Empathy in documentary photography: Jim Mortram on building trust and helping people be heard


posted Wednesday, September 8, 2021 at 5:59 AM EDT


Photographer Sean Tucker has a wide variety of content on his YouTube channel. He does some traditional photography content, like tutorials, but also creates more emotional and philosophical content. His latest video bridges that gap, even such a gap even exists, by interviewing documentary photographer Jim Mortram.

Mortram's start in photography is an emotional one. While he was away at university, studying painting, his mother, who had been ill for much of his childhood, took a dramatic turn for the worse. It was a huge stress on both of Jim's parents, and he returned home to take care of his mother. As he says when talking to Tucker, time takes on a different flow in this situation. Before he knew it, 15 years had passed, and his aspirations had vanished. Mortram takes care of his mother and has essentially been isolated throughout the pandemic to protect her health.

After years of this challenging situation, where Mortram felt isolated and drained, an old friend visited out of the blue and gave Jim a camera to borrow. Jim's friend knew that Mortram was struggling and thought that taking the camera out around the village and capturing images would help, as Mortram had always been artistic and creative. Mortram quickly realized he wasn't too keen on landscape and nature images.

Mortram saw the same elderly gentleman sitting on his porch during his daily walks around town. After a few days of waving to each other, the man beckoned Mortram up his driveway, and they struck up a friendship. The two men's lives turned out to be so different. They had both suffered emotional hardships and had found themselves feeling isolated. It was Mortram's first real connection with a new person in a long time. Unfortunately, their friendship was cut short by the elder man falling ill and passing away. 'I realized that what had happened was that he had given me a blueprint of what I was going to do for the rest of my life,' Mortram says in Sean Tucker's interview below. Warning: There are difficult topics covered in the video below, including stories about violence, addiction and mental illness.

Photography is a compelling form of art. It connects people, and it allows people to share their own stories and the stories of others. Documentary photography allows people who haven't been seen or heard to feel like they're being listened to finally. It's an incredibly powerful feeling for people who have felt ignored.

Part of what makes Mortram's work so powerful is that he doesn't approach his subjects just as a photographer. He connects with people on a personal level, and he happens to have a camera. People often want to share their stories and be documented. He's had situations where people are referred to him so that they can share what's going on in their lives with Mortram.

'It takes 1/15 of a second to make a photograph. But it can take a lifetime to build up trust.' It's not a 'human safari,' as Mortram puts it. His work involves connecting with people. He estimates that around 80% of the time he meets with someone and talks to them, he doesn't take any photos at all.

To learn more about Jim Mortram, visit his website. To learn more about his ongoing project and book, 'Small Town Inertia,' click here. You can also follow the project on Instagram. The first book is available now.

(Via Sean Tucker