The Power of Photography to Cultivate Empathy and Create Shared Humanity

The Power of Photography to Cultivate Empathy and Create Shared Humanity

In an increasingly polarized world, one of photography’s most profound strengths is its ability to cultivate empathy and compassion across cultures. At its best, photography can transport us into unfamiliar environments, activities, and viewpoints. It reveals the humanity in people whose lives and backgrounds differ vastly from our own. Photography has a transcendent way of building understanding and sympathy by showing us new perspectives.

Finding Shared Humanity

As photographers, it’s worth considering how images can thoughtfully foster cross-cultural empathy. When utilized consciously, photographs can counteract prejudice by connecting viewers to shared human experiences and emotions beyond cultural barriers.

The importance of empathy stems from photography’s role in shaping perspectives. What images we consume, share, and award has consequences. Photos that reduce cultural groups to stereotypes versus those that highlight our common bonds create very different effects. As image-makers, photographers have responsibility for the ways their work influences perceptions.

Photography’s strength is capturing emotional honesty within specific cultural contexts. Iconic images of joy, sorrow, love, fear, and hope can resonate across audiences because of their authenticity. By simply depicting human stories as they unfold, photography builds bridges. Even without overt messaging, images cultivate awareness that our lives bear similarities beneath surface differences.

Landscape and environmental photography also unify by revealing shared wonder and vulnerability. Images of Earth’s natural beauty as both fragile and resilient help us transcend nations and backgrounds to see ourselves as collectively human.

Meanwhile, portraits and documentary projects engage viewers through intimate access to cultural practices and community issues. Work like Stephanie Sinclair’s insights into child marriage traditions or Matika Wilbur’s Project 562 documenting Native American tribes challenges assumptions by putting faces and identities to cultural topics, taking them from abstract, distanced ideas to intimate and human.

While some raise valid critiques of “poverty porn” exploitative photography, many ethical photographers highlight critical issues like homelessness, addiction, and hunger as shared societal problems requiring compassion, not judgment. Images can build public will to address human rights and privation.

At the same time, photography reveals the diversity of human experience worth affirming. Colors, customs, rituals, and stories that differ from dominant cultural norms gain appreciation through thoughtful photographic documentation. Encountering new cultural information firsthand through images instead of stereotypes breeds mutual respect.

The Personal Connection

Even very personal photography projects connect us through emotional transparency and vulnerability. Social media Humans of New York photo stories reveal that beneath our variations, all humans experience love, grief, hope, and suffering. Life experiences differ but our emotional core remains the same. Photography makes this tangible. 

While some argue photography distracts from direct action, images remain crucial for inspiration and awareness. Consider Kevin Carter’s early 1990s photos depicting famine in Sudan. The haunting images fueled humanitarian efforts in a way words alone could not. Photography’s nature gives it unparalleled power to shape public sentiment.

Black Lives Matter in Oregon, June 9, 2020 (Photo by David Geitgey, used under Creative Commons)

But image-makers must also listen to the communities and stories they depict. Photography can exploit rather than uplift if not undertaken collaboratively, ethically, and with consent. Subjects must have agency in how they are portrayed. 

Still, used conscientiously, photography remains unmatched in its emotive ability to convey lives distant from our own as equally complex, relatable, and deserving of dignity. Photos cultivate the empathy imperative for pluralism. They remind us that shared humanity eclipses cultural differences.

Building Empathy and Leveraging Photography's Power

Seek Inspiring Role Models

Research photographers who have created transcendent cultural stories - Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, Phil Borges, and others. Study their approach to uplifting marginalized groups and addressing controversies with sensitivity. 

Capture Dignity

Portray all subjects, communities, and cultures with equal dignity. Avoid exotification or portraying differences as deficiencies. Reveal beauty, complexity, and humanity.

Highlight Similarities  

While honoring cultural uniqueness, also identifies universal commonalities. Emotions, family values, and daily joys resonate across cultures. We have more in common than divides us.

Counter Stereotypes

Challenge one-dimensional, distorted cultural representations through factual truths. Debunk stereotypes for marginalized communities by showcasing their authentic lived experiences.  

Put People First 

No matter the cultural context, photography should make our shared personhood primary. Emphasize names, voices, identities, and participation. Don't reduce people to props within foreign environments.

Invite Conversation

Photographs should raise exchanges, not close them. Enable viewers to ask sensitive questions instead of making assumptions. Images can start dialogues.

Consider Context

Account for the time, place, and audience where photographing. Cultural photography risks appropriation without localized context. Collaborate for meaningful accuracy.

Promote Allyship 

Photographs should inspire action, not just awareness — donations, policy reform, and activism. Galvanize people from unfamiliar cultures to become allies.

There are no easy solutions to prejudice, but photography maintains unique power to chip away at barriers between peoples. Photographers young and old can thoughtfully leverage this strength. We all gain when diverse stories humanize struggles and celebrations across communities. Keep the medium’s empathy-building power central to your cultural photography. Our shared humanity comes into frame.

The History of Photography's Role in Empathy

While photography's power to spread empathy may seem obvious today, photographers throughout history have had to fight to have the medium taken seriously as something that could insight emotional understanding between cultures. 

In photography's early history, photographic societies scoffed at the idea of documentary images having any real social impact. When photographs of the poor and marginalized first emerged, they were seen as tabloid curiosities, not tools for building compassion.

Child laborers in Indiana, 1908 (Photo by Lewis Hines, public domain)
It took pioneers like Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange to push photography into the social justice spotlight through hard-hitting documentary exposures of harsh realities many Americans preferred to ignore. Powerful images like Lange's Migrant Mother finally gave photography credibility as an empathy-building art form.

Meanwhile, anthropological photography faced similar skepticism when first presenting foreign cultures to Western audiences. Photographers aiming to capture disappearing lifestyles and customs were accused of fabricating inauthentic scenes just to shock audiences. Even as their work brought disappearing indigenous groups into public consciousness, they fought constant accusations of staging images.

Today, photography is ubiquitous and we take for granted its ability to immediately transmit scenes from remote corners of human experience. But historically, convincing society that photography could educate and promote empathy took repeated demonstrations of the medium's emotive power.

It's worth remembering how hard early social documentary and cultural photographers worked to prove images could change hearts and minds across divides. The same challenges remain today in a media-saturated world. But remembering those pioneering battles helps motivate today's image-makers to continue using photography for positive social impact.

Current Socio-Political Context

In light of current events, photography's role in furthering cross-cultural empathy feels more crucial than ever. Divisive political environments, conflict fueled by xenophobia, and anti-immigrant rhetoric demonstrate photography is still needed to humanize marginalized groups.

Images supporting diversity initiatives, documenting social justice movements, capturing refugee experiences, and highlighting LGBTQ+ visibility provide visual proof that photography continues influencing society's moral arc.

Same-sex marriage demonstration outside the Supreme Court before the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling (Photo by Jordan Uhl, used under Creative Commons)

While some claim the proliferation of digital images has diminished photography's empathy-building role, the right viral images still wield incredible power to touch consciences. Consider the 2015 photos of young Aylan Kurdi's body that encapsulated the Syrian refugee crisis' horrific human toll. Images remain pivotal.

Of course, merely snapping photographs is not enough. As socially concerned photographers, we must pursue projects with journalistic ethics and community collaboration. But used thoughtfully, photography retains unmatched influence to advance public empathy.

Influential Photo Bodies of Work 

Given photography's context, it's worth spotlighting some of the most impactful photographic projects that promoted cross-cultural empathy:

  • Edward Curtis' The North American Indian: Early 20th-century documentation of disappearing Native American customs. Deeply problematic in some aspects but increased public awareness.
  • Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother: Iconic Great Depression portrait encapsulating hardship and perseverance. Humanized struggles of poor and marginalized. 
  • Gordon Parks' Segregation Series: Exposed the daily impacts of racism and Jim Crow laws through empathetic portraits of African Americans. 
  • W. Eugene Smith's Country Doctor: Revealed rural poverty but also grace and strength of a dedicated physician serving poor communities.
  • Stephanie Sinclair's Too Young To Wed: Photographs and interviews spotlighting the controversial practice of child marriage around the world. 
  • Pete Souza's photography of President Obama: Affirmed dignity and multifaceted humanity of first African American president and his family. 
  • Missouri School of Journalism's Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute's Pictures of the Year International: Annual curated exhibitions displaying most impactful and socially resonant images of the year.

Pete Souza's photos of President Obama's two terms in office are widely considered some of the finest work by a White House photographer. 
There are countless other bodies of culturally insightful photographic work deserving recognition. But the examples above epitomize projects where highly skilled photographers overcame obstacles to increase public awareness and compassion around controversial issues. Their success proves photography's enduring power to connect us.

The Future

At its core, ethical cultural photography requires photographing with people, not just of people. Subjects must have agency in how they are represented before international audiences. Images should empower, not endanger vulnerable communities.

This necessitates patience, listening, and building trust over time. It means rejecting the arrogant lone photographer swooping in to capture exotic images. Instead, cultural photography should involve mutual storytelling and questioning problematic power dynamics.

Woolworth's Sit-In, Durham, NC, February 10, 1960 (The News & Observer, Raleigh, NC, public domain)

Executed respectfully, however, photographs honestly depicting people's spiritual practices, family traditions, societal challenges, and proud customs still hold immense power to build unity through our shared condition. But photographers must earn that privileged intimacy.

The Future of Empathetic Photography

What does the future hold for photography's role in building cross-cultural empathy? Despite the proliferation of digital images challenging attention, photographers can sustain the medium's social impact by:

  • Continuing to highlight underreported people and issues through long-term documentary projects on overlooked communities.
  • Leveraging photography books, exhibitions, and other engaging formats to share in-depth stories that displace stereotypes with nuance.
  • Promoting student photojournalism programs that build visual literacy and teach culturally sensitive approaches early on.
  • Harnessing photography collectives and social platforms to rapidly disseminate images that reveal shared human experiences uniting us all. 
  • Countering misrepresentation by training marginalized communities in photography skills to control their own depictions.
  • Advocating for photojournalism and the importance of high-quality images in preserving democracy and justice. 

Granted, these aspirations demand exceptional effort and commitment. But photographers who recognize the historic precedent and urgent need for culturally- nsightful images can keep the medium relevant.

From its earliest days, photography has helped societies evolve by bringing foreign people and contexts into frame, building relationships where little existed. Photographers today must defend and expand upon that transformative legacy.

Images still contain unmatched power to convey truth and shape narratives. So, we must wield cameras in service of human dignity, understanding, and progress. The empathy-building capacity of photography is still alive. 

Lead image by Dan Aasland, used under Creative Commons.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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If "subjects must have agency in how they are represented before international audiences," there is no way to be objective -- it is going to be only the point of view of these subjects.