Assignment Six: The Critical Review

Does the Abundance of Modern Social Documentary Photography Help or Hinder Social Conscience?


Genocide, war, brutality, violence, death, destruction, famine, tsunami, disease.  Wherever, and whenever, any form of humanitarian crisis occurs there will always be photojournalists in their hundreds around the area making images to sell to the media for the rest of the world to vicariously enjoy?  Increasingly local people affected by these crises, commonly armed with cell-phone cameras, are making images that may or may not be staged for political purposes and/or pecuniary gain but are never-the-less widely available, particularly on the internet, in an attempt to mould worldwide public opinion.  (Weber, 2015).   It’s a commonly held belief amongst many critics today that a surfeit of images of this nature, supplied by the media in whatever form, are responsible for the phenomena known as “Compassion Fatigue” and “Donor Fatigue” amongst the public at large, but are they legitimate beliefs?  They may be genuinely believed by those who expound them, but without proofs that doesn’t make them true; has anecdote supplanted fact?  Do the accounts published by the charities who directly benefit from the publicity support or deny this theory: has any research been commissioned and published?  This essay will look at evidence, for and against, the consequences of too many images being put in front of the public at any one time, to try to and decide if “Compassion / Donor Fatigue” are in fact a direct result and do indeed affect the giving public, or are they myths propounded by personal belief and cliché?

Claims For Compassion Fatigue

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary: Luxury Edition  definition of “Compassion Fatigue” is “Indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of suffering people, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals.” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2011).  “Donor Fatigue” is another name for the same phenomena.  How much photojournalism can change things for the better is subject to ongoing debate and has been addressed by many writers, pundits and critics.  One such writer to raise the issue was John Berger in his essay ‘Photographs of Agony’, first published in New Society Magazine in 1972. Referring to a Don McCullin photograph of a wounded Vietnamese man and child, Berger considers why it has lately become acceptable to publish such graphic images.  He gives two reasons.  (Berger, 1980, p. 42):

…… that newspapers have come to realise that a large section of their readers are now aware of the horrors of war and want to be shown the truth.

…… that these newspapers believe that their readers have become inured to violent images and so now compete in terms of ever more violent sensationalism.

Susan Sontag later wrote in ‘On Photography’ (Sontag, 1973, pp. 15-16)

The vast photographic catalogue of misery and injustice throughout the world has given everyone a certain familiarity with atrocity, making the horrible seem more ordinary–making it appear familiar, remote (“it’s only a photograph”), inevitable. At the time of the first photographs of the 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.

Although by no means the first text to postulate this theory with regard to photography, this particular text seems to have been the driving force behind the modern popularity of the theory of “Compassion Fatigue” with regard to photographs and the media; nor has it been the last, but Sontag has been the most prominent proponent.  An article from the New York Times in 1991 sheds some light on how this also affects charitable donations, (Sciolino, 1991):

Traditional donors, battered by so many appeals, are weary of pouring money into crises that never seem to go away. The result is a discouragingly contagious compassion fatigue. Even though many relief agencies report that donations have only dipped slightly ……..

Here “Compassion Fatigue” has been definitely linked to “Donor Fatigue”.  Clearly, if one reads this sort of text regularly, even if there was no exposure to the images and appeals, the idea will begin to take root and helps form opinions and how we express that opinion to others.  Even before Sontag produced her book, prominent photographers from a previous era were saying how difficult it was to get attention for images.  During an interview in 1964 with Richard K. Doud, who was asking her a question about young documentary photographers and the Appalachian crisis, Dorothea Lange gave her opinion on this matter, (Smithsonian Institute, 1964):

Doud:  …… The pictures are more disgusting than they are, well, appealing to my sense of charity or something.  Why aren’t they successful?  Maybe they are to other people; maybe I’m directly comparing them to something else.

Lange:   ……. that is the importance of recognizing that we have that problem, that we share it with millions of others.  It takes a lot to get full attention to a picture these days, because we are bombarded by pictures every waking hour, in one form or another, ……

Olivier Laurent, in his obituary to Eve Arnold, wrote that she reportedly once said, (Laurent, 2012):

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.

Writers and commentators are no less immune to such influences, even though they may be expected to consider, and be cautious of, the implications of repeating and expanding upon such ideas in their effort to provide their take on the subject, thus extending and strengthening the belief in this theory.  Could it be that the media present the disaster crisis of the moment in such a manner as to make it appear as the worst thing that could possibly have happened anywhere, providing highly graphic images of the injuries, deaths, destruction of the scene to try to ensure the ever more difficult to obtain circulation numbers?  Then when the next crisis occurs the previous one is replaced, forgotten and the new one starts the process all over again, ad infinitum?  Does this become too much suffering, too often, for our coping mechanism and the easiest thing to do is to ignore it?

Claims Against Compassion Fatigue

It’s an interesting fact that the term “Compassion Fatigue” has two separate meanings.  One with regard to photography and the media and the second, the original meaning, that describes secondary post-traumatic stress disorder within the caring professions.  (Report, 2015):

Caring too much can hurt. When caregivers focus on others without practicing self-care, destructive behaviours can surface. Apathy, isolation, bottled up emotions and substance abuse head a long list of symptoms associated with the secondary traumatic stress disorder now labelled: Compassion Fatigue

Compare the above definition with that in para 1 (above), and it can be clearly seen that “Indifference to charitable appeals” in the first has replaced “caring too much can hurt” in the second.  This then suggests that caring is no longer a characteristic amongst those who either do not, or have ceased to, give to charitable appeals and Sontag goes further (Sontag, 1973, pp. 15-16): ““concerned” photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.” Putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of the photographs used to aid those appeals.  Thirty years later, Sontag did write a retraction in her book “Regarding the Pain of Others” (Sontag, 2003, p.78):

In the first of the six essays in On Photography (1977), I argued that while an event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been had one never seen the photographs, after repeated exposure it also becomes less real. As much as they create sympathy, I wrote, photographs shrivel sympathy. Is this true? I thought it was when I wrote it. I’m not so sure now. What is the evidence that photographs have a diminishing impact, that our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs of atrocities?

Here now, Sontag, who was the main proponent of the theory of “Compassion Fatigue” as we are discussing it with regard to photographs, not only retracts what she originally wrote, but now questions the theory altogether by questioning what evidence there is to support her original statement!  Does that mean that she in fact based her theory entirely upon earlier writings from others, her own reactions to media images and anecdotal evidence?  Sontag does go on to consider and speculate about the differential effects that photographs can have upon individuals, making it clear she now believes that each individual can be affected differently and by degree.  As Sontag questioned the veracity of her original claim, does that mean that others who have based their support for her also failed to use factual evidence, or have they resorted to earlier writings, personal feelings and anecdotes?  “The Myth of Compassion Fatigue”,   a 2012 essay by David Campbell, (Campbell, 2012): is a direct attack upon the works of Sontag and Susan Moeller in particular and their supporters in general.  It is a closely argued work, supported by many references, also used in this essay, to provide a rebuttal to the claims within the theory and is possibly the leading work of counter-claim.  Susan Moeller continued the early rhetoric of Sontag’s from “On Photography” and did much to help further popularise the theory. The 1999 book, “The Violence of the Image: Photography and International Conflict”, edited by Liam Kennedy and Caitlin Patrick, discusses “Compassion Fatigue” by Moeller.     However in their book, Kennedy and Patrick do point out (Kennedy & Patrick, 2014): “The information in Moeller’s book is derived from interviews with, or quotes from, important figures from America’s mainstream press speaking about the intersection of politics, media and international events.”  Once again showing that no hard, factual evidence has been used to create a highly influential piece of work, in fact relying upon the media itself to support her work.  On the other hand there are quite a number of fact based research papers that do not rule out “Compassion Fatigue” in its entirety, they do though sustain a belief that there are complex reasons for feeling compassion toward one situation and not another and that the effects are variable according to individual personality and situation.  When it comes to “Donor Fatigue”, statistical evidence from the charities themselves and H.M. Revenue & Customs would also tend to support the fact that whilst donations have varied over the years, the most recent drops, shown in the charities figures, coincide with the economic collapse that started in 2008, whilst the H.M. Revenue & Customs figures show that donations from individuals actually increased during the same period.  The drop noted by the charities could then well be from corporate sources, who possibly did not fare as well during the economic recession and curtailed their charitable giving as a result.  “Donor Fatigue” then, whilst not entirely a myth, appears to have a lot of similarities with “Compassion Fatigue” and the individual and corporate reasoning  for which charitable situation they support.

(Charities Aid Foundation, 2014):

Capture 1 

(H.M. Revenue & Customs, 2014):

Capture 2


The theory of “Compassion / Donor Fatigue” is not a recent phenomenon, although due to increased communication in the last century it has become more commonly known amongst the public at large.  Many modern writers, critics and pundits, a great number of whom have not been cited in this essay, have lent credence to the theory by expounding upon it in their works.  It would seem from the evidence gathered in favour of their theory that there is no properly conducted research to support them.  Their case seems to rest entirely upon personal feelings, anecdote and verbal evidence supplied by the very media whom they condemn for being so profligate in their use of the visual material that they claim causes the effect they decry.  The antithesis however is that there are now quite a number of research studies currently underway, or have concluded and been written upon, which provide evidence that there is no blanket “Compassion Fatigue” amongst those who support charitable activities in the event of a crisis, but there is evidence that there is selection, by individuals and corporate bodies, to which they donate.  Statistics provided by charities and H.M. Revenue & Customs show that for the period up to 2012 – 13, giving has either declined in line with the economic recession or, not declined at all.  From this material it doesn’t seem that there is a clear-cut case to entirely dismiss the claim that “Compassion / Donor Fatigue” does exist.   It is believed that what the material does show is that there has been a great deal of influential writing produced that hasn’t been thoroughly researched and documented before going into print and as a result has promulgated an unsubstantiated theory.  The material also shows that what research has been produced and documented supports the theory that limited “Compassion / Donor Fatigue” does exist with many caveats attached that require more detailed research to determine why it occurs and how to combat it.


Berger, J., 1980. About Looking. 2009 ed. London: Bloomsbury.

Campbell, D., 2012. David Campbell. [Online]
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[Accessed 17 March 2015].

Charities Aid Foundation, 2014. UK Giving 2012/13 – An Update. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 17 April 2015].

Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2011. [Online]
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[Accessed 12 April 2015].

H.M. Revenue & Customs, 2014. UK Charity Tax Relief Statistics 1990-91 to 2014 – 15. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 17 April 2015].

Kennedy, L. & Patrick, C., 2014. Compassion Fatigue. In: L. Kennedy & C. Patrick, eds. The Violence of the Image. London, New York: I. B. Tauris, p. 108.

Laurent, O., 2012. cited in “The Myth of Compassion Fatigue” (2012) David Campbell, p.5. [Online]
Available at:

Report, C. F. A., 2015. Compassion Fatigue Awareness Report. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 13 April 2015].

Sciolino, E., 1991. The Disasters Multiply And Compassion Falters. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 17 April 2015].

Smithsonian Institute, 1964. Oral history interview with Dorothea Lange, 1964 May 22, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 10 April 2015].

Sontag, S., 1973. In Plato’s Cave. In: R. Silvers & B. Epstein, eds. On Photography. London: Rosetta Books, pp. 15-16.

Sontag, S., 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. In: Unknown, ed. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, p. 78.

Weber, D., 2015. Vantage. [Online]
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[Accessed 09 April 2015].


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