…framing the problem in terms of either the diminishment or promotion of compassion means we are incapable of generating the move from singular expression to collective action. The myth of compassion fatigue, then, frames the issue in a way that can only fail. ‘Compassion fatigue’ – aside from being unsupported even in its own terms – is entirely the wrong concept for thinking about how the images produced by photojournalism work. And for too long it has prevented that thinking from progressing. -David Campbell, The Myth of Compassion Fatigue (pdf)
Susan Sontag’s long reach extends to current discussions of the effects of photojournalism, but one of the central arguments in On Photography, that audiences have become weary of caring about humanitarian crises due to the endless promulgation of reporting and photography, was vague and baseless. But the idea of “compassion fatigue” continues.
David Campbell, a thoughtful writer on photojournalism, has just published a draft of one of his most recent papers, “The Myth of Compassion Fatigue” (pdf). There’s a summary of the paper’s main points on his blog. The paper addresses the origins of the idea of compassion fatigue, Sontag’s own reversal of her original thesis, current thinking about compassion fatigue, and, most importantly, a look at what sort of evidence might indicate that compassion fatigue is a problem. Looking at figures on charitable giving, Campbell shows that an overabundance of images and things to care about has not diminished public donations. Compassion fatigue isn’t a significant problem in the way that most people think it is. The paper “reviews all the available evidence of which I am aware relating to the relations between photographs, compassion and charitable responses. None of that evidence supports the compassion fatigue thesis.”
Campbell raises a point at the end of his paper which deserves more investigation. The constant stream of imagery and reporting from crises near and far continues to create compassion among audiences, but measuring public response to extreme circumstances only in terms of compassion may be the wrong way of looking at things.