It is easier to talk about what empathy is not, it is not ‘like mindedness’ or affinity. Empathy is non- judgmental. Pure empathy is to step into the shoes of another person irrespective of how different or even repugnant their actions or views might appear to be. Believing we are right is a barrier to empathy. Being open to the most implausible possibilities outside of our own experience even that which is beyond our awareness is essential.
To use a cliché, my empathy is a consequence of my disability and it is now my super-power; I can be overly empathic or ’confluent’, I take on attributes of another person’s experience as my own, it’s a bi-product of a great insecurity that led me to believe that everyone's life was more valuable, more complete than my own. It led to a life of exploring other worlds with a camera. In the moment with the camera empathy enables an infected gaze; I subconsciously seek out ways to satiate this ‘posession’ in my read of the world through the lens.
Epoche is a form of bracketing of our own 'self', our views and prejudices that allow us to create a boundaried environment (let’s say a counselling/therapy session or a photographic shoot) allowing us to slip stream into another life and truly feel it whilst protecting our personal integrity.
Epoche comes with practice, awareness of the concept is enough initially and it is key to knowing what is ‘me’ and what is the infection. The camera is a tool that allows me to immerse myself in others lives, a protective barrier allowing moments of total confluence with another life. With the camera I can safely give myself over to an alternative universe in a way I would not now do otherwise, as it would be a betrayal of my self esteem. Like my work with Samaritans I can offer complete care and support in the moment within the boundaries or rules that protect me and the person seeking support. Empathy without boundaries is a danger to self and the pathway to empathy is also not fully possible without this clear demarcation. We can get lost in other worlds and there is a key to the understanding existentially of mental health issues here, some of us feel too much to safely manage and often ironically we may withdraw and shut down. Like a child becoming an adult. Artists are to some extent like children in so far as we have kept that door partly open to pure imagination and play.
My greatest moment of empathy and photography was in Ukraine, the pinnacle of my journey of understanding. Boys in a City Park explores the lives of 4 severely autistic boys, capturing their private, hidden worlds in the instant of a flash light. Their lives seemed chaotic when viewed through the spectrum of normality but a hyper-sensory world was revealed to me beyond my control and awareness only perceptible in the scrutiny of the images after the event. This was only possible through the high resolution capabilities of digital technology combined with almost instantaneous flash. It’s impossible to explain how important these images are and I feel they are as misunderstood outside of my universe as autism is itself. It is the greatest work of my life.
A boy gently clutches a rose head, another is watched by a grasshopper on a leaf and another boy responds to the flash opening his mouth as if to trigger the light.
Although the temptation is to seek out an equivalent to that feeling of total success like the worst drug, I now exist in a new world seeking new ways to find meaning but still within the dogma of my practice. Many doors are now closed behind me and I can only go forward.
See series here and further statement and curators comment. Boys in a City Park
|Boy #1 from Boys in a City Park, Ukraine 2011 © Richard Ansett|