Picturing Feelings

“My heart goes out to you,” I thought as I clicked the next button and saw Lars Just’s photo “Sleepless,” pictured above. While it won an award of excellence in the Feature category of the Pictures of the Year competition it evoked more emotion for me than some of the higher ranked photos. When I saw it, I instantly empathized with Rikke Brandrup, I saw her exhaustion: of the mind, body, and soul. I imagine having a newborn sucks a lot out of a person, and you can see that on Brandrup’s face.

This mental and physical exhaustion is so evident and relatable, you almost can’t help but feel a want to help Brandrup, to tell her that you understand that it’s tough right now but that it will get better. That is the excellence of Just’s photo: it is beautifully simple in the way it was created, it isn’t flashy or busy, it is simply a tired mother, communicating all of her frustration and other feelings in one simple rub of her forehead; she isn’t even looking at the camera and a wave of empathy passes over you, the observer. I have long believed that empathy is one of the strongest emotions, and the fact that such a simple photograph elicits empathy makes it a powerful image.

I feel as though when most people think of images evoking empathy, pictures of chaos, destruction, or devastation are the first to come to mind. We think of photos from 9/11, Vietnam, or even Rodrigo Abd’s submission to the same category, “Treating a Patient,” and that is where we often see the pain in the subjects’ faces and bodies. Photos like Just’s show that a simple photograph can be powerful and demonstrate just as complex emotions as those more dramatic ones. A photo like “Sleepless” shows us the public that photojournalism doesn’t have to be dramatic to elicit strong responses. It simply must show the truth, and if it is a relatable truth then the emotional response will be that much stronger.

We as observers don’t exactly know what’s going through Brandrup’s mind, all that we can surmise is that she’s tired, exhausted even, but that her exhaustion will not stop her from doing what she must. I am a believer that strong images can inspire change in people, will this one? I cannot say for sure, perhaps it might inspire someone to be more considerate of mothers. Or perhaps more photos like this might give fuel to the fire powering the push for paid parental leave. But while real life action inspired from photos is great, I feel like the emotional journey created for the observer is almost more significant. We all feel mental and physical exhaustion, and Just expertly captured that feeling of mild despair in “Sleepless,” that is why it is so impactful. The photo is so relatable it inspires empathy, a unique, complex, and beautiful feeling.

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