This is part two of a four-part post series concerning empathy and the HONY blog. In the previous post, I have highlighted the popularity of the HONY blog in comparison to other news outlets, and its ability to continuously elicit empathic responses from its readers. At least for the period of time the HONY blog followed the stories of refugees, it can be said that it acted as a form of photojournalism. For this reason, I discuss below the controversial nature of photojournalism and how the HONY blog manages to, somewhat, overcome it.
Photographs that tell of someone’s suffering are tools for cultivating empathy. Such photographs evoke a multitude of emotional reactions ranging from horror and moral outrage to a sense of urgency and a desire to help. Photographs are, as Susan Sontag remarks, an “incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened… that something exists, or did exist, which is what’s in the picture” (p. 5). For the visual features of a photograph to evoke empathy, not much is needed besides the viewer’s attention, as opposed to their indifference. But there are a few factors that might render the relationship between photography and empathy fragile.
For one, the ubiquity of photographs that tell someone’s sorrowful story may desensitize viewers to the subject’s agony. As Sontag remarks,
… photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised—partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror. [Seeing photographed images of suffering] does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them… Images transfix. Images anesthetize” (p. 19-20).
Another reason is that, all too often, the expression of empathy may be inhibited as viewers consider what was going on in a photographer’s mind as they captured the scene. After all, they chose to take a photo over offering help to the victim, and this may invite viewers to think that it is morally permissible to model the photographer; that is, to contemplate the “beauty” in the photograph and refrain from intervention. As Sontag notes,
although the camera is an observation station, the act of photographing is more than passive observing… It is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep on happening… to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing—including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune” (p. 12).
The photos and captions on the HONY blog serve to affirm a moment full of grief in such a way that the reader is invited to suspend judgement and open up fully to the lived reality of another human being. The photos are anything but mere displays of fleeting pixels on a screen; they reflect a photographer who chose not to turn away his sight, but to be a true witness of injustice, and through photography, call on others to reflect on what is happening. Through the stories they tell, the subjects in the photographs are rendered individuals, not archetypes; they are present, and they demand attention.
In essence, the HONY blog manages to evade both the ethical controversy and the anesthetizing effect in relation to the refugee crisis. In contrast to Sontag’s view that photographing someone is akin to violating and objectifying them, Stanton delicately preserves the subject’s dignity. For instance, as we see in the photograph above, the identity of the subject remains anonymous as the facial features are hidden from view. Surprisingly though, this anonymity does not atrophy the readers’ empathic responses to the subject’s agony. This is mostly likely the case for two reasons. First, the readers either implicitly or explicitly pick up on and appreciate the respect shown by the photographer towards the subject. Second, the presence of the caption beneath each photo suggests that the individual was offered the chance to tell their story and have their voice heard, and so regardless of the presence or absence of a face, the readers are nonetheless compelled to be attentive—to stop, reflect, and register the physical presence of the subject in the photograph.
Photojournalism is a medium that inherently challenges our capacity for empathy. Despite our ability to rationally acknowledge that behind each photograph is a vivid and complex life that we never knew existed—or a life filled with horror and trauma deserving of help—it is all too easy to dismiss the facts and numb our psyches in the face of the proliferation of photographs. It is through mediums such as the HONY blog that we are presented with a side of reality that is tinted in such a way that appeals to us—a perspective that truly gives us the chance to reflect and empathise with people in suffering.
This post has primarily addressed the nature of photographs and posts on the HONY blog. For the next post, I zoom in on possible underlying psychological processes that come about as readers engage in the storytelling part of the HONY posts, in an attempt to reveal what attracts readers to the HONY blog and triggers empathic responses in them.
Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. New York, NY: Penguin Books.