The role of empathy in portrait photography
Much of the reason why I felt drawn to photography was that when I looked at really good photographs, they made me feel something that words can’t accomplish.
It’s a lot like music in the sense that photographs translate and convey emotions in a similar way that sounds do for music through the use of composition.
When I first started taking pictures back in 2011, I saw things on a bit of a surface level in a lot of ways. I wasn’t trained to think and see the way I do now. I think perhaps the best thing that photography has taught me is how to see which isn’t just related to taking pictures but in all aspects of life.
It teaches you to look deeper and to feel things on a deeper level which inherently demands empathy to create something compelling. When I look at portraits that I find compelling, I can’t help but feel that the most important variable that’s responsible for taking a good portrait is empathy. And I define “good” to me as meaning compelling or making you feel something.
This, of course, is subjective but it’s hard to imagine you can make an emotionally compelling portrait without the ability to perceive underlying emotion in others to then translate onto a photograph.
But how can you make the viewer feel something if you’re focused on yourself, your techniques, and not connecting to the subject? Being able to connect to that person or that subject is empathy.
You start to put yourself in their situation, to feel what they feel, to seek to understand their perspective on life, or to sense what they are feeling. I think this is what people call having a connection which most of us probably feel with our closest friends.
With my closest friends, they simply know what I’m feeling without having to ever ask and they know what to say without any prompt. There’s no mystery because this empathy exists. But the essence of any true human connection is empathy, whether it’s your best friend or a stranger.
Yet, the more you cultivate empathy, the more you can truly understand the person you’re photographing. Instead of taking a photograph of some lady in the park or a sad old man, try connecting to these people rather than objectifying them as they are by their external appearances.
I’ve taken a lot of pictures of people on the street while living in Japan, and I can’t help but look through my images and see that there’s just something missing in a lot of these images. They look like typical street photography shots and on the surface, there’s even a certain style. But without that spark of emotion, it’s devoid.
It was only within the last year that I realized that no matter how “good” these pictures looked by surface standards, many of the photographs were missing a dimension. They look pretty good compositionally, but that certain energy was missing. I was distant and afar and it was nearly impossible to connect with any of these people.
Fast forward to my life in Boston, I met a nice man one afternoon at the beach. I ended up talking to him for nearly two hours (this usually doesn’t happen to me!) and for some reason he decided to tell me about his life. At the time, I was photographing some locals at the beach because Revere Beach seems to have an interesting set of characters.
It wasn’t until the end of my day with him, did I get an impression of who this man was, his true character. And it was because of this I was able to get a really good portrait that connected to who he was instead of depicting him as just another colorful local on the beach that might satisfy some superficial quality that “looks good” but yet you move on and forget about it.
The best pictures seem to be the ones that you can’t get out of your mind, the ones that don’t change in their significance over time.
Empathy is a skill and except for being a sociopath, it’s possible to acquire. Practicing learning how to cultivate empathy is definitely one of the best things we can do to both improve our portraits and to improve our photography, and of course, our own relationships.