See How This Photographer Solved the Empathy Puzzle

Featured in Creativity
See How This Photographer Solved the Empathy Puzzle

Sindha Agha is a Filmmaker, Photographer, and 2018 Sundance Ignite Fellow. Her winning film, Birth Control Your Own Adventure described the frustrations of women’s healthcare in a relatable way. Her accompanying photo series, “Out of Body” finds a way to make emotion relatable — giving visual representation to abstract feelings. Hear from Sindha on her process, concept, and how she uses her artwork to build empathy, and be sure to enter her hosted challenge on Project 1324 — a call to all artists to create a photo series that captures an experience you can’t put into words.

I started shooting my series “Out of Body” because photography is cheaper than therapy.

I regularly suffer from the shortcomings of women’s healthcare in the United States, but when I want to describe my experience I sometimes struggle to articulate the depth & weight of this problem.

Photography has been the perfect tool – allowing me to express myself in the abstract, and getting other people to temporarily exist as me in order to cultivate empathy for this broader issue.

Six months ago, I had all but lost my battle with endometriosis – a reproductive disorder that over 11% of American women suffer from where the tissue that normally lines the uterine walls starts growing on other areas of your body where it doesn’t belong.

I remember in high school when the star athlete tore his ACL. The hallway would part for him and people treated him like a deity – carrying his books and cooing over his bravery. I was thinking, if they’d realized what I was going through every month with my endometriosis, maybe I’d have gotten regal treatment too. I can’t rewind time, but I went out and bought myself the trophies I deserve.

For me, the worst aspect of endometriosis wasn’t the immobilizing pain, constant stomach-sickness or hair loss.

Instead it was the feeling that my body & mind’s experiences were indescribable and indecipherable.

I’ve become fascinated by the strange choreography us women perform with our bodies when we have cramps. These positions we get in to find some relief are a wonderful mix between comical and beautiful. I love taking nudes of the female body through my own self-gaze, to combat all the abundance of male gaze imagery of women.

It’s no surprise I ended up where I did. It’d been over a decade of doctors looking at me with a solemn blankness – some asserting that there were no solutions for my body, others insisting that the solutions were simple, and they just didn’t understand why I wasn’t responding well to treatment. I was under the impression that my body was mystifying – and not in the kinky, INXS way, but in the way where you can’t possibly expect to be understood by other people, let alone understand yourself.

This photo was in response to being told by a couple of doctors that I should either medically induce menopause or have a hysterectomy in order to treat my endometriosis. Luckily I didn’t listen to them, because neither of those proposed solutions actually treat endometriosis. Staring at a patch of dead grass in my sister’s backyard, I thought about how useless it would be to cover the blades with bandaids.

A lot of women are made to feel like there isn’t language to describe their bodies’ experiences. In the U.S., women with endometriosis wait on average 11.7 years for a diagnosis – that’s more than a decade of suffering in the dark, of being sick and thinking there’s no explanation as to why. That’s a particularly agonizing form of loneliness – not making sense to yourself.

Growing up in Illinois, it was conventional wisdom that you should crawl into the bathtub during a tornado if your house didn’t have a basement, As a child, I’d often climb into the empty bathtub when I was feeling upset or sick – imagining it to be the safest space in our basementless house. When I’m in pain, I often picture an empty bathtub, and the storm that lifts an entire house up but leaves the tub untouched.

I turned to photography to decode and validate my body’s struggles. I needed to step outside of my body and photography gave me the opportunity to externalize what was internally weighing me down profoundly. Sometimes it’s easier to understand something with a bit of distance, and sometimes distance looks like covering your sister’s lawn in bandaids (I’ll explain later).

I created a collection of work that turns on the lights when I find myself fumbling around in the dark, at a loss for words to describe my illness to others and feeling estrangement from my self-gaze. Picking up my camera and capturing the shape, color and texture of my pain makes me realize how universal this is – the need to be seen.

The experience of cyclical pain has shifted how I perceive time. My life is now organized into “good weeks” and “bad weeks.” During the good weeks, I feel a sense of urgency to be happy and focus on what I truly want, because I know the state of comfort is temporary. And during the bad weeks, it’s the thought of the good weeks that keeps me going. This photo is about living in a constant state of reaction to yourself.

By creating visceral images, I am hoping to show other women that they’re not alone, that someone understands exactly how they feel, and for men to inhabit a woman’s body for a few moments. Then maybe we will ask the question – is it fair that women should have such painful & isolating experiences? Can we do better?
Let’s break down how I approach externalizing my most internal experiences through photography:

Composition

To come up with my compositions, I access the part of my brain that produces free association. I think this mental process is nearly always running in the background, but we tune it out in favor of more logical strains of thought. I ditch conventional logic and pay close, non-judgemental attention to the intuitive connections my mind makes between feelings, physical sensations, and imagery. What’s cool is that even though these images may sometimes look unusual, because they come from such a sincere, candid place in me, they often resonate with other people.

Color

My dad taught me the usefulness of labeling pain with color. When I was young (I’m still young, but we’re talking really young) and first having endometriosis pain, my dad would guide me through meditation exercises that had me imagining the color of my pain, and then slowly changing the color in my head. The overdose of color in my photos comes from me associating colors with my pain, and then pairing them with contrasting colors to create feverishly vibrant palettes.

Lighting

A couple months ago I bought some inexpensive LED floodlights, but before that I was using whatever I could get my hands on to light my photos. Often that meant apps on my phone, or even going fullscreen on a color with my laptop. I like admitting that because I think it can be easy to convince ourselves we don’t have the right equipment to make our art – if only I had a nicer camera, lights, a proper space, etc. In reality, these are just excuses. Make something!

To see more of Sindha’s incredible work, follow her on Project 1324.

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