Imaging Human Rights

On the ethical and political implications of picturing pain

Authored by: Kari Andén-Papadopoulos

The Routledge Companion to Media and Human Rights

Print publication date:  June  2017
Online publication date:  July  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138665545
eBook ISBN: 9781315619835
Adobe ISBN:


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In a time of great visibility for human rights crises around the world, when digital and mobile cameras are deemed not only a political advantage in activist theatres across the globe but a prerequisite, scholars have brought increased attention to the visual politics of spectacle and empathy that create and constrain human rights discourse today. Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, camera-mediated imagery have played a key role in justice campaigns. Rights activists have recognized and strategically tried to employ the power of photography and video to further their cause. Also, by bringing spectators into a painful proximity to distant injustice and suffering, as Sharon Sliwinski (2011) famously argues, visuals have been central to fostering the very idea and development of what we call universal human rights. She contends that the mass circulation of images of traumatic events, including the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and the Holocaust, more than the abstract notion of rights, has been instrumental in forging an international community of spectators and creating a sense of shared humanity. At the same time, since Susan Sontag’s (1978) scathing critique of the photographic image’s ability to provoke a meaningful ethical and political response, critics in chorus have rehearsed the denunciation of the idea that (audio)visual proof of injustice and human suffering can transform the viewer into a moral witness or effect political change. Invoking the long-standing iconophobic trope of suspicion and anxiety towards the power exerted by images, this critical discourse voices a drastic disbelief in the effectiveness and ethics of traumatic images and the ways in which we share them.

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