He reads the text captions digesting each word. Sifting the context into focus through the newspapers and books he has read, and the news bulletins he has watched. His empathy is preceded by relief, that he was not born there, that he had not experienced that. His empathy is followed by anger, how could they, let this happen to them. How can the theys of this world be so lacking , as to let these things, happen to these people? He is awash with empathy for the person, for the individual, for their story captured in the image, printed onto a board and displayed in the Castle of Good Hope, at the tip of the African continent in Cape Town.
She looks, and maybe reads, but mostly skips out the beginning part of the text, the introduction part, the part that offers political and social context to the situation photographed. She skim reads until finding the nitty- gritty of the story, if she reads the captions at all. She looks, feels frustrated that the image is not clearer. She wants to move closer. She wants to smell the situation , move into it, move round it and view it from another angle. Why do heads swell up like that when people die? What are those ruptures on his back? The afternoon light coming through the carcass is very beautiful; she wonders if the carcass is warm to the touch.
She likes the image of the bull with its horn embedded in the matador’s throat; she likes the way the horn protrudes out of the matador’s mouth. It is not a great photograph but it captures a great moment. That puncture could not have tickled, she muses. The thought makes her happy. The matador survived the justice of the situation, and after medical care and a hospital stay he returned to the ring. She is glad he was hurt so brutally, she is glad that the indignity was captured by a photographer for longevity; but she does not mind that the matador survived, because there is justice in that. There is always justice in survival.
The image of the men on the back of a bakkie; so horrified. Their eyes stare with bewilderment as blood dries on their faces. They almost appear innocent, like children. The shock has taken from them all the accumulated strength of their years and they are no longer men. Pain can be so humiliating he thinks. The horror of the earthquake and then when they are at their most fragile, they have to sit on the back of bakkie, because Haiti has no ambulances. Poverty can be cruel. He feels haunted, and then he feels annoyed. A slovenly young man in baggy shorts has arrived to see the exhibition, dragging his feet over the castles stone floors. The youth peers at an image gormless, in that middle class kinda way, whilst propping himself up against the display board, making it wobble. Containing his urge to shit on the loser youth for being what he is, a young loser, he moves away.
She sits on the deep bay window sill, the breeze on her back. She watches two women as they “Oh my god” and “have you seen this”. They are swayed by the spectacle. They are not compelled and neither are they curious. They are wearing ugly plastic shoes and sour coloured t-shirts. She stands up and walks away from them.
Both she and he like the image of the man carrying the shark over his shoulders near the fish market in Mogadishu. Behind the subject, ancient architecture is pock-marked from years of conflict and dancing shrapnel. The buildings appear stoically compromised and beautifully fucked up. There is something other worldly captured in the image. It’s the remnants of architecture that shows what was, and now what is. That’s what does it, he thinks.
She thinks that man must have done a dance when he caught that shark. She also reckons that every photographer, that ever had their ass shot at, while being based in East Africa must be sooo pissed by this image. All of them must have walked that area by the fish market, the architecture being a perfect backdrop to communicate the never-ending fucked- up- ness that is Mogadishu, and never once did they see a man carrying a shark over his shoulders.
Again, not an amazing photograph, per se, but an amazing confluence of things coming together and captured. There are likely 100 photographers, who could have taken a better image of that scene, but they didn’t. They were not there. She hopes the photographer will live long enough to tell his grandchildren about the image, and the award he won for it.
She moves through the exhibition faster than he does, as she does not read all the captions. He can’t believe the state of the prisons in Sierra Leone. He feels how the system has brutalised both the guards and the prisoners. The guards paid a pittance. Their humanity and dignity destroyed through the breakdown of social and political systems. They work in a flawed environment , trying to make life a little bit better for their kids. The prisoners, maybe innocent of all but something petty, maybe guilty of something great, its irrelevant really. They are both caught in the insanity of a country bereft of fair consequence, corrupted through the generations, from one dictator to the next. It’s wrong that these people don’t count. Its wrong, he thinks, and there is no way of ever making it right. But he will try. In his way, he will always try.
She is most moved by two images, two stories. In the first a women’s life was photographed over a number of years, each image capturing a different stage. The women had contracted HIV and proceed to have 6 children before she died at the age of 36. She is moved by contempt for this woman. This woman who gave birth to 6 children and then killed their chance of having a mother in one easy spread your legs, “harder-harder baby! Oh! Yes- yes harder!” movement.
If the photographer wished the viewer to feel empathy for the women by photographing the 36-year-old in a nappy, bed ridden and haggard they did not succeed. She felt only wrath and contempt for her, and for the system they call democracy. She despises that no body stepped in and sterilised the selfish bitch. Democracy, she vents, is only a compassionate system until it is forced to take a stand, and then it shows itself for what it really is, cowardly.
The second image showed a woman in DRC , playing a cello surrounded by the disorder that is poverty. The cello player an egg seller by day, eyes closed, is practising her instrument. She loves the cello player, she love that this women has risen above her context and taught herself something new. She loves that this women has risen above her context, but never left it. She admires this women, she admires that she has survived with her soul intact, and she wishes she could step into the image to show the cello player the love she has for her, for her beauty. She really wants to hear the music.
He did not see the cello player image; he was suffering empathy fatigue and needed fresh air. They ate chocolate cake and discussed the exhibition. A cannon was fired , it was noon. What do you do? He said, as they remembered the photograph that captured the scene of people being crushed during a stampede, at a rock concert in Germany, where 21 people died. What do you do, if you are one of them caught in that cluster fuck-up? imagine I was there with you, and this wave of humanity all struggling to breathe are squashing us , and we are being crushed and can’t breathe, what do you do? how would I protect you. She smiled at him; she adored his empathy, his kindness. You would do what I would do, you fight, She said, you kick, and you punch, and you stand on other suffocating people if you have to. You do, what you need to do, to survive. There is only justice in survival, and without justice there can be no mercy.