Compassion Fatigue as Policy Priority?

The capability of visual images to create compassion with distant others, especially suffering others, has always been regarded as one of the strengths of visual representation, especially photography and video documenting, nowadays almost instantaneously, the plight of others. Social documentary and concerned photography, for example, always expected that a politically powerful community, however defined, would respond to its awareness-raising visualizations and politically intervene in, and ameliorate, the conditions photographers could only depict.

This position has come under attack. Susan Sontag, for example, suspected that “in a world saturated, no, hyper-saturated, with images, those that should matter have a diminishing effect: we become callous. In the end, such images just make us a little less able to feel, to have our conscience pricked” (2003: 105). She did ask for evidence – evidence “that photographs have a diminishing impact, that our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs of atrocities” (Sontag 2003: 105). Nevertheless, Sontag’s position – which was rather ambivalent in her last book – is often identified with and reduced to the criticism she articulated in her first book on photography: “Images anesthetize” (1979: 20).

For her, and many commentators writing in a similar vein, this was a problem. Photography was not supposed to numb but to raise awareness and to make politically sensitive people intervene in the conditions depicted with political, not artistic-aesthetic or photojournalistic, means. Anesthetization, however, results in non-intervention and indifference. As a result of compassion fatigue (Moeller 1999) or “demand overload” (Campbell 2014: 116), images become politically ineffective: we watch and do nothing.

This is exactly what we are supposed to do if we follow the Christian-Democratic Prime Minister of the German Federal State of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer. Kretschmer formulates compassion fatigue as policy priority. Regarding images of freezing and starving refugees in the Polish-Belarusian borderlands, he said in a newspaper interview that “we have to endure these images und help Poland secure its EU external borders. Warsaw acts correctly and we must not stab Poland in the back”.

BILD am SONNTAG: Wie lange hält unsere Gesellschaft die Bilder Not leidender und frierender Familien aus?

KRETSCHMER: Wir müssen diese Bilder aushalten und Polen bei der Sicherung seiner EU-Außengrenze helfen. Warschau handelt richtig, daher dürfen wir Polen nicht in den Rücken fallen.  

Thus, for Kretschmer the problem is not that people might not respond to images but that they might do respond. And they might do so by articulating compassion and solidarity with the people depicted and by questioning militarized EU border politics.

However, a focus on compassion may be misleading. David Campbell, following James Johnson, argues that:

“By itself compassion cannot be the basis for political mobilization 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. As such, framing the problem in terms of either the diminishment or promotion of compassion means we are incapable of generating the move from singular expression to collective action” (2014: 119).  

What is required in response to the images from Poland, then, is a response – a collective action – that is based not on compassion (which may even degenerate into pity) but on solidarity. As Johnson explains, solidarity – as “a principle rather than an emotion” (2011: 640) – may help “establish that some ‘others’, whom we heretofore have not considered as being like ‘us’, or whom we perhaps have altogether failed to consider in any way whatsoever, are indeed like us after all” (p. 642). Solidarity acknowledges the commonalities of being human.  

It has always been among the strengths of visual representation both to show the commonalities of being human and to co-present in one image the general and the particular (see MacDougall 1998). Appealing to solidarity is a possible task for images from EU borderlands, produced in very difficult and dangerous conditions, and a response to cynical political statements demanding spectators to remain politically inactive while regarding the suffering of others and to institutions instrumentalizing human beings for political ends. This is what Alexander Lukashenko does, but this is also what the European Union does, as Kenan Malik (2021) observes:  

“’instrumentalising human beings’ is exactly what EU migration policy has been practising, too, for the past three decades. ‘Fortress Europe’ has been created by turning people into instruments of policy, viewing migrants not as living, breathing human beings, but as flotsam and jetsam to be swept away from Europe’s beaches and borders.”


Campbell, David (2014), The Myth of Compassion Fatigue. In: Liam Kennedy and Caitlin Patrick (eds.), The Violence of the Image: Photography and International Conflict. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, pp. 97–124.

Johnson, James (2011), “The Arithmetic of Compassion”: Rethinking the Politics of Photography. British Journal of Political Science, 41:3, pp. 621–643. 

MacDougall, David (1998), Transcultural Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Malik, Kenan (2021), Lukashenko is a handy villain to mask the cruelty of Fortress Europe []

Moeller, Susan D. (1999), Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death. New York and London: Routledge.

Sontag, Susan (1979), On Photography. London: Penguin.

Sontag, Susan (2003), Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.