A propaganda of empathy

Leanne O’Connor catches up with Timm Sonnenschein a week after the opening of his solo show Division, Resistance and Empowerment. Together they delve in to his aspirations, practice and stance on empathy within the field of documentary photography.

The TUC March For the Alternative passing the Houses of Parliament, London © Timm Sonnenschein/reportdigital.co.uk Tel 01789-262151/07831-121483 info@reportdigital.co.uk NUJ recommended terms & conditions apply. Moral rights asserted under Copyright Designs & Patents Act 1988. Credit is required. No part of this photo to be stored, reproduced, manipulated or transmitted by any means without permission.

The TUC March For the Alternative passing the Houses of Parliament, London
© Timm Sonnenschein/reportdigital.co.uk

‘Change is necessary, and consequently a transformative interaction of all members of society is needed. Let’s open the floor for a propaganda of empathy.’ – Timm Sonnenschein, Poverty and Austerity, 2018

German-born Sonnenschein has been a freelance documentary photographer for the best part of ten years, and is now a lecturer in photography here at Birmingham City University.

One of the major underpinnings of Timm Sonnenschein photographic practice is essentially – empathy.

In his own words, Sonnenschein ‘s work aims to change perceptions within society and bring about a positive sense of community and see people as individuals. I very much use my photography as a tool for change and I definitely from a left wing background, and I think that elements of inclusion have always been within my thinking, social inclusion, not pushing people out for who they are but actually acknowledge their need to observe and engage in a dialogue. That’s what I have done just through living and that’s what I have tried to promote through my photographic work.

This role of empathy in occurrence with the practice of documentary photography is viewed as a contested subject, and has been explored by photographic theorists such as Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and Jane Lydon. With some holding the view of its non-existence within that clinical power related scenario of the photographer and the subject, whilst on the other hand upholding the fact of human emotion always pervading every shot captured. Sonnenschein shared his own experience of humility interrupting the previously termed ‘clinical’ stance of the documentarian, when asked to capture photographs of school children and parents, to act as representation of the Trojan horse enquiry…

T.S: “I just felt that my values couldn’t match that, and in that sense a picture that is representing the Trojan horse inquiry is BBC or ITV cameras, I can’t recall exactly – filming in a public meeting two Muslim women. And … or pointing in the direction of two Muslim women. In that sense I stepped back from being the press observer, but instead observed in a way – what was happening at the time. That was a national and partly international observation of the Muslim community in Birmingham. I didn’t really want to be part of that, I wanted to be part of observing what was happening.”

Discussing with Sonnenschein what work he considered to be a seminal shot in his photographic practice, he reflected on a number of shots, one in our current show Division, resistance and Empowerment (pictured below with his reflections on the work)

A female worker pulling out dry grass outside the Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai, China © Timm Sonnenschein/reportdigital.co.uk Tel 01789-262151/07831-121483 info@reportdigital.co.uk

A female worker pulling out dry grass outside the Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai, China
© Timm Sonnenschein/reportdigital.co.uk


T.S: “At some point during my travels in china, I walked past the Jin Mao tower which is one of the three highest buildings in Shang Hai. I saw a migrant worker pulling out grass, dry grass, outside a lawn outside those buildings which houses the Hyatt hotel and other prominent places.

I just thought, no this is the image that depicts what I wanted to explain, and I just photographed this woman just pulling grass in contrast to these buildings that represent an enormous amount of wealth and growth and there we have a migrant worker who has to pull out dry grass to make it look…. pretty?”

This feeling of wanting to present the under privileged and the un-balanced world of poverty in direct comparison with the 1% extends in to other projects within Sonnenschein ‘s documentary practice. Directly expressed through his photographic works depicting the austerity that has ravaged many working class communities across the country (these works documented are set in Ladywood), since the conservative parliaments drove of cuts to public services. Sonnenschein has balanced within his practice the position of the photographer as the orchestrator of the photograph, but as the empathetic observer. To quote Sontag’s seminal work Regarding the Pain of others remembers the journalistic phrase ‘if its bleeds, it leads […] as misery heaves in to view” this misery is definitely pictured within his shots, using his camera lens as a compassionate port hole, where in which observers can use their own life experiences to impose context, invoking an emotional response.

This want or need to depict the underprivileged within an unbalanced society pervades his goal of future projects that slipped through his fingers – the humanitarian crisis of the Syrian civil war and the following refugee crisis. Sonnenschein had an emotive response to one picture in the same ilk that we form understandings of pictures by imposing our own experiences and roles, this picture quickly became viral, whilst also winning Daniel Etter a 2016 Pulitzer prize (pictured below)

A father in tears as he hugged his daughter and son after enduring the voyage from Turkey. Daniel Etter for the New York Times, 2016 ©

A father in tears as he hugged his daughter and son after enduring the voyage from Turkey. Daniel Etter for the New York Times, 2016 ©

T.S: “He’s looking and his face shows fear, dread and terror and he’s crying – and he was interviewed and he said, he felt so awful through putting his family through this experience of death and horror. Then he said you should ask the photographer himself, because he was crying when he photographed it. I think that underlines in a way the point – the positive point of this image of the toddler washed up… and shows the reality of those people – people that are you and I.

He is a father who is holding a child. I can empathise and visualise myself in to that situation when I’m holding my daughter or looking back and imagine being held by my parents. I think these images communicate something where we can relate to, as other people because we can visualise ourselves in these other people.”

The ‘toddler washed up’ reference is of course the heart-breaking shot of 3-year old toddler Aylan Kurdi, a photograph that split the press in regards to it being ‘a snuff photo for progressives’ (O’Neill , Spectator,2015) to a ‘tragic reminder’ of how the migrant crisis has . This is a poignant example of the emotional labour that is carried through to the viewer in a documentary photograph, and how the frail body of Aylan is now extended in to a larger symbol of the strife of migrant people, since 1993 there have been 17,306 documented deaths of non-EU migrants. This photograph and others likes this are raising awareness of a humanitarian crisis that has gone unresolved for the best part of three years.

Sonnenschein show Division, Resistance and Empowerment will be on show at Parkside gallery until 24th February, read the press release over on this blog:  http://blogs.bcu.ac.uk/parksidegallery/2018/01/15/division-resistance-empowerment-at-parkside-gallery/

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