Using art to create empathy

This week I met with some people in London who are planning an exhibition about peace building in Africa that will use photographs and words from interviews to show an audience the quiet, courageous work being done. It was fascinating to discuss the process of choosing images and words to make an impact on viewers. Here are some of the ideas that I offered for discussion, based on my experience of combining artworks with my empathy research:

  • Because you get very different responses to a set of images from viewers who are artists and from viewers who are not alert to the artistic qualities of the images, it is important to decide early on which audience you are most concerned with and make choices based on that intended audience.
  • My empathy research shows a ‘Goldilocks effect’. People do not easily connect with people or images of people that are too forceful or too close. Large photos of people are likely to have this same effect. They also won’t connect with anything too far away – physically or metaphorically.
  • There is another response that might come into play for viewers at an exhibition like this – if people feel they are being asked to ‘help’, they may put up barriers to empathy.
  • The method I use to analyse spoken interviews involves transcribing audio recordings into ‘intonation units’. These are stretches of language produced under a single breath. Learning to transcribe this way takes some training and doing it takes time. But the result is a transcription that sometimes looks beautiful and sounds like poetry. Here is a section of a transcription from one of my interviews with a young man in Kenya:

when we started this war
we started something that we never knew
and that we have never seen

in that war
so many friends
so many young people
died 

  • When you select words from what people have told you in an interview in order to present their ‘voice’ to viewers, you have a responsibility to the interviewee to not misrepresent them – the ethics of exhibiting.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic!

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