Empathy through Photography

By Isabella Guerra Uccelli

Photographs are able to freeze reality. They are able to transport people in time and space. But what is left in a photograph if time and place are unidentifiable? What is the goal of the photograph then? What story does that tell? The article “16 children – 16 photos: Click the black background and switch on their reality” features pictures of refugee children where everything except the child has been blacked-out. While news and media coverage on refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced people often focus on the contexts affecting refugees, war, violence, climate change, and policies. The journalist Peter Jørgensen prompts us to change our focus to the child.

But these photo-edits raise also difficult questions about empathy. Brandeis Professor Jennifer Gutsell has done research on how people’s actions and feelings resonate with others. This resonance, she says, is key to understanding other people’s perspectives, feelings, experiences and therefore key to achieving empathy. Gutsell found that people find more (neural) resonance with people one has more in common with (ingroup members) than with outgroup members. She calls this the “empathy gap.” But this empathy gap, she found, is reduced and almost eliminated after people are asked to take the perspective of another person and express that perspective in writing. In line with Gutsell’s research, Jørgensen prompts the viewer to, before anything else, focus on and empathize with the child. The question is, does removing the context generate more empathy and if it does, does that empathy lead to action?

Explore the photographs with your students and consider the reflection questions below to guide the discussion.

  1. Describe the child in one of the photographs. Based on what you see in their expression and their body language, what do you believe they might be feeling and thinking.
  2. What does the image make you think of? What does it make you feel?
  3. Click on the background which should reveal the rest of the image. Describe the context of the image. Does the new visual information impact how you respond to the image? Does this new information change the way you thought the child might be feeling? Does it raise new associations for you? Does it change how you feel? How does it change your understanding of the child?
  4. Compare the two images, what is similar? What is different? Do the two images tell the same story?
  5. Did you respond differently to each set of photographs? If so, in what way and why?
  6. Why do you think the author chose to edit the images?
  7. Think about Gutsell’s “empathy gap.” Why do you think people are able to empathize more with people who are more similar to them? What are the potential consequences of the empathy gap she describes?
  8. Do you feel more empathetic to the child with or without the additional visual information? What might it take to move you from empathy towards the child to action?