Aug 12, 2009

How to avoid empathy fatigue


Jamil Zaki wrote a great article on this, that is well worth the quick read. He has some concrete tips at the end about how to present photos and stories. He argues for something I have long argued for in solidarity groups: no photos without names. (I would say if it's a large group and you can't get all of the names, try to get one - the fantastic photo here is from the CPT site with no caption, no date - the album is entitled mural painting by the Legion of Affection. In CPT's defense, they may have presented it elsewhere with names and stories, here it was in an album.)

Zaki also argues for the importance of offering, right then and there, along the story, something to do with that empathy. He quotes Sontag, "Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs be translated into action, or it withers”. He conflates compassion and empathy here, which is an issue I have been chewing on for years, but I'll come back to that. At any rate, as much as I love the fabulous story emails that CPT sends about their accompaniment work (and if you're not getting these emails and care about Colombia, or are interested in accompaniment, you should get on their list!), it is notable that there is no ask at the end of most of these emails - not even for a prayer, or funds, or a quick click email action, or to tell a friend about this story, or to consider coming on a delegation. Something to consider for all organizations doing storytelling. I don't think it's offensive to readers, but quite the opposite - as Zaki argues in this article, it's a relief for them to be able to do something with the empathy you have just generated by telling the story. I would suggest making a different ask each time. Or maybe always a different action and funds.
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