Photography & Empathy

robert capa spanish civil war

Today I attended to the probably most shocking lesson of my life: War photography.
From the beginning in the 19th century to the ’90s, every war documented by photographers and photos that made often literally history.
And here you may think: a lot of death bodies and desperation, that’s why it was shocking.
The answer is no.

I don’t watch a lot of tv, but when I do, especially at lunch, at the news, or during commercials, images of African children dying and bombs exploding are continually transmitted into my tv. I’ve arrived to the point where I see but not watch, where I look at the tv screen but my mind is blank, is beyond it. I feel like the more they transmit these horrors, the more we are used to it, and the attempt to raise awareness and obtain help is substituted by indifference or habit. I’m not impressed if I see one of these images, I’m not disturbed, and that scares me and makes me sad. What have we become, what have I become?
Anyway, the class was shocking not because of the pictures, but because of the stories. Our – young and talented – professor told us about these photographers, about how they lived, what they photographed, and how they died. It was the horrible different ways in which their life ended that finally reached my heart. It was the knowing that “they were people”, with faces and lives and passions, knowing their story, that activated the shock. It was basically empathy the key.
I remembered two passages from a book about emotions I’m reading for uni that said:

Empathic reactions are common, and they are a means by which we establish bonds with others, even with total strangers. These feelings make you care about Bettye’s or the boy’s suffering, and they make you want to help them.

It appears that nature designed us to be revolted by the sight of the insides of another person’s body, especially if there is blood. That disgust reaction is suspended when it is not a stranger but an intimate, our kin, who bleeds. Then we are motivated to reduce the suffering rather than get away from it. One can imagine how revulsion at the physical signs of suffering, of disease, might have had a benefit in reducing contagion, but it comes at the cost of reducing our capacity for empathy and compassion, which can be very useful in building community.
Neither empathy nor compassion is an emotion; they refer to our reactions to another person’s emotions. In cognitive empathy we recognize what another person is feeling. In emotional empathy we actually feel what that person is feeling, and in compassionate empathy we want to help the other person deal with his situation and his emotions. We must have cognitive empathy, in order to achieve either of the other forms of empathy, but we need not have emotional empathy in order to have compassionate empathy.

How can we activate empathy up against war massacres and famines? Is the gaining knowledge of what is behind the only way we can feel anything? Am I the only one who has unfortunately become insensitive?


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