Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

The Empathy Project

I would like to introduce a new project that I have been working on that really means quite a bit to me. As many readers may know, my 'real job' is as a cardiologist, and I have often thought about how I might integrate photography with my job as a physician. Recently, that integration has become a reality.

The idea for this project has been mulling in my mind for quite some time. The motivation to finally initiate it was based partly on a Brooks Jensen podcast (#962), where Brooks discussed the importance of going out of one's comfort zone and, instead of photographing things that are easily available, ASKING to photograph things that require permission to shoot. I decided it was time to do some asking.

The genesis of my idea was as follows:

Doctors often see patients without nearly as much time as they would like to have in order to get to know them  as 'people'. It's easy for doctors to lose sight of the fact that patients have the same types of lives as they do, with the same ups and downs and with interesting events that they have either witnessed or lived through. This project is an attempt to recognize 'patients as people'. That's the idea....of course, moving forward, I will write a more formal 'Artist's Statement', but I wanted to share the project as it was coming together.

But on to the specifics. What I wanted to do was to take several (or more) minutes at the end of some of my office visits to talk to patients about themselves and their stories, not just their symptoms and diseases. I wanted to ask if I might take their portrait with a camera I brought in (nothing fancy, no time for big setups or flash, just the overhead office lighting and adjustments made in Photoshop) and record some of our conversation that I would then edit to 1-3 minutes in length to accompany their portrait in order to let people 'know who they were'. I really had no idea how people would react. The fact is that very nearly all the folks that I asked were very willing, and often excited, about participating.

Of course, in order to do this I had to do some asking. I had to both ask the hospital for permission to do the project and also ask the patients, if they said yes, to also sign consents. To my surprise, the hospital administration totally loved the idea. In fact, if everything went well, they wanted me to print the portraits large and display then in the main lobby of two outpatient facilities.  They even wanted to install permanent speakers into the lobby walls so that visitors could not only see the portraits, but also hear the audio that went with them. So, just by asking, I received not only permission, but also a more or less permanent display with plans to change the portraits and audio once or twice a year at two separate locations. Like Brooks said, just ask!

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill


With some help from our media department, I have decided to call the project "The Empathy Project". I was initially against this name because, though I liked its conciseness, I thought empathy implied 'pity'.  Turns out that isn't the meaning of empathy at all. It means "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, with a desire to help", and that just seems very fitting.

I have completed the first grouping of five portraits, and this is the first of the images and audio. The next four posts will complete this first series, and I plan on posting further series of five as I complete them. I hope you find the project and the portraits/audio interesting and meaningful! If you do,  please feel free to share it!

(If you are an email subscriber to the blog, I don't believe the audio will come along with the please visit the on-line blog post here if you would like to hear it.)