In Empathy We Trust – A Statement
Elizabeth Kleinveld and Epaul Julien

Photography and acting are kindred spirits in the new series, In Empathy We Trust, that we created under the name of E2 (Elizabeth and Epaul). We present photographic versions of paintings from art history, beginning with the Flemish Primitives and spanning nearly 600 years. With sitters enacting varied representations of, amongst others, race and sexual orientation, we remade works by artists such as van Eyck, Rafael, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Fragonard, and Manet. We were truly inspired by these European masterpieces, in fact so much that we wished to adapt them to our age and thereby show their universal core. With all the possibilities in the back of our minds that, at least in theory, we have and our ancestors couldn’t even dream of, we re-imagined these paintings.

We want our viewers to see these timeless masterpieces anew. And, indeed, we play  a little with their expectations. In fact, we even went one step further and invite viewers to see these images with a different lens. Some people may feel slightly irritated, others may question their own prejudices. In the end we are making a link between stereotypes and how they can lead to unconscious discrimination. We started this journey after we were inspired by the work of Claire de Duras, a French writer who wrote the novella Ourika in 1824. This was one of the first times that a writer tried to put themselves in the shoes of someone from another race or culture. We hope that this series will ask the viewer to do the same, but not only in relation to race or culture, but also in terms of a person’s age, sex, sexual orientation, job choice, body adornments, disabilities etc.

OurikaOurika’s Lamentation

Because after all, the project has a serious background. We started our collaboration in 2010, in the wake of the Katrina disaster. After completing work on the traveling exhibition and the book project Before (During) After: Louisiana Photographers Respond to Hurricane Katrina, we stayed in close contact with each other. We both noticed that this natural and man-made disaster brought social inequities in Louisiana into vivid focus and we remained concerned about the ethnic stereotyping in some news reports after Hurricane Katrina. We already knew that we have a mutual interest in issues of social justice and, most of all, we quickly agreed that the aftermath of Katrina showed, again, that stereotypes – be they ethnic, or with regard to sexual orientation or otherwise – can lead to prejudice and discrimination. For that reason we decided to do a project with stereotypes, not in a deadly serious way, but in a playful manner: we wanted to mock them, make them look silly. We did so, because we prefer humor and beauty to bitterness.

Accompanying this series we have created our own coat of arms, bringing new meaning to the traditional symbol of the aristocracy. Heralded with pelicans and a fleur de lis, the shield shows our Louisiana roots. It also features the title of this series, In Empathy We Trust, which reflects the core values of all of our work. We both believe in the power of empathy to change the hearts and minds of our fellow human beings. And we believe in G.K. Chesterton’s famous dictum that “there is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect.” As visual artists, how could we not agree?