Who empathises with whom?
Once upon a time I showed a photograph that I had taken to a friend of mine. It was a portrait. My friend took the small photographic print in his hands and exclaimed: ‘Sometimes I feel like this.’ An exclamation that I have never forgotten. How exactly does he know how she feels? Is her feeling so visible in that one photograph? He was so sure. Absolutely sure that he knew what she was going through. Sure that he had gone through the same.
Photography is a medium that deals with the visual.
What can be seen.
I want to talk about what cannot be seen
while using the language of photography.
I’m not sure if we see one another.
If we know.
If we understand. *
Fernando Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquiet about a sense of detachment from other people. I feel closer ties and more intimate bonds with certain characters in books, with certain images I’ve seen in engravings, than with many supposedly real people, with that metaphysical absurdity known as ‘flesh and blood’. A thought that I recognize and believe to be the truth. We get to know our favorite fiction characters so much better then we get to know ‘real’ others or, I would add, our ‘real’ selves.
Franz Kafka compared his self-knowledge to his knowledge of his room.
There is no such thing as observation of the inner world, as there is of the outer world. *
The definition of empathy:
The power of entering into another’s personality and imaginatively experiencing his feelings.
The etymology of empathy:
It comes from the Greek empatheia - em (into) and pathos (feeling).
The writer Leslie Jameson wrote:
It suggests you enter another person's pain as you'd enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?
She wrote a book about empathy. A bit further on she writes:
When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me.
I don’t know if this was empathy or theft.
This is where I have to admit to being a thief. *
I worked with and lived among psychiatric patients for three months. Some one asked me to protect him one day, and screamed at me the next. Some one told me that her voices told her that I was a bitch but she found out that I was not and kept giving me advice about love and how to talk to birds. Some one played the accordion for me one day, and lost complete control of her body the other day. Some one cooked for me. Some one quietly stole my pants. I feel tenderly towards these people. And – not so different.
Photography and psychiatry have a history. Photographs have been used to show what a crazy person looks like. Labelling people: This is a hysterical woman. This is a schizophrenic man.
For me, it is in conversation that I want to show these people to you.
I have been engaging them in conversations with me, with their nurses, with their visitors, and most of all: with each other.
The question is: Who empathises with whom?