Visual Ethics

I propose that we have a session to discuss how to talk about or show sensitive visual imagery in the classroom, at conferences, online, etc.  Visual representations grounded in traumatic experiences such as genocide, war, racism, and terrorism present ethical challenges. For example, many perpetrators of violence have employed photography as an oppressive tool. In the early twentieth-century people in the U.S. regularly photographed and purchased photographic postcards of lynchings.  The camera became a means for dehumanizing marginalized groups and demonstrating social control. These gruesome practices continue to haunt us in different yet related instances such as the Abu Ghraib photographs.

How do we study and talk about this kind of imagery? Is it appropriate, or even necessary, to show these photographs when we present our research on these types of topics? How do these images operate as historical proofs or constructions? Or, do we risk being duplicitous if we include this imagery in presentations? Are we perpetuating the violence by showing these kinds of photographs? Should we couch our presentations with disclaimers? How do we communicate our research in other forms such as poster sessions or on the Internet? How do concerns for contextualization shape our choices? How can decontextualization be a valuable pedagogical strategy? What qualifies as appropriate and ethical use? Who decides? What’s the difference between responsible use and censorship?

While I study art history and visual culture, I think this topic will resonate with people from various fields and backgrounds such as history, philosophy, jurisprudence, sociology, political science, anthropology, and cultural studies. I’m interested in learning how others negotiate these particular challenges.