Empathy building in a compassion drought: 5 learnings from 'Conversations from Calais' instagram

(all imagery from @conversationsfromcalais)

Strategy and insight work in the NGO and human rights space often starts by trying to answer a version of the same question: how do we create an ‘empathy bridge’ between the audience and the people in danger? Essentially, how do we get people in a country like the UK, to empathise with and caring about or donate to someone who has a life so different to their own. Research we’ve conducted on this subject highlights that it is not so much a struggle to empathise with people who ‘look different to me’; but instead a struggle to relate to the other person’s worldview, lifestyle, culture.

Conversations from Calais, an Instagram account set up in late 2019, circumvents this by finding the universal emotions – the pains and joys we all know, whether big or small… Each post is a black and white fly bill poster on a wall or public space. It shows only text describing a short vignette, a conversation between an unnamed aid worker in the Calais camp and an unnamed person seeking refuge. Each poster text is only 1-2 sentences long but profoundly moving, highlighting a humane and brief moment in time between two people. Each exchange ends with a poignant, sometimes uplifting, but mostly sad reflection about the reality of the situation e.g. ‘but we knew that would never happen’ or ‘but we knew you were not really joking’.

The text is perfectly designed for short social media attention spans, a mix of miniature storytelling and poetry. It somehow manages to creates a portrait of a person who feels real not other. It is also precisely the stark simplicity of the posters that provides space for empathy.

Here’s 5 other ways they encourage empathy:

1. There is an equality in the exchange which avoids victimising the person seeking refuge.

Take for example, the one where they joke about the aid worker cooking bad food:

This text tells of two people as equals – the refugee is not depicted as having to gracefully and gratefully receive whatever terrible food is available. By commenting on the bad food, we are reminded camp inhabitants have standards and tastes and preferences, like you and me. They lived lives before, with delicious food, probably enjoyed with a loving family, around a table. Food is something so simple but unites us all. It is a good place to start with empathy building, as seen by the Lovie award winning ‘Refugees Welcome’ dinners.

Equally touching and relevant to parents everywhere, is the vignette of the child asking for a specific colour jumper from the clothing on offer and reminds us not to take for granted the humanity of being able to dress for our identity. It is the humanising detail of expressing choice and control:

2. Reciprocity:

Another way it avoids victimising refugees is by showing the kindness refugees show towards the aid workers. Many stories on the posters are of reciprocal, caring gestures: ‘it started to rain heavily: 'you gave me a cup of tea and said I should seek shelter, because it rained on everyone.’

3. Shared interests and small but universal joys

International development charities NGOs can also struggle with the empathy question because they too are trying to build connections between people whose worlds are so different. Development NGOs can nod to shared interests, like football team support, shared pop music, shared sibling rivalries, shared love of a specific smell, a love of slapstick comedy. The campaign does it by evoking family values and shared joys we can all relate to, like dancing in the camp.

4. Anonymity and direct address creates an immersive world where we become a storyteller - filling in the blanks ourselves

The anonymity and direct first-person mode of address personalises this conversation to make it more intimate. It is not like other refugee campaigns, that say ‘these people … these refugees need our help’ (which can serve to further distant and remove their voice). Instead, by showing the normality of friendly speech directed to the refugees themselves, and not the donors, helps reinforce that refugees are people who deserve compassion and friendship, not pity.

By telling a linear story of a moment - “you showed me a picture of your wife and kids, we both smiled” - it immediately situates us in the scenario the way a novel does.

Additionally, using only text and avoiding showing imagery of real people, it helps readers fill in the blanks about these two characters. We can conjure their image to our taste. While this sounds disrespectful of the real people these conversations happened between, this is important for a donor audience. People are can get deeply attached to the characters they have themselves created.

5. The power of outdoor advertising

There is something important about the placement of these posters in that they are outdoor (fly posters) but simultaneously digital (social media).

Outdoor ads serve to help make a specific opinion or idea seem more acceptable (cue the Brexit UKIP billboards and how their large print xenophobic statements legitimised racist views and emboldened followers. On the contrary, the left is often guilty of speaking to itself in the social media echo chamber. The posters provide public support for compassion and empathy to others. It will be hopefully not long before we are all outside again to appreciate them.

Critics may argue that this campaign speaks only to the left. It might be true. But when human rights charities stats show that even those on the left are not donating or acting, it’s important to try and convert those warmer to the cause.

Changing ‘hearts and minds’ (as it is often described) is not easy, there are some other great examples of campaigns that aim to build empathy. One of our favourites being the Amnesty Poland – 4 minute experiment which is based on real evidence about eye contact and empathy.

By Amanda Powell

+44(0)207 117 2685

London, UK