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You Cannot Pour From An Empty Cup: Sources of empathy, compassion and love in care

You Cannot Pour From An Empty Cup: Sources of empathy, compassion and love in care

A photo exhibition by Ruth Samuels, commissioned by Theos, unveils the beauty and humanity of care work. 29/04/2024

The exhibition is on display at the Guild Church of St Katharine Cree until 24 May 2024. Please check with the church office for opening times.

Care work is chronically underpaid and undervalued in our society. It is often spoken of as an ‘unskilled’ or ‘low–skilled’ endeavour. In policy analyses care is reduced to a series of tasks, and carers to economic units.    

This series of portraits of carers by Ruth Samuels tells another story; that care work can be considered beautiful and also deeply, particularly human. It sits alongside our recently published report: Love’s Labours: Good work, care work and a mutual economy by Hannah Rich. In this report, Hannah argues that: ‘Far from being unskilled, the reverse is true if we consider the depth of emotional intelligence, the complex and sophisticated skills of relationship, empathy and intuition which are rendered invisible when care work is reduced to physical tasks.’ 

The title of the exhibition centres on a quotation in this report, which speaks to the sources and resources that the carers draw on in their work, both paid and unpaid. Emotional labour may not have an economic value, but it is not without cost. 

References to iconography in the portraits are not there to suggest that those who care are saints, angels or deities. Rather that they are an embodiment of our most basic and most sacred human vocation; to care and to be cared for – or to put it simply; love.


Ruth Hannan and Hannah Webster, Founders of Care Full

Ruth and Hannah are co–founders of Care Full, an organisation which advocates for a change in how people view care within our society and economy. Having cared for her ‘Nanna’ and dad throughout their illnesses and to the end of their lives, Ruth – along with her sister – now cares for her mum who has Parkinson’s Disease. As they live in three separate cities in different parts of the country, this is no easy feat. While Ruth is motivated by her love for her family, she recognises that carers also experience the pressure of unhelpful expectations around duty placed on them by wider society. She notes that, in the UK, care “relies on individual motivation, rather than investment from the economy. We [at Care Full] want to see an economy full of care”.   

Ruth finds that in order to avoid becoming depleted and burnt out, it helps to be honest about how she is feeling, and not just pretending she is okay. She also finds a lot of strength through her friendship with Hannah. 

Hannah cares for her husband, who was diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer in 2020. She highlights that it is not possible for care to be a one–size–fits–all intervention as the care needs of her husband will not be the same for another adult requiring long–term social care. In their current circumstances, care may range from “lots of driving to appointments, and helping with medication, to emotional support”. Hannah has found that moving out of London to live by the sea has contributed positively to their well being and that it is a much more restorative environment.  

Hannah and Ruth are both representing their loved ones in their portraits. Turning focus away from what she now gives to her mum, Ruth has reflected instead on what her mum has given to her. She credits her mum for the development of her own sense of style and, in particular, the signature daily feature of a boldly painted lip. 

Hannah’s bouquet of dried flowers featured in the arrangements that she and her husband made for their wedding. “We decided to go with dried flowers as we thought ‘it’ll be so nice! We’ll get to enjoy them forever, we’ll have nice memories!’. But it was a lot harder than we imagined – very messy! But they are beautiful, and I love them. Now that I think about it, it could also be symbolic of what we’ve faced together!”. 

Ruth Hannan

Hannah Webster

Stephen Downe, Carer in the Community 

Stephen’s journey as a carer began in 2020, when he provided care for his dad before he passed away. Having seen the vital importance of the caregivers who came in to support the end–of–life care for his dad, he spoke with a friend who worked as a carer to see if he could provide this support for others. Now working for a care agency, Stephen goes into people’s homes to provide care support at whatever level is needed, and is keenly aware of the important relational side of care – particularly for the family members of those he cares for.  

Stephen’s father continues to motivate him in his work with others. “I often think about him and I think, ‘how would I want my dad to be looked after?’. There are some people who remind me of dad, and his frailty. And this is a key time in this person’s life when you see them more than anyone else. You become almost like a member of the family”. Stephen is pictured in the uniform he now wears at work, and is draped in his father’s blanket – representing the catalyst for his move into the care profession.

Stephen (Carer)

Agnes Auguste, Residential Home Team Leader

Working in care was an unexpected turn for Agnes, who had worked as a financial advisor in St. Lucia, before returning to her childhood home in the UK. While studying Social Studies at secondary school, she experienced racist abuse from an elderly woman she was caring for whilst on a placement, which caused her to abandon thoughts of working in social care. However, when she returned to the UK and her professional qualifications and experience would not be accepted by employers in financial services, care as a profession became a lifeline to Agnes and her children. Following time spent first volunteering in Lewisham Hospital, and then temporary work as a domiciliary, she began working for a care home in Kent in 2019. 

Agnes is now able to say that enjoys her work in care, in which she provides care for two male residents. When reflecting on what motivates her to continue caring for others, when at times it can be difficult, messy and unpleasant, she says “I just think: ‘what would you do for your own child?’ He’s 50 years old, but my eldest daughter is 43 years old. He takes the mick sometimes and calls me mum! The passion is [that] I see them as my children. I’m there to make sure that they don’t miss out on having the life that they should have, and to look after them”.  

Agnes (Carer)

Claudia Campbell, Live–in Carer

Along with her daughters who also work in care, Claudia formed a team of carers who work together in meeting the needs of private clients in their homes. Initially supporting people through respite care and ad–hoc overnight stays, she progressed to being a live–in carer as a response to seeing that the care needs of many were not being adequately met, and receiving many requests from families to stay long–term. “Caring was always a part of my life,” Claudia says. It in part stems from the gifts she possesses. As a talented cook who once made a living from catering events, she loves cooking for those she works with, not only to strengthen their bodies but to make their lives more enjoyable. Facilitating enjoyment, wellness, and an active life is something that Claudia sees as vitality important, particularly in supporting people whose lives are impacted by dementia.  

For Claudia, compassion and love are the things that inspire her to care. “It’s all about love for people; the fact that it is my job is a bonus”. She has often been taken aback when her friends find it hard to comprehend how she is able to sacrifice so much of her own freedom, in order to provide round–the–clock care: “She’s a human being! Perhaps if I was just working with an object, then maybe I would lose my mind. But because I am working with a human being, I can relate with her. Even if she is not really able to talk, I still talk to her – I’m always communicating. They worry that I’m not getting any ‘entertainment’, but I can still entertain myself in different ways”. Fueled by her Christian faith, Claudia life illustrates The Salvation Army motto “heart to God, hand to man”, as she commits all she does to God and cares for others as an overflow of the love she receives from Him.

Claudia (Carer)

Ummi Akinpelu, Community Support Worker

While also working as a hairdresser and aesthetician, Ummi provides support in the community through an agency specialising in crisis management. Having been raised by her mother to have empathy towards others, she felt a calling to become a support worker during the COVID–19 pandemic, when care services were under significant pressure. “I fell in love with support work! I go home to my family and tell them how much I love what I do! I just feel so grateful for my own health, and my ability to take care of myself, so it’s a real privilege to do that for others who need help”.  

By combining her existing skills as a hairdresser with newly developed skills, such as makaton, Ummi is committed to creating opportunities to get to know the people she supports, and gaining a deep understanding of their personalities, strengths, likes and dislikes. As a result of that investment of intentionality, she has been able to experience many “golden moments”, as she fondly calls them. “This work really humbles you! It can be very intense, and the adrenalin has to kick in. But the appreciation of a smile – when you make someone happy – that makes it all worth it”.  

Ummi (Carer)


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 All photos by Ruth Samuels

Posted 29 April 2024



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