Sensitised, Anaesthetised, Fatigued

28th March 2013

My first assignment for People & Place is centred around the idea of compassion for those who’ve come to the latter stages of their lives and who are, to a greater or lesser extent, pushed to one side, ignored and materially poorer than most; social compassion.

I was tasked with reading some texts about compassion, charitable donations and donor fatigue and comment on them in context with my own work.  The two texts I was pointed to are passages from Susan Sontag in ‘On Photography’ and a riposte to her text by David Campbell ‘The Myth of Compassion Fatigue’ .

In the 1970’s, Susan Sontag wrote, ‘At the time of the first photographs of Nazi camps, there was nothing banal about these images.  After thirty years, a saturation point may have been reached.  In these last decades, ‘concerned’ photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.’ and ‘Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more – and more.  Images transfix.  Images anaesthetise.’

David Campbell’s paper is much too long to paraphrase into a couple of neat sentences, but the two texts above from Sontag are the ones he seems to take exception to and his paper goes on to say why he thinks they’re  wrong.

Although what I write next may seem that the argument is over, there is more to this than simply ‘compassion fatigue’.  David Campbell is probably absolutely correct in his analysis that the generations of images showing atrocities, starvation, death, mutilation and any other imagery used to promote charitable giving, has not had any effect on compassion or charitable giving.  If all one does is look at the statistics of donations made in the USA in 2011, the latest year statistics are available for, then it’s clear that donations are increasing (and have been year on year) to the amount of 4% more in 2011 than 2010, thus the notion of ‘donor fatigue’ and ‘compassion fatigue’ are indeed a myth.

But I’m sure the question, and answers, aren’t that simple.  Leaving aside the simple statistics, why would those two terms have been coined in the first place if there wasn’t some sense that there were effects that could be attributed to them?  It’s clear, from researching the subject on the internet, that other than the monetary donation statistics there haven’t been any other studies commissioned to determine why people give, what makes them give, what they want to see from the charities concerned and most importantly, why they react the way they do, or don’t, to the images that support charitable campaigns or reporting of incidents where compassion is being sought!  In any other area of business this would be astounding, and no industry the size of charitable giving would carry on year in year out without wanting to know more about their target market and having commissioned all sorts of studies and test marketing of its proposed advertising strategy.  It can be understood of course that no CEO of a charity would want to have to explain why they’re spending charitable donations on marketing research, even if such research were to show that by changes highlighted from that research would increase donations by more than the cost of the research, the giving public would see this as poor judgement and a further loss of revenue to the needy.  So why did these two phrases gain such common parlance?

I think at this stage it would be a good idea to try to put a theory forward as to what happens, at least as far as the imagery is concerned.

I was watching a regional news broadcast about a very rare genetic disorder that had afflicted two boys, in the same family, from birth.  The result of this disorder was that for every bump, rub, slight knock against their skin resulted in a lesion which disfigured their bodies, were difficult to heal and had, through surgery, prevented them from ever being able to speak.  The boys died before the age of three within a few days of each other and had a joint funeral.  The moving images of the boys features were shown during the section and the effects of their disability were horrendous, although neither seemed to be overly bothered and were playing quite happily.  For the first time in a very long time my wife and I were nearly brought to tears.

Why would we have such a strong reaction?  A couple of reasons, the images were totally unexpected, shocking and we also have young grandchildren we can relate to.  However, why aren’t we as moved by images from the suffering children of Africa, or the plight of the Tsunami victims of a few years ago or any of the other disasters we see so regularly? ‘Images transfix.  Images anaesthetise.’

First of all we become sensitised, that’s when we have the feeling we did at seeing the two boys, then we become anaesthetised, that’s when we take images of disasters for granted, then we can perhaps become fatigued, when we see too many and not necessarily not care, but don’t react.

If my supposition is correct then the terms of ‘compassion fatigue’ and ‘donor fatigue’ come from the fact that everyone who makes charitable donations has an upper limit to their largesse, if they didn’t they’d be broke in no time; also, there are too many charities chasing the same donation.  If a donor becomes anaesthetised to one charities images that have previously been sensitising for them, then they pass their donation to another charity whose images can sensitise them now.  The original charity now sees a drop in its income and cries ‘donor fatigue’ or ‘compassion fatigue’, when in actual fact there hasn’t been any such thing, it’s just their advertising is now outmoded and needs a fresh injection of images that sensitise.

So where do my images fit within this canon?  They fit in as long as anyone finds them sensitising, and to ensure that the message I want to get across remains in the mind’s eye of the target audience I’m aiming at, and also expands to others who’ve not thought of this before, I need to ensure that my images change regularly, remaining focused on the subject, but also different enough to prevent anaesthetisation and fatigue.


4 Responses to Sensitised, Anaesthetised, Fatigued

  1. Catherine says:

    Good point about changing images regularly. I suddenly even thought of a community website, including ‘A Day in the Life of”. My major question is, “What do you want to see happen/change for your people as a result of your images?”

  2. Eddy Lerp says:

    I had to think very hard about what I wanted to see change/happen to them, the answer isn’t that easy to define. I think the thing that would make the most difference to the most people would be for the government to provide pensioners with an income that is more than just survival level. I say that because until the advent of the welfare state, extended families ensured that the older generation were included in any family good fortune and ensured that they were included in all family life. I’m not saying that happened in every instance, but in the vast majority of working class families. Now, the extended family is dead and working class people haven’t the resources to ensure they have a decent income in retirement, their income going on normal living, nor is there lifetime employment with one employer anymore, so employers pensions aren’t worth much. Children don’t include the older generation in their good fortune and too many older people still feel they have to leave something for their kids. So a complex situation problem that could have a better result if the income of older people from working class backgrounds were sufficient. That means a concerted effort from an agency acting on their behalf, but there doesn’t seem to be one that stands out. So I’d like to see my images being used to campaign for better treatment nationally.

  3. Catherine says:

    I could ask you a lot more questions but wouldn’t want to distract you Maybe we can discuss at some point.

  4. Eddy Lerp says:

    Yes I’d like that to help me see more clearly the direction I’d like this work to take.

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