Compassion Fatigue

Today, documentary photographers working in the tradition of Riis and Hine are recording the situation along the border with Mexico and in new immigrant communities throughout the United States. There is always a danger that the proliferation of photographs of horrendous situations will induce what has been called “compassion fatigue.” (Moeller, Susan D. 1999. Compassion fatigue: how the media sell disease, famine, war, and death. New York: Routledge)

One of the concepts that comes up in any discussion of representations of the Other is the notion of compassion fatigue. I first came across this idea in Sontag’s On Photography, where she makes the claim that “images anesthetize” – that after repeated viewing even the most horrific of atrocities fails to evoke shock, in much a similar way that the initial surprise or bemusement elicited by pornography wears off after a few views (1977, p20). She goes on to assert that “[i]n these last decades, ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it” (p 21). Considering the fact that she wrote this at the end of the 1970s, her prescient words would appear to be even more relevant in the 21st century.

From the catalogue Imaging Famine: “War and famine are newsworthy. Suffering and disaster capture media attention. But are the images associated with such reporting necessarily negative? Is it possible for the media to present positive images of people in need? Would such images be appropriate if they minimised the scale of suffering? Are negative images inherently necessary for fundraising by development NGOs, or do they only breed despair and a sense that nothing can be done about seemingly intractable situations?”

As I have already explored, images of disabled people have been used in the media to encourage the public to donate money to organisations that purport to help those in need, but in fact such charity images have had a detrimental effect on public perceptions of disabled people, stereotyping them at best as pitiable and needy, at worst dependent, worthless and a burden. On the other hand, as Sliwinski (2004) points out, images of (for my purposes disabled people) suffering may offer the possibility of “rethinking the question of responsibility.”

Judith Butler asked a very pertinent question in relation to this topic:

We read about lives lost and are often given the numbers, but these stories are repeated every day, and the repetition appears endless, irremediable. And so, we have to ask, what would it take not only to apprehend the precarious character of lives lost in war, but to have that apprehension coincide with an ethical and political opposition to the losses war entails?” (2009, p 13)

What will it take, she is asking, to bring about some sea change? Exposure to more of the same would not appear to be the answer, but unfortunately it’s all we seem to get!

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