David Campbell, The Myth of Compassion Fatigue

In a really interesting and informed response, David Campbell takes issue with (in particular) Moeller and Sontag. He published a short introductory article to accompany the first draft of a paper that looks at compassion fatigue in a fresh light.

He begins by stating the fact that photojournalism sets out to evoke a reaction from its audience, but despite this dream (and photojournalism’s lengthy history) we still have no real ideas about what makes different people react and how. He cites the work of Jacques Rancière, whose work The Emancipated Spectator he quotes: “The classic use of the intolerable image traced a straight line from the intolerable spectacle to awareness of the reality it was expressing; and from that to the desire to act in order to change it. But this link between representation, knowledge and action was sheer presupposition.” (Rancière 2009, p 103) this presupposition relied on an inherent acceptance of a simplified political scenario (the humanitarian cause gained momentum in the time of the Cold War, when Manichean world order was projected onto global events to render them easier to digest, as Moeller pointed out with her ‘good guys vs. bad guys’ construction). As the fallacy of this construction is exposed, political suspicion and a lack of faith in the power of the image begins to take ascendency. Coupled with this is the sheer volume of images that contemporary audiences are bombarded with and expected to process on a daily basis. As such, the claim is that images of atrocity, conflict and horrific events induce compassion fatigue, of which Campbell observes that “At its heart is the notion that, far from changing the world, photographs work repetitively, numbing our emotional capacity and thereby diminishing the possibility of an effective response to international crises.” This definition sets out the framework for Campbell’s paper. He traces the history of the term back to the 1968 Biafran famine, when it was used in a Lutheran World Federation report (according to the OED).

The fact of the matter, as Campbell points out, is that the concept and fear of information overload is no new thing, and he quotes clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell: “Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.” Although to a certain extent this may be true, it is also true to say that never in the history of humanity has so much information been available on the public domains, and never has the global population had such widespread access and rates of literacy. According to some sources, every two minutes, humans take more photos than ever existed in total 150 years ago.

Campbell here introduces the term ‘disaster porn’, which has been used to describe images that put misery on display in a kind of voyeuristic exploitation and violation of dignity, since as Moeller pointed out, the greater sensation sells more. Although both terms are used to denote obstacles to empathetic responses, the essential difference between disaster pornography and compassion fatigue, as Campbell sees it, is that the former compels a viewer to look out of perverse fascination, while the latter triggers an aversion to the viewed image. As with compassion fatigue, there seems to be some confusion over the origins of disaster porn – is it cause or effect of the glut of images in the media, response to demand or the creation of that demand. Nevertheless, in both cases Campbell posits that invocation of both terms serves merely to deflect the debate rather than investigate the phenomenon in any depth.

Campbell quite rightly points out the dual and somewhat paradoxical nature of compassion fatigue, since it is observable among care workers as ‘Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder’ – the idea that caring too much can hurt. In what would appear to be the diametric opposite of the media phenomenon, “...compassion fatigue was prompted by an excess of compassion rather than a lack of compassion.” (p 8)

In deconstructing Sontag’s discussion about compassion fatigue, it becomes apparent that her argument is flawed for the simple reason that she assumes to speak for many (“…less impact for some people”, “…must have seemed to many…”), and as Campbell points out, there is no substantiation for these claims, particularly since a few years after she wrote these words, “…the world was moved to the largest charitable event ever by both still and moving pictures of mass famine in Ethiopia.” (p 9)

More importantly, Campbell shows how Sontag’s personal epiphany (the famous exposure to images of the holocaust) laid the foundation for her later convictions and claims. Taking this into consideration, Campbell quite rightly points out that as such, each of us will experience our own personal epiphany “on a timescale at variance with Sontag’s”, to which I’d add that they would also be at variance with one another and since we all have differing tolerance for images of horror and our emotional responses also vary, compassion fatigue is in a constant state of flux.

Campbell then points out Sontag’s attempts to retract her earlier statements with a fresh set of notions in Regarding the Pain of Others.

Although Campbell hails Moeller’s book as the most extensive discussion of the concept, I personally think that the book is an expose of how the media contrive to manipulate our ideas and notions of the world. Nevertheless, he quite rightly points out the major flaw in the publication as being the unresolved uncertainty as to the origins of compassion fatigue – it is both cause that acts on the media and an effect that results from the media’s actions. As a cause, CF is powerful and insidious, reinforcing simplistic formulaic coverage and ensuring shallow understanding; as effect, it is the unavoidable consequence of the media’s sensationalist, formulaic coverage and use of American cultural icons to simplify and reinforce stereotypes. Since as such there is no clear understanding of exactly what CF is, Campbell dismisses it as an empty signifier – in the absence of any agreed meaning or stable referent, if functions merely as “a cultural meme around which a host of concerns and criticisms swirl.” (p 13)

Campbell argues that “Moeller’s central point is that when a nation fails to act decisively in the face of incontrovertible evidence of genocide despite extensive media coverage it is evidence of compassion fatigue either on the part of media or the public or both.” (p 14) and then goes on to cite how according to Oxfam sources, the Rwandan genocide elicited little public action while the killings were occurring, but once the killing ended and the situation became a refugee crisis, people began mobilising and donating huge sums of money. This for Campbell demonstrates Moeller’s “rampant lack of clarity” about what CF is, however, I believe there is a simpler underlying cause for the delayed public reaction. While civil war is under way, or there are mass killings in any region, the public expect political intervention to put a stop to the crisis. It is only when the situation stabilises that it becomes clear just what kind of assistance is needed by whom and where. This is when the public feel they can contribute something (donations, volunteering, even adoption), this would appear obvious.

Campbell criticises Moeller and other advocates of CF for not getting to grips with the real underlying problems of public and political attitudes, as well as the political economies of news reporting and TV scheduling in the west. To merely group all of these issues under the convenient alibi of CF is simplistic and avoids specific investigations.

Campbell moves on to discuss the phenomenon of identifiable victim versus the masses, something which finds a topical example in the body of Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach and the subsequent international call for humanitarian assistance and a reassessment of the refugee crisis.

…this incapacity to translate sympathy for the one into concern for the many, as evidenced in the way mass murder and genocide in places like Rwanda and Darfur are largely ignored, testifies to ‘a fundamental deficiency in human psychology.'” Perhaps it is simply a sense of being overwhelmed. I know that I am powerless to help hundreds or thousands, but helping one is within my capacity. I think it is a logical conclusion of basic arithmetic, not a deficiency. Here Campbell is quoting from a very interesting paper by Paul Slovic, “If I look at the mass I will never act”: Psychic numbing and genocide, which even looks at audience reactions to single animals as case studies of the same phenomenon.

To sum up, a sad individual victim’s face elicits more compassion than any other image, and there are a number of reasons proposed for this, including the viewing of an individual as a coherent unity, the vividness of actual victims as opposed to likely ones, as well as the apportioning of blame. It has also been argued that when making judgements about specific individuals, we are more emotionally engaged than when dealing with larger numbers in abstract cases. The clear difference identified here between empathetic feeling and deliberative thinking is paradoxically reversed if one begins to explore contextual information about specific cases: emotional engagement is overridden by the deliberative research and sympathy diminished. In another study, subjects presented with large numbers of images of atrocity did not become indifferent, but suffered from what is termed demand overload, where there was an excess of demands on compassion and not enough means to determine how best to meet those demands.

In conclusion, Campbell divides the advocates of CF into 3 broad groups – those who claim there is an overabundance of imagery that stupefies the public, those who declare the nature of the images overload us (either with their graphic content or with the sheer scale of the suffering), and those who allege that the audience has a short attention span or deadened conscience in the face of humanity’s problems. Lumped together under the universalised condition of compassion fatigue, their inherent contradictions outweigh their coherence:

…in the context of media and politics, ‘compassion fatigue’ has morphed into a catch-all concept that is both cause and effect, reason and consequence, which is somehow designed to explain many of the ills that beset both international reporting and global politics. It is little more than an allegory that serves as an alibi for other issues while preventing their critical investigation.” (p 23)

Returning to his opening statement, that the purpose of photojournalism is to move viewers to respond, and given the scale of war, disease, famine in the 21st century, Campbell admits that one can easily conclude that images of suffering have therefore failed in their mission – due either to failure on the part of the media to present the images in the right way, or on the part of the public to view them in the right way. Since CF as a concept encapsulates both these possible causes, the subject would appear to be closed without recourse to further investigation. Sontag raised a similar point in Regarding the Pain of Others, where she noted that the portrayal of war as horrific and inhumane has done little over the centuries to diminish the number of armed conflicts – if anything these have increased in number, magnitude and brutality.

However, Campbell is quick to point out that “...compassion cannot be the basis for political mobilisation because it is limited to a vicarious experience of suffering usually between two individuals (the one suffering and the spectator of that suffering), and can thus only ever deal with the particular rather than the general.” Since we cannot shift our emotional response from the specific individual to the general mass, the singular expression of compassion cannot be translated into collective action, so the grouping of these multiple issues within the single frame of CF is an exercise doomed to failure.

‘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.

If we merely regard all disengaged reaction to media images, as well as the media’s own accelerated traffic in formulaic, stereotypical images under the broad umbrella of ‘compassion fatigue’, we will never really explore the root causes of these phenomena.

To what extent is the photographer culpable in this situation, where images do not stimulate the viewer into going beyond the contents of the image, and merely relying on it to provide all the necessary information to answer questions about an event, its history and context? How much control does a photographer have over what to shoot and how those images are eventually shown? According to Moeller, not much if he wants to keep his job! This is probably why some of the more interesting extended works are made by photographers who are in the field without being attached to a particular media agency (although they may have the backing of an agency like Magnum, or they may be taking images for an organisation like MSF – e.g. Salgado).

For his part, Fred Ritchin suggests that photographers may be able to use digital media in exploring ways that enable viewers to intervene in situations and thus no longer remain mere passive observers of events beyond their control:

Clicking on the image, or a piece of the image, or a predetermined corner of its frame, might open up avenues where one could learn more about the situation, volunteer, contribute, vote, articulate an opinion, or play some other kind of role. Certainly not all images lend themselves to quick, constructive responses by viewers, but providing the sense that the viewer’s concern is shared can be helpful in diminishing its role purely as spectacle” (2009, p 159).


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