Aperture Magazine

The magazine of photography and ideas

On Empathy: 10 Powerful Images from Magnum Photographers

Magnum's Square Sale features work that explores our collective humanity.

 - October 31, 2016

Magnum’s Square Sale, Conditions of the Heart: On Empathy and Connection in Photography, now online through November 4, 2016, demonstrates photography’s ability to connect with others. For five days only, museum quality, 6-by-6-inch square prints are exceptionally priced at just $100. By using this link to make your purchase, a proceed from each sale will support Aperture Foundation. 

Can photography promote empathy? Photography’s most acclaimed theorists have long debated this question. More than any other medium, photography asks to be acknowledged as evidence. As Susan Sontag wrote in 1977, “A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is what’s in the picture.”

Since 1947, the year Magnum Photos was established, Magnum photographers have been renowned for producing images that provide evidence of the atrocities of war, evidence of the resilience of refugees, evidence of a collective humanity. By chronicling world events and culture with influential narratives that defy convention, Magnum photographers have pushed the documentary tradition toward empathy and transformed lives in the process.

Selected by Aperture’s editors, here are ten highlights from the Square Sale.


Micha Bar Am, The return from Entebbe. Ben Gurion Airport, Israel, 1976
© Micha Bar-Am/Magnum Photos

Micha Bar-Am

“After terrorists hijacked a Paris/Tel-Aviv flight and forced it to land in Entebbe, Uganda, about 2,400 miles from its destination, Israeli commandos freed 268 hostages in a brilliantly planned and executed operation. The original code name for the mission was ‘Operation Thunderbolt’, but after the task force commander, Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu, was killed (Israel Defense Forces’ only casualty during the raid), it became known as ‘Operation Yonatan.’ In this image, passengers are welcomed by their relatives at the Ben Gurion Airport.” —Micha Bar-Am


Bieke Depoorter, Ou Menya, 2009
© Bieke Depoorter/Magnum Photos

Bieke Depoorter

“This photograph was one of the first I took where I finally could feel what photography means to me. Before, I had always treated people as pawns in my photography. I would wait for hours until they came into the right position. But I was never satisfied with the picture and felt that I was missing something… I took this photograph during a trip for my graduating project (Ou Menya), on one of the first nights spent with people I had met on the streets of Russia.

Without saying a word, she took me under her arm, brought me to her tiny house, fed me and showed me how to wash myself in a little basket. Still arm in arm, still in silence, we then went for the most peaceful walk I had ever taken. I remember us standing still over the icy fields. We came home and watched a Russian version of The Bold and the Beautiful. She was in the seat she would sit in every evening, I was in the seat next to her. She gave me pajamas to wear and took a picture of me. I took one of her. Everything seemed so simple, logical and beautiful.

That night I realized that all along I had been missing this connection with people in my photographs.” —Bieke Depoorter


Chris Steele-Perkins, Adam and Eve pub in Hackney, London, U.K., 1976
© Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos

Chris Steele-Perkins

“All of my working life I’ve been drawn to subcultures, small worlds which have the whole world in them. The Teddy Boys (Teds) were a major subculture in Britain in the mid-’50s and had a revival in the late-’70s, at which point I photographed them. I didn’t want to be like them, but I identified with their energy, their aggression and their style. I was interested in them. I wanted to know more so I hung out, had a few drinks, and soon enough they were not bothered to pose for me. As I became ‘The Photographer,’ I just got on with it.” —Chris Steele-Perkins


Bruce Davidson, Coney Island July Fourth Fireworks. New York City, U.S.A., 1962
© Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

Bruce Davidson

“Sometimes they don’t tell stories, they simply speak as images. They express feeling, increase knowledge. Photographs can draw passion, beauty and understanding. And then there is love.” —Bruce Davidson


David Alan Harvey, French teenagers on a boat in the river Seine. Paris, France, 1988
© David Alan Harvey/Magnum Photos

David Alan Harvey

“I was commissioned by National Geographic for a piece for their special issue on France. I decided I did not want to present historic France, but rather modern, young France. French teenagers. So I did what I always do, reduce the scope. I chose one group of Parisian teenagers who formed a sort of gang. A nice gang. Friends. I became part of their group for several weeks. I went to school with them, hung out everywhere with them, saw them succeed, saw them fail. Judith, pictured here with the cigarette, was the leader. There is always a leader. I was especially happy with this shot. It was taken on their graduation day on the Seine in front of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s house. I was always referential to Cartier-Bresson, even when I shot in color during this era. Clearly I bonded with these young French. We were like family when I had to hug them goodbye, which for them was goodbye to their childhood.” —David Alan Harvey

Jim Goldberg, Prized Possession (#2). Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa, 2008
© Jim Goldberg/Magnum Photos

Jim Goldberg

“This image was taken at the Mugunga refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the time of my visit, in 2008, Mugunga had an estimated 90,000 inhabitants. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) was in the beginning stages of moving the entire population two kilometers away from the fast approaching rebel forces.

I climbed a hill on the north side of the camp to get a view of the thousands of makeshift shelters. Sitting alone at the top was Wembe, listening to his radio. Wembe had had this radio ever since escaping a rebel attack in his village, one year before. It was the only possession he was able to keep. Wembe told me that he climbed the hill every day to listen for good news.”—Jim Goldberg


Herbert List, Park of the Palazzo Orsini. Bomarzo, Italy, 1952
© Herbert List/Magnum Photos

Herbert List

“It is speculative for anyone but the ones involved to talk about empathy or emotional connection in a photograph. Once an artist is dead we rely on stories that surround certain images. In some rare occasions we hear from the person in the picture, who might tell us how the picture came about. This image of a shepherd in Bomarzo is such an example. After the book Italy was published with this image on the cover, we found out that the 12-year-old in the image was an orphan boy from Southern Italy. By then he had lived in Germany for the past 40 years and remembered Herbert List very well. He said List had been the first adult to listen to the sad and adventurous stories of his childhood life. The day after this image was taken, List brought him his first bag of candies.” —Peer-Olaf Richter, Herbert List Estate


Max Pinckers, She Will Use the Birds, from the series The Fourth Wall, 2012
© Max Pinckers/Magnum Photos

Max Pinckers

She Will Use the Birds is a visual interpretation of a passage from Suketu Mehta’s book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, a non-fiction account of Bombay’s Bollywood underworld. The passage describes an encounter between a dancing girl and her client, who go on their first date outside of the bar where she works. The dancer invites her man into a taxi, buys a flock of songbirds from a nearby street vendor and lets them flutter around in the car. She then asks her man to play a game with her: catch the birds. This quickly turns into a flirtatious exercise of touching, gasps, laughter and giggles.

When reading stories like this one, it is in the instant imagination of a visual narrative that I find my satisfaction, in which my subjects also play out their own fantasies. When this materializes into a photograph, it is then up to the viewer to form their own interpretation of the scene.” —Max Pinckers


Susan Meiselas, USA. New York City. Little Italy. Dee and Lisa on Mott Street, 1976
© Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos

Susan Meiselas

“I remember the day I met the Prince Street Girls, the name I gave a group of young Italian girls who hung out on the nearby corner almost every day. This is Dee and Lisa posing for me – or maybe for themselves. They were great friends, born the same month, they just ‘clicked.’ Growing up in Little Italy, they were always together, at school and on the street – and onwards. A friendship that’s now spanned 50 years.

Back then, I was the stranger who did not belong, but these girls would see me coming and yell, ‘Take a picture! Take a picture!’ For years, I was their secret friend, and my loft became a kind of hideaway when they dared to leave that corner, which their parents had forbidden.

It was important for me to keep on photographing them as they grew up, especially when I came back from abroad where I had been photographing wars. Looking at these pictures now reminds me of how difficult it was to integrate my two lives- family and friends at home, and my life as a photographer on the road. It was often a painful separation, though not one I regret having chosen.” —Susan Meiselas


Carolyn Drake, Crater Lake National Park Vista Point. Crater Lake, Oregon, U.S.A., 2015
© Carolyn Drake/Magnum Photos

Carolyn Drake

“For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.” — Rebecca Solnit

Support Aperture today through the Magnum Square Print Sale, open online October 31–November 4, 2016.