Historicising Photography, Empathy and Human Rights

Jane Lydon’s new book examines the power of photographs in mediating settler colonial cross-cultural encounters in Australia.

PhotographyMy new book finally came out after many years of research … which feels good, but also not quite finished. Why do I have this sense of incompletion? Photography, Humanitarianism, Empire (2016) is about how images and especially photographs may arouse empathy for those very different from ourselves. More, I ask, what does this sense of identification and sympathy actually do in the world? Not sure that I have fully answered this, and I continue to explore this question in my research. But it is somehow so satisfying to see how a longitudinal, historical perspective gives some weight and substance to debates that often remain abstract and speculative.

The book’s blurb says:

With their power to create a sense of proximity and empathy, photographs have long been a crucial means of exchanging ideas between people across the globe; this book explores the role of photography in shaping ideas about race and difference from the 1840s to the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. Focusing on Australian experience in a global context, a rich selection of case studies – drawing on a range of visual genres, from portraiture to ethnographic to scientific photographs – show how photographic encounters between Aboriginals, missionaries, scientists, photographers and writers fuelled international debates about morality, law, politics and human rights. Drawing on new archival research, Photography, Humanitarianism, Empire is essential reading for students and scholars of race, visuality and the histories of empire and human rights.

When I decided to propose a book to Bloomsbury’s new Photography/History series, I had one central aim: I wanted to bring together a range of case studies that had captured my interest – indeed, held me hostage – over several years. But to build a book, I needed to bring these ideas into one clear, central narrative and demonstrate how they respond to a single coherent problem.

I wrestled with this question in mid-2014, during a treasured moment of reflection – a fellowship in Britain. I retrospectively sought to understand my own fascination with figures such as young Italian scientist Enrico Giglioli and his sympathy for the residents of Coranderrk, a government reserve for Indigenous people in Victoria, in 1874; the idealising missionaries who established Poonindie Mission near Port Lincoln in South Australia in 1850; H.G. Wells and his ideas about race and a global community; and the clever young Elsie Masson, who grew up next door to Walter Baldwin Spencer and married the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. In each case, I realised that the key question I asked was: how did photographs of Indigenous people emotionally mediate an understanding of race relations? And specifically, how did these images arouse empathy for people very different from the viewers? Sometimes, it appears, such empathy overrode powerful contemporary conventions of race.

(As a side note, I’m not sure that this is the right way to write a book: in the past I have always started with my big question and then written to resolve it, but that’s how this one happened.)

Elsie Masson and the Gilruth household on Residence Verandah, Darwin. Wayne Collection, Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. 1998.306.137.
Elsie Masson and the Gilruth household on Residence Verandah, Darwin. Wayne Collection, Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. 1998.306.137.

So what do I mean by ‘empathy’? A concern for the suffering of other people has been defined variously over the last three centuries as pity, sympathy, fellow-feeling, compassion and empathy. Scholarly interest in emotions, sometimes termed the ‘affective turn,’ has defined emotions, or ‘felt judgements,’ as embodied feelings experienced in the context of cultural values and principles. Emotions may be collective, historically created and locally contingent, and respond dynamically to circumstance, response or refusal in systems of circulation and exchange that Sara Ahmed terms ‘emotional economies.’

Adam Smith’s landmark 1759 work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, examined the human capacity for ‘pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner.’ Smith argued that while ‘pity’ and ‘compassion’ signify our fellow-feeling with the ‘sorrow of others,’ by contrast ‘sympathy’ denoted ‘our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.’ Smith’s broad conception of sympathy encompassed what during the twentieth century increasingly came to be called ‘empathy,’ a term only introduced to English through translation in 1909 from the German term ‘Einfühlung’ (or ‘feeling into’). During the twentieth century, empathy merged with and completely replaced the multidimensional concept of sympathy as it was used by earlier observers.

Aboriginal man of Poonindie. Ambrotype. By permission University of Bristol Library, Special Collections, Papers of Mathew Blagden Hale. DM130/239.
Aboriginal man of Poonindie. Ambrotype. By permission University of Bristol Library, Special Collections, Papers of Mathew Blagden Hale. DM130/239.

Identifying the ultimate limit to such ‘fellow-feeling’, Smith pointed out that ‘though our brother is on the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers’. The viewer is limited by her own experience and remains unable to truly enter into another person’s subjectivity; empathy can thus only be felt as an imaginative identification. In the end, ‘it is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy.’

Twenty-first century neuroscience has endorsed Smith’s notion of sympathy – or, as we now term it, empathy – as a process of mirroring the mental activities or experiences of another person based on the observation of his bodily activities or facial expressions. The term ‘mirror neuron,’ for example, refers to the significant overlap between ‘neural areas of excitation’ aroused by our own experience as well as our observation of someone else’s. Smith’s recognition of our innate disposition for motor mimicry anticipated a mode of sympathy, moral appeal and campaigns for reform designed to confront viewers with the plight of suffering victims in order to prompt empathy.

So when we survey nineteenth- and twentieth-century encounters between European travellers, scientists and colonists, and Indigenous Australians, it is sometimes quite surprising to see the many ways that personal encounters contradict or transcend contemporary conventions of race. I include encounters mediated by the camera as personal encounters. Where documentary accounts code or omit cross-cultural relations, sometimes the photograph records clues – overlooked by the photographer – that shine forth before our very eyes.

What did these moments of recognition, sympathy, even affection actually do? In some cases, these encounters seem to have generated a new sense of fellow-feeling, alerting observers to injustice and mobilising change.

H.G. Wells and Masson and her circle may be examples of this, however limited by their own time and its constraints. Wells of course was influential in arguing for new forms of political community and ideas of human rights prior to World War II. Masson, in her own less visible way, also argued for the recognition of injustice and better treatment under the law for Indigenous people in northern Australia.

Launch of book by the wonderful Phillippa Levine, Fremantle, December 2016.
Launch of book by the wonderful Phillippa Levine, Fremantle, December 2016.

Almost despite themselves, these engaged, observant people felt sympathy for others, sometimes moving to advocate for Aboriginal rights. In other cases, such sympathy simply flowed into channels of hierarchical, unequal relations, taking forms that we now consider patronising or racist. Or, as in the case of the 1949 UNESCO photographic exhibition designed to disseminate new ideas of human rights, a new visual language emerged that argued for a family of man – although in practice it was attacked for reiterating old hierarchies and effacing difference.

So where am I now? Still amazed by the power of the image, I am more aware of its fluidity and the ways it can be made to deliver such different messages. Finally, these historical examples have taught me so much about the way that our own, ever-more visual, global mediasphere works, as images become more present, more powerful, more shocking but also more complex in their uses. I am still looking.

 

Lydon July head&shJane Lydon holds the Wesfarmers Chair in Australian History at the University of Western Australia. Her most recent book Photography, Humanitarianism, Empire (Bloomsbury, 2016) explores the role of photography in shaping ideas about race and difference from the 1840s to the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, placing the Australian experience in a global context. She is currently involved on two ARC Discovery projects: one on magic lantern slide shows as a globalised and formative cultural experience in colonial Australia; and another addressing how anti-slavery discourse, particularly its representations in popular culture, influenced humanitarian campaigns from 1890 to the present. Jane’s research more broadly explores visual cultures in an effort to understand how images have shaped ideas and debates about rights, identity and culture that persist into the present.

Follow Jane on Twitter @LydonJane.

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