Empathy in Street Phototgraphy: A New Word to Help Us Understand What it’s All About

In the Bus Queue


I’ve learned a new word this week: sonder. I forget now where I came across it, but it’s an invented word. Or, to be more accurate, it is a word that has an invented meaning. A little research led me to the source for this word (don’t worry: I will tell you what it means and why I’m writing about it very soon): The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. According to the explanation on the site:

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a compendium of new and invented words written by John Koenig. Each original definition aims to fill a hole in the language – to give a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for. The author’s mission is to capture the aches,  demons, vibes, joys and urges that roam the wilderness of the psychological interior. Each sorrow is bagged, tagged and tranquilized, then released gently back into the subconscious. 

Very groovy don’t you think? A really excellent and innovative idea and project. The world is in great need of new and expressive words and ideas  we can all share and relate to.  I suggest everyone has at least a look at the site. Koenig also invites us to write him with ideas about emotions we can’t find words for.

Anyway, back to my newly discovered word, sonder. Here is the definition from the Dictionary:

sonder:n. the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own – populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness – an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

I was really struck by this idea. We have all had, I think, those little flashes in which we suddrenly realize that others around us, friends or strangers, are just like us with the same worries, loves, fears, joys heartaches, responsibilities and complicated lives, as we ourselves do.

But what really impressed me was how this word, this concept, relates to my work, to street photography. Another way to put the lengthy definition above is to say sonder means empathy; it means feeling with our fellow travelers on planet Earth. And it is through empathy that I am able to photograph people I encounter on the street in a compassionate and loving way.

After all, they are just like me, and I am just like them. This informs my work and enables me to meet the people I photograph as equals; there is no imbalance. Our encounter  becomes a sharing, an acknowledgement that we are all in this life together.

My job is to simply make a note (through using my camera to make a photograph) of a few of the moments in which we cross paths. I can then share our encounter with others, who in turn may come to understand at least a little of the lives of others.

Sonder is also a word in German. It means special. And I like that too. The realisation of the things we have in common is a truly significant insight (and it cries out to be shared). It follows that the brief encounters between me (with my camera) and people in the street are special. Like I always say, there are no ordinary moments.

But wait, there’s more! Sonder is the Swedish word for, among other things, broken. As in broken apart. The English word asunder is related. And aren’t we all, in some way or other, at least a little bit “broken”? We’ve all had hurts, disappointments, losses, traumas in our lives that have left us a little damaged and “worse for wear”.

And, you see, this is a huge part, at least for me, of what street photography is all about. As I encounter people in the street, I try to remember that, just as I am doing my best to make my way in the world, so are they. Their humanity is my humanity; their brokenness is my brokenness.

I know I’ve quoted the great humanist photographer Abraham Menashe a few times, but I would like to leave you now with another quote from an interview he did a few years ago.

“The world is in need of affirmation. At the very heart of our humanity is the challenge of unconditional love, which is to suspend judgement and open fully to the vivid reality of other beings. Unconditional love does not know barriers; it says yes, it affirms the moment even if it is full of grief”.

Peace to you all.

Photo Title: In the Bus Queue (Nottingham England September 2013)


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