As photographers we have a vision. We know how we want our photographs to look and we know what kind of response we are trying to encourage from our viewers and from our clients. When we don’t get the reaction that we were looking for or we don’t get any reaction at all then we have either got it wrong or we have a vision so unique that nobody else gets it.
One of the qualities shared by pretty much all of my favourite photographers is the ability to empathise. The best of the best can do it on just about every level too. They understand the feelings and motivations of those that they are photographing every bit as well as they understand those of the target audience. It doesn’t matter if that’s the doting parents of a newborn baby in a studio in the northern hemisphere or the parents of a critically ill child in the southern hemisphere – having the ability to imagine yourself into the position of those whose lives will be effected by your photography is a key skill. I find it hard to think of a genre of photography where empathy wouldn’t be right up there with an understanding of composition or light as a piece of the jigsaw that comes together to make us ‘photographers’.
Somebody reading this is gesticulating at their screen and shouting about being single-minded and determined and not letting emotion get in the way of doing a good job and they have a valid point. Having empathy doesn’t always mean that you have to act on it. There will always be situations where you have to put your ability to understand everyone else’s needs and desires to one side and shoot the pictures that you need to shoot in the way that you need to shoot them but the great photographers – even the single-minded great photographers – have empathy.
If your are finding it hard to agree with this idea then I’d ask you to look at some pictures and try to work out whose feelings, needs and desires the photographer concerned might have been taking into account and/or ignoring when they shot them. I would hazard a guess that the pictures that have the most impact will be those where empathy is a factor and those that are just eye-candy are those where empathy isn’t a big part of the formula.