Exploring Empathy with Photographer Maria Clara Macrì

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Since 2015, Maria Clara Macrì has used photography or what she calls “visual research” to explore empathy, intimacy and female representation. In 2018, she began to photograph women in their personal spaces, a project that resulted in her recently published photo book “In Her Rooms.”

In this intimate conversation, Denisse Ariana Pérez interviews Maria on her relationship to her work, to empathy and self-belief.

Words by Denisse Ariana Pérez

Photography by Maria Clara Macrì

About 3 years ago, while I was living in Copenhagen, a photographer friend sent me Maria Clara’s work via Instagram. He said, “I feel like you will love this woman’s work.” He was absolutely right. I immediately fell in love with the rawness of her work, the way she approached the female body and in particular the nude female body. She did it with such tact, with such delicate care, admiration, gentleness, and also with potent fire. For me, most photographs of the nude female body are either cliche or hypersexualized and lack any poetry and nuance. Maria Clara’s work had something very special that distinguished it from these frivolous general standards. I believe it has to do with the fact that she infuses her own power, her own radical femininity, and masculinity into her work, she infuses it with her tears, her pain, her joy, her pleasure, her life lessons, and her empathy for the other woman who is in front of her.

I met her in Paris last week to reflect on her love for photography and her love for life.

“When I shoot I feel connected to society, to humanity, without the camera I don’t always feel as connected to society.”

A lot of people could assume that photography is superficial, performative, or that it lacks empathy. You talk a lot about empathy in your work, and so do I.  What does empathy mean to you? How do you integrate it into your photographic process?

Empathy is connection. A deeper understanding of yourself without judgment. This understanding helps you to embrace other human beings without judgment and creates that energy, that connection that I call empathy. This helps us to understand one another and meet at a middle point that is pure, clear, and judgment-free. It allows us to give ourselves to one another in our purest form. Empathy is a gift, a very profound gift that cannot be superficial at all. And that is why my photography, your photography, and that of any photographer who works with other human beings should do, receive and give. 

Are you empathetic towards yourself?

Yes, but it is a journey. There is always something I have to work on every day. I need to connect with myself every day, forgive myself, and embrace myself for who I am every day. It is constant work.

Do you think empathy can be taught or practiced?

It can definitely be practiced and should be practiced. The more you apply it to yourself you will be able to expand it to other people. Teaching empathy is not impossible, because nothing is impossible, but it is very difficult because it involves an emotional and physical effort. 

How does building empathy involve the physical body?

Movement can help us build empathy. It could be through dancing for ourselves or with others or simply by doing things together with someone else. One of my favourite practices to reconnect with myself is through dancing for and with myself. So if I were to help someone discover or develop their empathy I would suggest entering a practice with movement, touch, and actively observing the other.

When I think of Maria Clara, I think of an espresso with 4 cubes of sugar, a cigarette, a disco song from the 70s, and a camera. They are all an inseparable part of you. What is your relationship with the camera? Is it an inseparable part of you?

It absolutely is. I call my camera my wife, my baby, my queen, my partner. I cannot imagine myself without it. Even if I am not shooting, my camera is always with me in my bag. Photography is how I live my life. It is my way of life. I wake up as a photographer, even if I am not taking photos all the time, I am still thinking, looking, observing, and getting inspired. It is my life and I love it. 

Tell me about one of your favourite memories while photographing. Why is it one of your favourites?

It was about 7 years ago. At that time, I was still just experimenting with photography and testing different cameras. A girl lent me a Leica, and at first, I was so scared I didn’t even want to touch it. I was afraid to break it. She insisted I use it and take a photo of the beautiful moment we were in. The light was perfect, she was looking through this window in a dreamy, poetic way. So I took the picture, and as soon as the shutter clicked, I cried. I think it was the emotion of the moment, of the shutter. It was a big thing because I could feel this was meant to be my life. Every time a shutter clicks, everything clicks within me. It makes me feel connected with myself and with the moment, it makes me feel present, it makes me feel alive. When I shoot I feel connected to society, to humanity, without the camera I don’t always feel as connected to society. 

What have you learned about yourself through the art that you make?

I have discovered that I am vulnerable. That I can live my life in a very poetic way. That I can be very dramatic. 

You have said that photography saved your life. How come?

Photography has always saved my life. As soon as I can create again, and connect again, all my low points don’t necessarily disappear but I can see light again. It is magical. 

When I talk about photography I don’t only mean shooting. It involves many parts. Like staying outside a bar and talking to strangers, finding a new subject in the street, wandering around and allowing destiny to take the lead, taking the metro in NY to nowhere because I am following someone who captures my attention, standing on a crossroad and staring at the sky and feeling alive, taking inspiration from what is outside of my mind. It is all very rock n’ roll.

Why do you love the analog?

Because it is magical. Because you don’t have that many possibilities, you have to be very focused, you have to wait for the right moment when you feel captivated by an instant. So it forces you to shoot when you are full of feelings. I love the fact that I cannot see the image straight away. I love the fact that I need to wait for the photos, I find it very sexy. Because waiting creates desire, and that is sexy. I’m an analog person in my mind, I have a vintage soul. I also love the aesthetic, and the grain, I love all of it. 

Also, I hate digital files, I need a physical archive. I love having physical negatives, not elusive files floating in the Cloud. 

You shoot and write constantly. Is your camera as much of a journal as your pen is?

Yes, absolutely. When I was very young I always dreamed of being a writer. I still have this dream. Writing is something I have to do almost every day. If I don’t do it often, I don’t feel very well. I need to write my thoughts down, and empty myself. Writing allows me to fantasize more, I love inventing stories. With photography, I am recording real things, even if through a poetic lens. I don’t want to invent stories with photography. 

You published your first photographic book “In her Rooms” not too long ago. You are not the same person you were when you made that book. What would the Maria Clara of today have done differently when making that book? What does the Maria Clara of today feel when looking back at that book?

I’m a different person now because I am the mother of that book. Maria Clara before was searching for her path and now she is on the path. Now I have a deeper level of consciousness, that has pushed me further. I am no longer consumed by my struggles like I used to be, I don’t fight against them. Photography and life are not easy. I see a lot of people around me give up on photography because it is not easy. I have never given up on photography and I will never do. And, no I would not change anything about the book, because it has led me to where I am now. 

What is the hardest part about being a photographer?

Believing in what you are doing every day. 

Do you believe in what you do?

Now, yes, so much. Before I made the book I was in a land of uncertainty. While I was making the book I believed deeply in what I was doing, and what I wanted to tell the world, I believed in my images, and most importantly I believed a lot in my subjects and what they were willing to show me and the world. I believed in us. 

What dream projects would you like to work on next or are you working on any at the moment?

I’m always working on a dream project because every project is a dream for me. But, my big dream is to make a feature film. A film about destiny, life, and love. And there will be another book in the future, for sure.

What camera do you usually shoot with?

My wife is my Contax T2. I love it because it is so small and compact, it feels like an extension of my body, not a heavy accessory. It always fits inside my bag. I also like that it doesn’t intimidate the subject and allows me to move freely. It goes with my intuitive way of shooting. 

Do you play music when you photograph? 

Yes, always. When I am shooting on the street, I choose the right song for the day and play it on a loop. It feels like a roaring meditation. When I am with subjects, I have different playlists spanning from Soul, R&B, chill-out electronic, and disco and sometimes I just ask the models for musical suggestions. It helps to create the right environment to listen to something we both love. 

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Denisse Ariana Pérez

Denisse Ariana Pérez is a Caribbean-born, Copenhagen-based copywriter and photographer. She is obsessed with words, people and imagery and finding ways to make them speak to one another. Her photographic work has been featured on It’s Nice That, The Guardian, VICE, Dazed and Ignant, and she is now an Urth ambassador.