Photography Empathy: How You Feel Is What You Get

Recently while listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Candid Frame, professional photographer and author Rick Sammon offered an old adage as his No. 1 photography tip: “The camera looks both ways.”

When I heard this, I was confused for a moment.  What did this have to do with photography? Shouldn’t his top tip for photographing people be about something technical — like which is the best wide angle lens? As my initial surprise wore off, I reallzed that Sammon’s tip is the kind of photography wisdom that can only come from years of experience.

Photographers as Mirrors

Allow me to use a mechanism from the Single Lens Reflex camera as a metaphor to illustrate Sammon’s point. The SLR camera uses a mirror to catch the light coming through the lens, passing it on to the ground glass screen, thus allowing the photographer to see exactly what will be captured by the film or digital imaging system.

Photographers are mirrors, too.  In the same way that the mirror in the camera reflects light, photographers project their feelings and life condition, influencing their subjects and ultimately the final image.

What Sammon is talking about is a kind of “photography empathy”.  The Merriam-Webster definition of empathy is “the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.”  In the context of photography, empathy means that your photographs reflect you, as well as your personal investment in your subject.

As Sammon puts it: “Picturing the subject we’re also picturing a part of ourselves.”

The minute we look through the camera’s viewfinder,  it can seem as if we are distancing ourselves from what we’re photographing. So it’s easy to think that we’re being objective (free of any bias caused by personal feelings) when shooting. Yet the photographic output is an extension of us as our mind (even subconscious intentions), body and soul are all permanently etched on film or pixel.

Photography empathy is also relevant when shooting animals. In a past Wildlife Watch Binocular article, author and photographer Jim Robertson considers empathy “essential for maintaining ethical standards when photographing wildlife.” Robertson encourages using telephoto lenses and keeping your distance to respect both the environment and life of animals in the wild. He even takes empathy as far as claiming that after six years of being vegan, he can “attest to the fact that wild animals are not as fearful of me now”.

Empathy and Respect

In August I brought my DSLR to a wedding, not as the official photographer but to casually photograph it from a guest’s point of view. The wedding was that of a new friend, so I didn’t really know most of the guests and I felt a bit like a fish out of water.

It was a contemporary, “blended family” wedding where a middle-aged bride and groom were taking the bold step of giving a second chance at love and marriage. I should have captured some unique results, but all I got were subpar snapshots. My shyness and insecurity clearly came through in the quality of the images.

At the reception (and after a few sips of wine), my shyness wore off. There I spotted the vanilla-frosted, three-tiered wedding cake made by the groom’s oldest son (previously a contender on Bravo’s Top Chef) that sat on a marble table surrounded by tea light candles and illuminated by the gold, evening sun. I fell in love, got lost in the moment and took almost a dozen shots — of just the cake!

Smitten by the beauty of this cake, I saw it as a piece of art that the groom’s son created with care and tried to give it that same respect in my photos. Perhaps respect is the essence of empathy — and hopefully we can keep this in mind when intruding on the spaces, faces and lives of those/that which we photograph.

Let’s discuss: Have you noticed how empathy plays a role in the way you photograph? How has it influenced your end result?

3 Responses to “Photography Empathy: How You Feel Is What You Get”

  1. That is an interesting idea, which I had never really thought about before. However on reflection I did a boudoir session recently and the lady bought her husband - nothing wrong with that but he bought a laptop and wanted to be out of our way so he sat in the dinning room.

    They were a lovely couple but it still made me feel uncomfortable as my client's were not in the studio. I would much rather get them involved holding reflectors or something.

    Perhaps I should explain that my studio is at home and my son was asking why this stranger was sitting in our dinning room - perfectly valid question.

    The pictures are technically fine but somehow just seem to lack the sparkle or looks that I was aiming to achieve. This would seem to support your suggestion that your subjects will resemble a reflection of your "state of mind" when the shutter is pressed.

  2. Interesting that you should write about that statement because for years I've been hearing about it but had never really understood it before. Rick Sammon made it so clear to me. The way my subjects viewed the camera was the way they viewed me, but more importantly, the way I viewed them and my relationship to them.
    As a travel photographer who often has the disadvantage of not speaking the language I was able to go back through some of my portrait images and look at the faces on the people and pretty much know exactly how I had approached them. Whether I had been confident and friendly, or whether I had appeared nervous and not quite sure of myself.
    It's a great statement and Rick explained it perfectly.

  3. I had a comment on my website the other day saying that I have 'camera empathy with people'. Wondering what this meant I found the explanation here. It makes sense what you said because I use to be shy with the camera but now I just try to go for it and it shows. Check this out:

    I had a great experience with the Pokot people in Kenya recently.

Leave a Reply