was always social, but always with close friends and family. Forget talking to strangers— I treated cashiers like robots checking out my stuff, baristas like robots serving me coffee, and bus drivers like autonomous driving robots.

But with street photography, it has helped open up my heart to strangers. I now always try my best to make “small chat” with all strangers that I meet (unless they look in an especially really pissed off mood).

Sometimes we forget that other people are (also) human beings, with stresses, anxieties, and frustrations in their lives as us. Similar to us, others stress about paying the bills, saving enough money for retirement, and also taking care of their families. Not only that, but all cultures in the world are far more similar than dissimilar— we all love family, good food, dancing, and love is the bond which holds us all together.

In a past post, I wrote how when it comes to cameras, we often magnify the differences in them, and forget how similar they are.

The same can be said about people: we always focus on our differences from others, rather than our commonalities.

I think if we want to live in a more empathetic world— it is to treat others like they are us. I also try to make it a point to imagine strangers like they are my brothers, uncles, sisters, aunts, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, or potential friends.

For example, I was on my epic 17-hour direct flight from San Francisco to Dubai, and I had the good luck of sitting in a row with 3 other empty seats (which meant that I could lie down during the flight, and that is fantastic because I can never fall asleep on a flight just sitting down). Out of the blue, an older lady came over and asked me nicely if she could lie down because she was tired.

I first hesitated, because I didn’t want her to “steal” my sleeping bed. However I looked into her eyes, and saw the eyes of my mother— they were around the same age, around 60 years old. And of course if my mom asked me to sleep next to me, of course I would say yes.

So I gave her a huge smile, and said, “Of course.” She slept the next 10 hours— which kind of pissed me off towards the end (I was tired as hell, but at the same time, I was so fortunate to have given a bit of my heart to her).

So think about your photography— I think street photography is one of the best vehicles to become more empathetic to strangers and the world around us.

Furthermore, I also feel that by photographing our loved ones (this concept of “Personal Photography”) that we can connect with our loved ones even deeper. For my “Cindy Project”, I feel that I am able to become more engaged with her, to better cherish our simple moments together, and blend personal memories and art at the same time.

Currently I am trying to find a balance between “street photography” and my “personal photography”. However at the end of the day, photography is photography. Boundaries shouldn’t separate us— after all, all of us are brothers and sisters in this world of photography. And to take it even further— we as photographers shouldn’t separate ourselves from dancers, painters, actors, writers, and other artists. We all love to show forms of self-expression, love, and empathy for others.

So friend, see how you can open up your heart to others even more. Try to make small chat with that person in the elevator, look the service-worker in the eye, smile, and give them a genuine “hello.” Even if you dislike small talk with strangers, try to be more empathetic and present to your kids, your spouse, your partner, friends, family, or anyone else close to you.

Use your camera as a tool for empathy— for feeling others like they are you.

6:41am, Feb 5, 2016 @ Holiday Inn Express in Dubai, about to give my “One Camera, One Lens” talk, feeling good about life.

“Grandfather”

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