The myth of compassion fatigue


The dream of photojournalism is that when a crisis is pictured the image will have an effect on its audience leading to action.

However, according to Jacques Rancière, the dominant mood of our time revolves around “a general suspicion about the political capacity of any image.” This suspicion is generated in part by “the disappointed belief in a straight line” – as visualised in the photography of Sarkozy at Rwanda’s genocide museum – “from perception, affection, comprehension and action”.[nbnote ] Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. by Gregory Elliot (London, 2009), p. 103.[/nbnote]

Before we can construct a meaningful account that traces possible links between visual representation, knowledge and action, we need to dispense with some conventional wisdoms that purport to explain how photographs work. With this post I am publishing the first draft of a new research paper that undertakes some of the excavation necessary to clear the way for that construction. I believe one of the largest obstacles to be removed is the ‘compassion fatigue’ thesis.

One of the commonest claims relating to the alleged impact of photographs of atrocity, violence and war is that they induce ‘compassion fatigue’ in the public at large. This claim often starts with an assertion about our media saturated world, and is part of the general suspicion about the capacity of images Rancière noted. 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.

Expressions of this belief can be found in a wide range of disparate contexts,[nbnote ]Here are examples from 2010-12 in which this belief manifests itself: in an interview following his World Press Photo award, photography Pietro Mastruzo noted “Shocking pictures do not really communicate anymore, because the audience is accustomed to looking at them”; the late Magnum photographer Eve Arnold was reported as once saying, “You know in the beginning we thought we were going to change the world. I think people live in so much visual material these days, billions of photographs annually, that they grow numb after too much exposure”; the new media artist Peggy Nelson told Nieman Storyboard that, “we can’t have all the news from everywhere and everyone all the time. There’s info overload and there’s compassion fatigue”; in an analysis of disaster coverage, University of London professor Pavrati Nair wrote, “The floods in Pakistan have given rise to a veritable deluge of photographs documenting devastation. On a daily basis, we have been seeing representations of untold suffering, as people struggle to survive, while filth and chaos reign around them. Nevertheless, despite efforts to mobilise relief, a certain degree of apathy often accompanies our responses to such images”; in his review of the Tate Modern’s Exposed, noted photography writer Gerry Badger made a direct endorsement of Sontag’s 1977 statement that “Images anaesthetise”; Xeni Jardin, co-editor of Boing Boing, said of violent images on the web, “human beings do not have an endless capacity for empathy, and our capacity is less so in the mediated, disembodied, un-real realm of online video….at what point do each of us who observe this material for the purpose of reporting the story around it, become numb or begin to experience secondary trauma?”; and award-winning documentarian Danfung Dennis introduced his new video app by claiming “Society was numb to the images of conflict”. Even academic research projects exploring how images affect people start from bold assertions of compassion fatigue. See Charlie Beckett, “Four steps to success in a humanitarian appeal,” 15 November 2011, which begins: “People are exhausted by messages they receive from humanitarian NGOs. They’ve become desensitized to images of distant suffering and repeated appeals for help.”[/nbnote] and numerous writers and photographers attest to the ubiquity of this view.[nbnote ]John Taylor notes the popularity of the claim that photography is analgesic, Carolyn Dean remarks that the belief is commonplace in both Europe and the United States, and Susie Linfield describes the thesis as “a contemporary truism, indeed a contemporary cliche” such that “to dispute this idea is akin to repudiating evolution or joining the flat-earth society.” See John Taylor, “Problems in Photojournalism: Realism, the nature of news and the humanitarian narrative,” Journalism Studies 1 (2000), pp. 137-38; Carolyn Dean, The Fragility of Empathy After the Holocaust (Ithaca, 2004), p. 2; and Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (Chicago, 2010), p. 45.[/nbnote] I argue in this paper that the compassion fatigue thesis, like the repeated invocation of “pornography,” is an allegory that serves as an alibi for other issues and prevents their investigation.

What is notable about compassion fatigue is that it means one thing in the context of health care and social work, and the reverse in relation to the media and politics.

From perhaps the 1980s and certainly the 1990s, compassion fatigue was understood as “Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder,” and diagnosed in people either suffering directly from trauma or individuals working closely with people suffering trauma. In this context, although it concerned a set of negative impacts on those affected – such as reduced pleasure and increased feelings of hopelessness – it derived from the problem that “caring too much can hurt.” In other words, compassion fatigue was prompted by an excess of compassion rather than a lack of compassion. As the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project states, when caregivers, who have a strong identification with those suffering, fail to practice “self-care” they can be prone to destructive behaviours.[nbnote ]See See also Eric Gentry, “Compassion Fatigue: A Crucible of Transformation,” Journal of Trauma Practice, 1 (2002), pp. 37-61; Bertrand Taithe, “Horror, Abjection and Compassion: From Dunant to Compassion Fatigue,” New Formations 62 (2007), p. 135; and Charles Figley, “Compassion Fatigue: An Introduction.”[/nbnote]

Susan Sontag is the writer who drove much of the popularity of this thesis in relation to photography, and the paper unpacks her arguments in On Photography, exploring their logic and supporting evidence (or lack thereof) before discussing how she retracted much of them in Regarding the Pain of Others.

Sontag’s reversal has had little impact on the ubiquity of the compassion fatigue thesis, and that is in large part a result of arguments like those found in Susan Moeller’s book Compassion Fatigue. The third section of this paper dissects Moeller’s claims to reveal how in her hand ‘compassion fatigue’ is an empty signifier that becomes attached to a range of often contradictory explanations and factors.

The limits of Moeller’s text are exposed in the fourth section of the paper, which 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.

While you will need to read the whole paper to consider all the arguments, one bit of data can be presented here.

The dictionary definition of compassion fatigue cites the “diminishing public response” to charity appeals as evidence. But is the public response diminishing?

In Britain there are 166,000 charities that received donations totalling £10 billion in 2009. In the United States, there are more than 800,000 charitable organisations, and Americans gave them more than $300 billion in 2007.

The British public’s response to disasters like the 2010 Haiti earthquake (for which the Disasters Emergency Committee raised £106 million) shows that the willingness to act on empathy for the victims of natural disasters is still considerable even when they are distant.

The DEC conducts consolidated appeals for the fourteen leading aid NGOs in the UK, and a look at their various appeals over the last few years shows that there is a constant willingness to donate, albeit at variable rates, from the 2009 Gaza appeals’s £8.3 million to the massive £392 million given for the 2004 Tsunami appeal.

There is, then, no absence of compassion as expressed in charitable giving. That, however, is not to say that all issues are responded to equally. There are clearly differential responses, but these do not add up to the generally diminished response named ‘compassion fatigue’.

It is time to remove this myth as an obstacle to understanding how photographs of extreme situations can and do work. I hope you will read the paper and engage the argument. It is a draft, and there is much scope for improvement.

Photo: France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy visits the Memorial of the Rwandan genocide in Kigali on February 25, 2010. Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday paid homage to the victims of the genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsis during a highly symbolic visit aimed at mending strained relations. ‘In the name of the people of France, I pay my respects to the victims of the genocide against the Tutsis,’ he wrote in the visitors book of the main genocide memorial in the capital Kigali. Philippe Wojazer/AFP/Getty Images – used under license.

26 Responses to “The myth of compassion fatigue”

  1. David Campbell addresses the myth of compassion fatigue | dvafoto

    […] 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 […]

  2. Michael Fox

    Fascinating topic. I do not believe that compassion fatigue is a myth, but that we need to be constantly looking for fresh and more effective approaches to delivering these stories in an effort to engage an audience willing to help. I think it was Martin Parr who once said that he finds the need to “entertain” in order to effectively deliver a visual story. Although this would not translate well for stories about genocide and famine, an ability to more fully engage an audience, beyond simply viewing photographs, is, I believe, crucial to staying ahead of the compassion fatigue curve.

    Looking forward to more from you on this topic.

    • davidc7

      Michael, you can “believe” compassion fatigue exists, but that just affirms the myth. Where’s the evidence? If you have some, I would love to have it! I’ve been working on this for many months, and as I detail in the paper, I can find NO evidence to support the thesis as commonly stated.

      The second point is separate. New story telling approaches are always good, and staying fresh is always good. But they idea they are needed to stay ahead “of the compassion fatigue curve” is just bogus. Read the full paper and tell me what evidence I’ve missed.

  3. Compassion fatigue myth? « Chris Barrett's blog

    […] And David Campbell’s on going research/blog post on The Myth of Compassion Fatigue […]

  4. Bob Farrer

    Compassion Fatique exsists, surely it always has done, but it has little to do with an excess of imagery. People often fail to respond to a situation because they do not how – or they feel powerless. Donating money will not stop genocide but it can buy hydrating medicine to help victims of famine or disease.

    Compassion Fatique as allegory for mechanisms that negate the effects of sound journalism, encourage false asumptions and induce a sense of powerlessness is worthy of our close attention.

    If I was to dwell on the subject I could become quite depressed that a good handful of important photographers are seemingly trying to undermine themselves, they should read more!

    • davidc7

      “Compassion Fatique exsists, surely it always has done…” Really? Evidence?

      I’m interested in why people want to keep affirming a myth.

      Let’s be clear: if we are talking about ‘“Secondary Trauma Stress Disorder” – the proper name for compassion fatigue in the realm of health care and social work – then we can say it exists. But – and this is crucial – it is an individual response to an EXCESS of compassion, not its collective diminution.

      In the context of media and politics, the assumptions of the compassion fatigue myth – that there is a generalisable, universal ebbing away of empathy in the face of repeated stories or images – are unfounded. Unless you have some evidence I’ve missed…

      Sure, some individuals may claim they are forced to turn away from accounts of atrocity, but that is an individual choice. It is not the outcome of some collective socio-psychological syndrome.

      As a result, the idea that compassion fatigue is a useful allegory for examining problems in journalism and our responses to them is to me a grave error. It hides more than it can reveal. Why don’t we just address those problems directly?

  5. Stan B.

    Although I agree with most of Moeller’s assertions on p.12, I think (like you) that when all is said and done “lumped together as components in a generalised and universalised condition called ‘compassion fatigue’ their contradictions outweigh their coherence.”

    Too many factors are at work here: still images, video images, aural reportage- and the style, as well as the frequency of how each is presented… not to mention the venue. Perhaps photographers/photojournalists would be best served by more closely concentrating and examining their specific spectrum of that media rainbow, namely, still images or “still image fatigue.” But even that is hard to weigh in on exclusively with any kind of solid “evidence” because of the “contaminating” influences of all the other said mediums- not to mention that many pjs are now also doing video.

    That said, I think that everyone has experienced someone saying, “I can’t bear to look at another one of “those pictures.” How that ultimately effects charitable contributions, I don’t know, but on the surface of it, probably not positively. And we’ve also heard repeated complaints of “where are all the iconic photos of our era?” And now perhaps, I’m starting to stray myself.

    Don’t know if I’ve managed to contribute to the conversation, but thank you for your effort.

    • davidc7

      Thanks for your comment Stan.

      Yes, if we strip out the term ‘compassion fatigue’ from Moeller’s text we can see some valid if well-known criticism of American mainstream journalism. The question is: how are her general media critiques advanced by their amalgamation into both cause and effect of a generalisable socio-psychological syndrome? I don’t think they are. Indeed, I think that amalgamation weakens and obfuscates those critiques. We should address those concerns in their own terms.

      Yes, we have all heard individuals say they turn away from or cannot bear images or accounts of atrocities etc. But that’s the point – even if we take those comments at face value, its a matter for individuals. We cannot – when there is much contrary evidence vis-a-vis charitable giving etc – extrapolate from those individual statements to a collective cultural critique. And that’s assuming those personal statements are accurate self-analyses rather than alibis for something else.

  6. Steve Forrest

    Hi again,
    Haven’t read the full paper yet as I’ve just stepped off a plane from Sydney. However, I’m looking forward to reading the full draft as its such an important argument. In my view compassion fatigue does NOT exist, just apathy and the belief that we have no power to change the world for the better. This is not about the imagery though. We still have the power to change things for the better, however, we (Western governments) use that power with misguided interventions in others’ countries under the guise of ‘humanitarian intervention’…..cloaked in the language of compassion.
    Secondly though, when people around the world want to change their situation dramatically, they don’t rely on a bunch or misguided, delusional ego-driven journalists and photographers to do it for them…they pick up rocks and guns. Just a thought.

    • davidc7

      Steve – I think one of the key problems with the idea of compassion fatigue is that it generalises and universalises some unfounded assumptions.

      While I think you are in part right to say that ideas of apathy and powerlessness are important in understanding the dynamics of possible change, we also have to be careful to avoid generalising and universalising those concepts too.

      What I am striving for more than anything else with this critique is the need to work out which mechanisms of social change we should be concerned with, and then trying to specify what role if any critical photo/journalism can play in enabling those mechanisms. Myths like compassion fatigue – as well as its obverse, the CNN effect – get in the way of developing this understanding.

  7. Kony2012, symbolic action and the potential for change | David Campbell

    […] is a complex business. Somebody has to be moved, and being moved means having compassion (so another nail in the coffin of ‘compassion fatigue’ as a collective socio-psychological syndrome). It involves making stories available in the social media stream (because in the new media economy […]

  8. Photojournalism and change: voices of humility | David Campbell

    […] and action we are only going to be frustrated. And it is that frustration, in my view, which animates myths like compassion fatigue. When we believe (generally without evidence) that making things visible automatically changes the […]

  9. The Myth of Compassion Fatigue « Thebronxpapers's Blog

    […] The dream of photojournalism is that when a crisis is pictured the image will have an effect on its audience leading to action. However, according to Jacques Rancière, the dominant mood of our time revolves around “a general suspicion about the political capacity of any image.” This suspicion is generated in part by “the disappointed… […]

  10. A Thesis for Indulgences » Speaking of Pictures

    […] we all deal with the disconnect between our intentions and reality. Endlessly we debate whether compassion fatigue is real, whether spot news photography in 2012 still has importance, whether we’re doing anything […]

  11. Martin Scott

    I think the idea of a ‘crisis of pity’ – in the work of Luk Boltanski (and Lilie Chouliaraki) – is a more helpful concept for understanding what we might mean when we say ‘compassion fatigue’

  12. War and distance: Information « geographical imaginations

    […] the publics produced through these modes of spectatorship. I still have much to read here – David Campbell’s measured critique of the ‘compassion fatigue’ thesis still haunts me –  but I think it facile to say that we have become inured to military violence. […]

  13. Jules Siegel

    Compassion fatigue may or may not be a significant public phenomenon, but it’s very important for individual caregivers.

    • David Campbell

      Yes, absolutely, and I discuss that in the paper. But in the medical/social work context compassion fatigue is about the effect of caring too much. In the context of media it’s the claim that their is a collective absence of caring.

  14. How photojournalism contributes to change: Marcus Bleasdale’s work on conflict minerals

    […] tens of thousands of dollars for the St Kizito orphanage from readers (obviously unaffected by “compassion fatigue”) who saw it featured in National Geographic’s The Moment. But to go beyond commendable acts of […]

  15. Research point (iii) | cormac513273

    […] David (2012) The myth of compassion fatigue [online] Available at: (Accessed on: […]

  16. Bibliography | cormac513273

    […] David (2012) The myth of compassion fatigue [online] Available at: […]

  17. Project 2 Research Point – Mark's OCA C&N Learning Log

    […] D. (2012) The myth of compassion fatigue – David Campbell. Available at: (Accessed: 18 January […]

  18. Compassion fatigue: illusion or reality? – Same Words Different Order

    […] can be considered natural responses to distressing scenes of humanitarian disaster. As stated by David Campbell, “there are clearly differential responses, but these do not add up to the generally […]


Leave a Reply