When stories or images represent people, they can create empathy.

Empathy means we can understand what the characters are feeling, and maybe even feel the same emotions ourselves.

To explore this idea, we're going to look at images of people in different emotional states.

All you need to do is answer two questions:

  • What are they feeling?
  • And why do you think they feel that way?
What are they feeling and why?

She seems angry.

There's no specific cause in the photo but we can make guesses: maybe she hates her outfit and/or hates parades, or she's being irritated by the photographer, or she resents her parents, or she is an introvert and just wanted to stay at home?

Photo of artist Arthur Boyd talking enthusiastically to someone off camera
What are they feeling and why?

This reads like interest, excitement, enthusiasm.

He's a painter and he's talking to someone off camera, so maybe he's explaining something that he finds fascinating, like painting techniques.

Actor David Gulpilil looking dashing in a tux
What are they feeling and why?

He looks bright, happy, interested... maybe even playful, charming, or flirtatious in some way.

Something or someone has his attention. He's an actor in a tuxedo, so he's at an event—which means he could be responding to a friend, or fans, or maybe he's charming someone in the press.

Farmer's son with giant squash standing awkwardly for photo
What are they feeling and why?

This is an interesting one, because he's almost expressionless.

Maybe he's feeling self-conscious? He doesn't look awkward exactly, but he does have a kind of business-like face, like, "You asked me to pose with my squash, and so here I am, now what?"

So maybe he's feeling like he wants to just get this over with and get on with his day?

Or maybe this is literally how he expresses pride in his giant squash: "Yes, it is true, I have grown the largest squash in Sweden. I will pose for your photograph."

Perhaps because he is blank faced, we project onto him our own feelings about posing for photos: if we feel awkward posing, we think he feels awkward; if we feel proud when posing, we think he feels the same.

Aboriginal child with wombat by Alastair McNaughton
What are they feeling and why?

This looks like affection, comfort, care.

Obviously it's because the child is cuddling a baby wombat (you might think it's a pig, but look at those wombat claws)—and who wouldn't feel that way with a baby wombat?

But that said, there is a kind of softness to the child's eyes that could also be read as sadness—why might that be?

What if they knew they had to give the wombat away, or if it was sick?

A wedded couple enjoying each other's presence
What are they feeling and why?

This is interesting because we have two characters.

They look like they're in love, they're enjoying each other's presence, they're feeling happy, romantic.

They're a newly married couple so that's part of it: they are the reason for each other's happiness.

But one more interesting thing: this image presents characters of two distinct genders, and each character has distinctly different physicality and body language.

Focusing on those differences of physicality, can you imagine how each of them feel in this scene, even if they have a different gender to yours?

Swimmers Arnhem Land Axel Poignant
What are they feeling and why?

This one is interesting because we can't see faces, only body language.

But we can still read these subjects as happy, energetic, playful, enthusiastic.

And they're obviously happy because they get to play and swim and cool off.

But out of curiosity, how hot do you think it is?

Our first instinct is to think that it's hot, but do we think it's hot because the environment looks hot, or because the kids seem so enthusiastic about swimming that we imagine it must be hot?

It's hard to tell.

  • There are no shadows; does that mean it's overcast and cool? 
  • The light looks bright and the land is flat, so that feels kind of hot but it could be a trick of the camera.
  • One clue is that the clouds are thick and high: storm clouds like you get near the equator, so maybe it's hot and humid but with cloud cover? 
What are they feeling and why?

How do you explain this feeling? Is there a word for it, even?

It's like... needy. The monkey needs a hug.

It's not love, it's not even necessarily affection, because those words imply caring for the other—and the way the monkey is staring fixedly past the puppy creates a sense that this might be a one-way relationship at the moment, that the monkey just needs this hug and maybe the puppy is along for the ride.

What's the relationship here?

Of course, we're reading a lot from a moment frozen in time. Maybe one second later the monkey turns its head and nuzzles the puppy affectionately and the puppy licks back. 

Maybe the puppy sought out the monkey for a hug, and the monkey is the one going "sure, I guess I'll give you a hug"?

Whatever the case, the feeling we can empathise with is needing a hug.

Interspecies empathy

Do you notice how we feel empathy even when the subject or character isn't human?

We have a good ability to read emotions in other species (and some animals—such as dogs and apes—can read our emotions in turn).

This ability to anthropomorphise, or see animals and objects as having human traits, is also what lets us create stories that feature them as characters.

What have we learned from this page?

  • We can see that art can evoke empathy.
  • Empathy means we recognise what characters feel and why they feel that way.
  • We might even feel the same.
  • Our empathy can reach across age, race, gender, even species.

But we with art we aren't limited to what the characters feel: art can evoke emotions beyond what the characters feel

That's what we'll look at next.