How to Disrupt Compassion Fatigue

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A suicide bomb at the airport. A building leveled by an earthquake. Children whose red-tinged hair speaks of malnourishment. We click through photos of the latest catastrophe and then we close the window and get on with our day. Did we even feel anything? Do we still?

Compassion fatigue is not your fault, according to Anastasia Taylor-Lind, a photographer and 2015 Ted Fellow who has documented war, suffering and want around the world. Compassion fatigue is her fault, and the fault of all those who report on or otherwise depict suffering in ways that are dull and lazy and trite. The notion that rampant images of suffering might “anesthetize” those who gaze upon them has been around since at least the 1960s; digital photography has arguably worsened it. For Taylor-Lind, none of this is academic: “It’s literally what keeps me up at night,” she says.

During the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, photographs of flaming barricades and angry protesters were in abundance. But where her peers zigged, the restless Taylor-Lind zagged: She started shooting portraits of women and men in Maidan Square, the main site of the Ukrainian protests. (You can see some of the portraits in her TED Talk above.) Critics hailed her work for its uncanny ability to evoke human beings in the midst of war, and the photographs resulted in Taylor-Lind’s first book, Maidan: Portraits from the Black Square.

The summer of 2014 found Taylor-Lind in Donetsk, in the east of Ukraine, “photographing in the way I was used to — reportage pictures that showed what the war looked like” — such as bombed-out apartment buildings and civilians wounded at hospitals. At one point, she ducked into a post office, and there she happened upon a series of curious postcards. They depicted a luminous city, with flowers and blue skies and a beautiful river, and were labeled “Welcome to Donetsk,” in English. “It was at that moment I realized that the war in Donetsk was happening to people who looked just like me in towns that looked just like my town.” The epiphany — the very fact of it — disturbed her. If a conflict photographer could become so alienated from the emotional reality of her subject, what about those back in Britain or the United States who had never seen a war?

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Photos of the Donetsk postcards

Source Courtesy Anastasia Taylor-Lind

Taylor-Lind was struck with a sense of her own complicity in, she says, “reducing people to characters in a war story” (combatants and civilians, collateral damage, refugees, insurgents, separatists). As a child, she had dreamed of being a war poet, and when she was in her teens, she had an encounter with the Vietnam War photographs of Don McCullin. But last year she put down her own camera, at least for a while.

Today, Taylor-Lind is looking through a different lens. As a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, the British-Swedish photographer is researching and experimenting with telling war stories in different ways. Her area of inquiry: “How can I tell a story about a war in a way that moves people to feel something, to react, to possibly change their way of thinking?”

She has found one way, at least, that satisfies her. Since the summer, her main work centered on the Ukrainian conflict, and representing it, has revolved around other people’s photographs: those curious “Welcome to Donetsk” postcards. With volunteers, Taylor-Lind has been writing the name of a single person killed in the conflict, as well as the date and the place the person died, and then mailing the postcards to whoever wants one. So far, they’ve sent out about 2,000 postcards. If you want one of them — and to experience a visual representation of conflict like no other — you merely need to email Taylor-Lind at taylorlindstudio@gmail.com.

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