Piling seven people into a five person car (and five people into an eight person van), we finally made our way to the Gandhi Ashram. The premise is modestly designed: a series of bungalows overlooking blue, algae coated water. The lake, now polluted, is entirely still. I leaned my torso forward over the concrete ledge. My vision of the immobile pool was perfectly framed by bridges supporting two-wheelers cascading their course.
|The Mahatma’s Room
There was somet
hing about the image of the stagnant water encapsulated by the hurried vehicles. Modernity rushing forward, pulling nature to a stagnant stop. It was painful to watch, but there was something beautiful about the serenity of dead water. I pulled out my camera to capture the moment. Fumbling over the composition, I struggled to include both bridges and the detail of the algae coated blue. I finally had to settle for two separate images: the first looked directly down towards the water, the second was broader view of the land-scape, however, even within these two photographs the color was less vivid and the lens was too far to capture the motion of the crazed two-wheelers. Once the shot was on my camera the impact had disintegrated and the moment was meaningless.
The previous night I had just finished reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, where she describes the fleeting power of a photograph. Unlike a painting, a photograph claims to render the truth. The viewer sees the image, is forced to consume the “diet of horrors,” but once the photograph is removed from their field of vision the viewer moves on, apathetically able to return to the routine of their daily lives. The impact of these photographs is completely ephemeral. Not only does the viewer quickly forget the power of what they have seen, the image also leaves them feeling helpless and unable to make any sort of change.
Last Friday in the workshop I was conducting we began a discussion about the difference between sympathy and empathy. One of the participants explained how it is obviously easier to sympathize than it is to empathize. She eloquently described how empathy doesn’t mean one has experienced said event, but it does mean that they are able and willing to imagine it. Looking at these two images on the screen of my puny digital camera I’ve began to wonder the power of a photograph.
For the past month all of the ITSA interns have been seriously committed to divergent, creative thinking, yet in many of the workshops I’ve found myself incorporating photographs and videos. Of course, these are intended to motivate the students and when I watch the series of images I myself feel empowered to make a change. But how long does the memory of these images last? Our visual recollection is much weaker than the memory of our other senses and I worry that the moment the video or slide-show is turned off the sentiment will fade. We don’t have to smell a simulation. A photograph does nothing for the imagination. Sympathy is as ephemeral as a bubble and without the chance to internalize the pain, empathy is left dry. These students are overloaded with images to a point where they’re rendered meaningless. Occasionally there is the image that does manage strike a cord. It will vibrate inside you for a moment like the string of a guitar shooting up your spine. Traveling through your ears, it fills your brain with a painful hum, but as the vibrations simmer the sound numbs. Imagination, however, digs us deeper and deeper into despair. Embodied pain has a way of sticking to the soul and it’s our ringing core that pulls us into action.
Julia Meyer was an ITSA Workshop Leader in 2012 and now attends Bard College.