A LESSON IN EMPATHY
I came upon a man hunched over in a wheelchair, and it made me examine many things.
I was wandering the city with my camera, as I often do. The city is a living thing, a giant organism full of complex arrangements. A busy city changes every day; you can revisit the same spots and get new perspectives each time. In this age of photographers, I try to be a respectful one. I try not to creep, and I usually ask permission before snapping any kind of portrait. So when I came upon this man, unconscious in his wheelchair on the sidewalk of a busy street, I paused. But not for all the right reasons.
Technology has made documentarians of us all. Frequently now, we prioritize the record over the moment. At the professional level, photographers in the field will sometimes be confronted with a choice between capturing a dire scene or assisting in it. Take, for example, R. Umar Abbasi, a professional photographer who witnessed a subway commuter get pushed onto the tracks moments before a train struck and killed him in 2013. His photo of the incident made front-page news, but also drew a public backlash of criticism for shooting instead of helping. It’s a legitimate critique from people who weren’t there. By sheer coincidence, I ran into Abbasi at the New York Botanical Gardens, two years later, where he described both the event and his subsequent professional blacklisting. It was interesting to hear his side, and his sadness, of that day.
This man I saw in a wheelchair was not exactly in the path of a moving train, but he was clearly struggling with consciousness. He was slumped over, arms and hands flaccid. His bags were on the floor beside the wheels of his chair, as if dropped, contents spilled onto the sidewalk. It was a scene familiar to anyone who has witnessed drug addiction grip a community. Like the others who passed, I made that assumption.
I avoided eye contact that wasn’t even there to make. He probably wanted money, I thought. He probably did all kinds of things that I invented in my brain with alarming, casual speed. I walked past him, but only so far that I could turn around and take a photo. Incredulously I thought, “If you’re gonna get high in public and ask for money, I suppose I can take your picture.”
Still, I tried to be subtle about it. I didn’t want to seem like an entitled hipster, appropriating another’s misfortune through my “art” … but I still kinda felt that way. I pretended to shoot up at the buildings, setting up my exposure, then lowered my frame and discreetly snapped a few quick shots.
It was only when I looked down to inspect the image that I took the time to really see him as a person instead of a subject. Under his layers of clothes, a leg was freshly missing, bandaged clean. On his wrist, a hospital ID band. There was no hand-written sign, no donation cup. The bags spilled onto the floor were from Starbucks, and the contents were food, not drugs. I realized that I had not actually seen him at all until that moment.
I felt ashamed, but not because I had failed to see him before. I felt ashamed because of the details that created action in me. Yes, perhaps this man was not the homeless addict that we all assumed he was. Starbucks? I shop there sometimes, right? Look, he’s a hospital discharge, maybe he needs help. Why did these things matter in my willingness to assist a chair-bound, unconscious person?
No sooner than I began to walk toward him with the intent to help, another man simply did. His name was Chris, and he was with two friends. I stood close as Chris told them to keep walking, and that he would catch up with them. I watched as he spoke to the man, asking him who he was, if he was awake, if he needed help. When he pulled out his phone to call 911, I informed him of the wristband so he could relay the information.
Chris and I stood there for the amazingly short 3 minutes it took for an ambulance to arrive. In that time, a group gathered, inspired by Chris’ courageous— and contagious— empathy. The medics assessed the man’s dire condition, and took him away. As we were left there standing together, Chris humbled me further by thanking me.
“For what?” I asked.
“Just for sticking around man, just for caring.”
It can be a delicate balance to allow guilt, but also not be too hard on yourself. I try to remind myself that I intended to help, and someone else simply beat me to it. For me, the shame part is how my compassion had to first be validated by internal biases, whereas Chris simply saw a person in need. But there is little productivity in guilt unless you apply it forward and productively. I have no idea what happened to the man in the wheelchair, but I am glad I met Chris, and I am grateful for a few lessons he reminded me of.