A Lens of Compassion
In Papua New Guinea, where I grew up, the standard greeting began with the phrase “I see you ... .” The greeter would fill in the blank with what a person was doing. I might have said to someone, “I see you sitting there” or, “I see you working in the garden.” There, to greet someone is to ac- knowledge him or her in the act of living. The ethos of my work as a photographer/ videographer is essentially the same: to ac- knowledge the lives of others through an act that says, “I see you ... living.” The act of seeing is also a key element of compassion. In photography, the way you see shapes how you capture a subject through an image. With compassion, seeing shapes your perception of a need and how to respond.
Compassion challenges us to honor the dignity of everyone we encounter. As a photographer, a lens of compassion ensures that people are remembered for their humanity, not seen as objects of pity. There’s an art to being able to preserve another person’s act of living accurately, respectfully, and with dignity.
During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Sebastião Salgado, a documentary photographer from Brazil, was able to capture the atrocities of the situation with deep compassion because he was willing to be with the people who were affected. He didn’t go to take photos and leave—he lived with people. Because he shared their experiences, he could preserve their memories with dignity.
Honoring people’s dignity makes a huge difference when it comes to how we see others, whether that’s through a camera or as compassionate Christians. With both, we should strive to highlight relationships, community, and commonality.
If you have any sort of relationship with people you photograph, it changes how you photograph them. Instead of two people being a disconnected observer and the one being photographed, you’re sharing something mutual.
I think that’s true of compassion, too. The fullest expressions of compassion recognize that we are all people, created by the same God with the same love and purpose, even in different contexts or corners of the world.
In these expressions, as in life, relationship brings people closer—to one another, to shared experiences, and to the God-given dignity in each of us. It brings us close enough to truly see one another. And it gives us the ability to say, “I see you ... living.”