The Visual Politics Of The Human: Images In Humanitarian And Human Rights Communication

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The Visual Politics Of The Human: Images In Humanitarian And Human Rights Communication | 10-5.15 Friday December 4th, 2015, Vera Anstey Suite, LSE

SYMPOSIUM organised by Lilie Chouliaraki and Kate Nash, with the help of the Department of Media and Communications, LSE, and the Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy, Goldsmiths

Early in 2015 the image of a Jordanian pilot burned alive in a cage somewhere in the Syrian desert by ISIS jihadis appalled the world. Its circulation in digital media coincided with the showing of film footage of the liberation of the Nazi death camps that had previously been censored in the mainstream. At the same time, images of the face of Raif Badawi, condemned by a judge in Saudi Arabia to 1000 lashes for criticising clerics on his blog, circulated in protests in the street and online urging action against his punishment. Later in 2015 photographs of Alan Kurdi, the three year old child washed up dead on a Greek beach, raised a storm of mediated outrage about the fate of Syrian refugees. This intense proliferation of images of human suffering on a variety of screens compels us to reflect anew on the old question of ‘what to do’ when confronted with the vulnerability of distant others.
Representations, narratives, genres of mediation and their modes of dissemination and reception online and offline are all being transformed by the rise of digital media. At the heart of this transformation, however, lies the old problematic of the human. Suspended as it always is between the promise of the mimetic image to accurately capture the humanity of a sufferer and the failure of the visual to fully humanize the suffering body, the ‘digital human’ continues to resist representation. What it is to be human and how humanity is represented remains one of the most morally urgent and politically significant questions in the era of digital communication.

In this Symposium, we aim to raise discussion of the problematic of the human and images of the suffering body in two key contexts: humanitarianism and human rights. Whether in mainstream news reports, in materials produced by NGOs, or in photographs and film footage that ‘bear witness’ produced by journalists, human rights monitors or people who happen to be on the spot, images linked to humanitarian and human rights claims are increasingly central in public life. We explore these claims through three panel discussions, each addressing a specific proposal to public action: memorialisation, with its concomitant demand to remember; mobilization, making the demand to protest; and testimonialization, making the demand to narrate so as to invite judgment. What difference does digitalisation make to how we remember, mourn, narrate and act upon human suffering in public? And how can we understand the ethics and politics of witnessing the suffering human in the digital era?

10.00-10.15 | INTRODUCTION

Lilie Chouliaraki and Kate Nash

10.15-11.00 | Susie Linfield, NYU - Perpetrator Images Of Atrocity And Suffering: Then And Now

We live in the age of the democratic image. The cell-phone camera--along with YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and all the other wonders of social media--have allowed citizens, and would-be citizens, from around the globe to document, and protest, every kind of oppression and eve ry kind of struggle against it. Think, for instance, of the photographs that poured out of Iran during the exhilarating Green Movement demonstrations in 2009. Although Iranian photographers were under attack and most of the foreign press had been expelled, the whole world was watching.

We live in the age of the fascist image. The cell-phone camera and lightweight video equipment - along with YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and all the other wonders of social media - have allowed perpetrators of atrocities to document, and celebrate, every kind of violence, no matter how grotesque. Think of the photographs now pouring out of Syria - dubbed “the world’s worst conflict” by the Guardian - from the Assad regime, from ISIS, from Hezbollah. Starvation, torture, suicide bombings, burnings, beheadings: Once again, the whole world is watching. But the whole world does not agree on the meaning of what it sees.
Photography and film have always been used both to fight injustice and to perpetrate it. This has never more true than it is today, when virtually everyone has the ability to make and distribute images. Never before has the dual nature of photographic images been so starkly apparent, so confusing, and at times so terrifying. We live in the age of the grassroots image; but that has turned out, alas, to be the age of the perpetrator image.

How do images participate in collective practices of remembering and forgetting? How does an aesthetics of the human participate in the production of ethical and political subjectivities linked to past events? What difference does digital memorialisation make to the present and the future of images of the human?

CHAIR: Lilie Chouliaraki
Michael Orwicz and Robin Greeley, University of Connecticut – The Aesthetics of the Human and the Question of the Perpetrator in Symbolic Reparations

In 2006, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared forty-one members of Sendero Luminoso, massacred by the Peruvian military, to be victims of Peru’s civil war. Although widely acknowledged as perpetrators of mass atrocities, their names were added to the Ojo que llora (Eye that Cries) memorial commemorating 32,000 victims of Peru’s political violence. This shift in status from “perpetrator” to “victim” immediately prompted fierce debate. Instead of promoting the twin directives of symbolic reparations – measures of satisfaction to the victims and guarantees of non-repetition of the violations – the collapsing of the categories “perpetrator” and “victim” threatened to undermine the process of Peru’s national reconciliation.

Ojo que llora reveals a perplexing conundrum at the heart of symbolic reparations: how to confront the issue of aesthetic memorialization in situations where there is no clear distinction between “victim” and “perpetrator.” Whereas symbolic reparations cases, and human rights more generally, are conventionally marked by a clear moral separation between the two categories, human rights courts are increasingly faced with situations such as the civil wars in Peru and -- as we discuss in this paper – in Colombia, that confound such straightforward divisions, where the same individual or social entity may be both perpetrator and victim.
The figure of the victim has been much discussed in scholarly addresses to the issue of reparations. Yet how the perpetrator is represented within this framework is less well investigated. If, as Crystal Parikh argues, we consistently rely on “the fiction that our humanity is essentially distinct from dehumanized victims and monstrous perpetrators,” then the troublesome figure of the perpetrator forces us to consider how such sharp divisions between victimizers, victims and “us” problematically reduce the perpetrator to a stereotyped embodiment of pure evil and the victim to a sentimentalized, helpless “other.” Moreover, this binary obscures the ways in which that third category – “us” who enjoy the status of being human (i.e. neither victim nor perpetrator) - is implicated in the structural conditions that enforce the non-humanity of others. In this regard, the case of Colombia compels us to reconsider practices of aesthetic memorialization and the status of the human in symbolic reparations for victims of gross human rights violations.
Vikki Bell, Goldsmiths – Curating the Future of the Violent Past: Inscription, Imagination, Anticipation

Jean-Luc Nancy writes that violence itself is about marking, an inscription if you will, that is entwined with demonstration in the sense of the desire of violence to be ‘monstrative’ (2005:21). Not only because the violent person, monstrously, ‘wants to see the marks he makes on the thing or being he assaults and violence consists precisely in imprinting such a mark’(2005:20), but also because violence – like truth, ‘whose being is entirely in its manifestation’(2005:21) – must demonstrate itself, present itself, take up space in a rivalrous show of force. To display this force - in a Space of Memory such as those I have been studying in Argentina, for example - is to attempt to exhibit the traces violence leaves, and is to thereby enter a delicate relationship with violence’s own intimacy with inscription. That is, one may risk gifting violence that which it seeks: the image of its own force. The curation of the violent past has always to seek to negotiate this intimacy between violence and the image in order to avoid complicity. Following Nancy’s analysis of the image, one understands how the exposition-withdrawal dyad that accompanies any image is heightened in relation to images ‘of’ State violence, and one sees how the work of curating requires a delicate response to that which remains and that which necessarily withdraws. Curation can only work with the aporetic, receiving what is given, and putting it into new relations, while allowing space for what recedes and remains ‘only’ imaginable in the sense of Didi-Huberman. This paper will present this argument in relation to Spaces and Museums of Memory, and suggest how the involvement of digital technologies might pose new questions for the processes of curation and imagination insofar as they may participate in the spectral ‘between past and future’ as they potentially become technologies of reconstitution and of anticipation.

12.00-13.00 | Break
13.00-14.30 | MOBILISATION

Under what conditions do digital images become catalysts for the mobilisation of political action, operating as technologies of social critique and when do they close down contestation? How are they taken up in movements and protest actions? How does taking up digital images in mobilisations alter the context in which they are appropriated and consumed?

CHAIR: Kate Nash
Pierluigi Musarò, Bologna/LSE – With or Without Borders? Reformist and Radical Contestations of Fotress Europe

Since the early 1990s, “migration crisis” has been high on Europe’s agenda and a main cause of concern for European citizens, alarmed by the levels of “illegal” migration as well as by the humanitarian duty of safeguarding the rights of people who are attempting to cross the borders.

At the same time, in order to unveil the instrumentalization of humanitarian discourses in the context of borders and migration, no-border activists and aid organizations condemned migrants’ deaths in the Mediterranean, producing and circulating the image of the so-called “Fortress Europe” in the European public debate. While scholars and activists have widely denounced the securitization and militarization of borders today, there is far less consideration of the visual means through which media and state actors present the border as a space of humanitarian government. Assuming images as sites of symbolic and material struggle and politico-ideological contestation, the paper draws on the analysis of video, photos, posters, art-exhibitions, film festivals, and counter-maps produced by pro-migrant actors, over the last decade. In so doing, it sheds light on the “spectacle of the humanitarian border” as a dispositif of “compassionate repression”, which is physically and symbolically enacted to legitimize the narrative of cosmopolitan solidarity and respect of human rights, and to manage the moral panic related to the fight against migration.
Building on the historical and political constitution of humanitarian visuality and social movement theory’s conceptual tools, the article presents two ideal types of migrant-solidarity actors (“reformists” and “radicals”) that are contributing to re-framing Europe and its migration management regime. Specifically, it looks into how NGOs and humanitarian organizations (here defined as “reformists”) are involved in the management of migration, by fostering narratives that depict migrants as victims or “lost souls” to be rescued and cared for, while radical activists attempt to destabilize such “official” representations, by focusing instead on making invisible practices publicly visible and highlighting their political effects.
Fuyuki Kurasawa, York, Canada – The Making of Mobilizing Virality: on Kony 2012 as a Cautionary Tale

The paper analyses the curious and troubling phenomenon of the Kony 2012 video documentary as a case study and cautionary tale regarding the socio-political impact of images of distant suffering in the digital age, by treating the video as a cultural artifact and social media-fuelled event. Released by the US-based NGO Invisible Children in March 2012, the documentary was the key component of a campaign calling for the arrest and prosecution of Joseph Kony, the former leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which was responsible for committing mass human rights violations in Uganda and other parts of Central Africa. Yet what explains the video’s virality—the fact that it became the fastest video in history to reach 100 million views on the internet—and its considerable albeit fleeting influence upon the Western public imaginary? In order to answer these questions, the paper proposes a tripartite conceptual framework through which to make sense of the visual economy of human rights and humanitarianism, a framework aiming to reconcile visually endogenous and exogenous dimensions of what pictures do. Firstly, we need to understand how the Kony 2012 video inserted itself within the longstanding iconographic repertoire and cultural narratives of redemption and rescue through which Western-based humanitarian and human rights campaigns have legitimized themselves since the late 18th century. Secondly, the paper retraces the video’s socio-visual biography, in order to identify the institutional networks and major social media actors that enabled it to proliferate in digital spaces and thereby gain traction among important segments of Euro-American public opinion. Thirdly, what is required is a grasp of the iconological field within which various civil society actors relationally adopted differing stances towards the video and assessed its impact upon the current situation in Uganda and Central Africa. Hence, by considering these three interrelated dimensions of the visual representation of humanitarian crises and human rights violations, we can explain why certain digital images of distant suffering become political actants in public spheres whereas others do not, as well as these pictures’ often complicated legacies for humanitarian campaigns and human rights struggles.

Leshu Torchin, St Andrews – Applicants and Engagements: Mobilizing Digital Humanity

The promise of the digital has been beset by reminders of the problems of old media, not merely smuggled in through the new, but magnified as well. Questions of authenticity, of the safety and security of the subject, and of the replications of familiar power dynamics, whereby the suffering body is stripped of humanity and agency, persist. Even the capacity to mobilise fell into dispute with the spectacular failure of Kony 2012.

Despite these impediments, and often through great reflection on them, activists and filmmakers are finding ways to cultivate engagement and solidarity. The immediacy and interactivity of social media platforms, streaming video, and even crowdfunders like Kickstarter to foster co-presence and community, and to mobilise publics. This paper outlines the funding campaign for The Yes Men Are Revolting as a form of such outreach, arguing that even at the point of pre-production, there is a mode of engaging audiences and drawing them into the movement of a film.
14.30-15.00 | Break

How do images that circulate in material and digital forms narrate? How do they become entangled in a broader politics of testimony - how do they participate in legal and political ‘truth-telling’? How do they reconfigure the ethical relationships of ‘bearing witness’ and to what effects?

CHAIR: Kate Nash
Lilie Chouliaraki, LSE – Hierarchies of Humanity in Digital Testimonies from Conflict Zones

Digital testimonies, our engagement with death from Syria and Libya through local participants’ own recordings, differ from past spectacles of war death in that they inject into the practice of witnessing an accentuated sense of doubt: how do we know this is authentic? And, what should we feel towards it? This is because, given the multiple actors filming in conflict zones, digital testimonies break with the professional monopoly of the journalist and become a complex site of struggle where competing spectacles of death, each with their own interest, vie for visibility. How Western media manage this 'new doubt' through their own mechanisms of authentication is the focus of this presentation. This process, I demonstrate, does not simply involve the traditional journalistic functions of cross-checking and validating source and image quality, but crucially re-contextualise the image in ways that selectively re-valorise and re-moralise the meaning of each death, thereby creating new hierarchies of place and human life.

Ella McPherson, Cambridge – Making Sense of Digital Human Rights Images: Humans as Machines, Machines as Humans

With the rise of information and communications technologies, human rights fact-finding has experienced a sea change in how information is gathered and analysed for evidence. The sheer volume of images coming via social media from conflict zones like Syria has led some to refer to this as a ‘big data problem,’ and these images by civilian witnesses are often characterised by a paucity of the information necessary to verify them. The human rights community is experimenting with strategies for addressing these volume and verification problems, a number of which harness human labour to act as machines and machine power to act as humans. In terms of the former, we have seen the rise of crowd-sourced micro-tasking (what Amazon’s Mechanical Turk calls ‘artificial artificial intelligence’) and offshore content moderation. In terms of the latter, algorithms are in development to assess images for authenticity and social media sources for credibility. In all of these changes, humanity is lost and then found again in new ways. It is lost in that a concern for secondary post-traumatic stress disorder from viewing digital human rights images is latent. It is found again through making human rights fact-finding, as Land documents, a more participatory practice, thus opening a new political space for the public to bear witness.

Claire Moon, LSE - ‘The bones started telling their stories’: Forensic Humanitarianism and the Art of Making the Dead Speak

This contribution will discuss a particular humanitarian field—what I call ‘forensic humanitarianism’—and will look at how this field testifies to atrocity by bringing the dead body into view as both victim and witness. It discusses the dead body as the object of scientific practice and the subject of humanitarian action, care, and human rights.

16.30-17.15 | Simon Cottle, Cardiff – Picturing The ‘Human’ In Atrocity Across The Ages – And Why It Matters Today

This paper reports on work in progress and is part of a more encompassing research programme exploring the history of communications and violence. Here we are interested in exploring the changing historical registers and shifting sentiments evident within depictions of human atrocity across the ages. We consider not only the immediate power plays and political uses that representations of atrocity are often put to in struggles for legitimation and change, but also the ways in which they register considerably longer-term historical and developmental processes in human society, including ideas about human suffering, humanitarianism and human rights. These historical antecedents and dynamics may yet tell us much about the nature of contemporary representations of atrocity in a globalizing and mediated world. As a way of securing methodological purchase and analytical focus on this moving subject, the presentation deliberately focuses on a scene represented many times in Western art from the 10th to the 21st centuries: ‘The Massacre of the Innocents.’ By examining over 100 depictions across this wide time period the analysis begins to recover wider trends in how depictions of atrocity have changed over time and asks what this can tell us about how humanitarianism, human rights and ideas of human security now register within wider, globalizing society.

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