#3_Looking for the Common Good. Visual Rhetoric and Human Rights


© Anja Niedringhaus/AP/picture alliance

The claim for universal human rights is not restricted to proclamations of international conventions. Therefore, regarding human rights as only relating to the administration of law overlooks emotional ties, affective appeals and deep-seated convictions that drive the grounds of this discourse (Sliwinski). Questions about the medium of photography and the emergence of human rights after WWII have lately strongly shaped academic discourse. Even long before images have been the subject or manifestoes of debates on universal rights of all humankind.  This “pictorial glossary” aims to present research on the role of images within the history of human rights from early modern times until today.

The political agency and visual representations of victims in the context of strong commitment to the idea of universal human rights may be traced back to early modern times and different political contexts as for example the ethical response to the Spanish conquest in Latin America. In painting and print images of human cruelty were part of a larger discourse about a common morality and the exigency of action in face of agonized concern over the atrocities of war and conquest. From the 19th century onwards humanitarian organizations then used images in their printed campaigns. The arrival of photography as the basis of new forms of mass communication that emerged during the 1940s fostered a closer alignment of usage of media and political debates concerning implementations and acceptance of human rights.  After the War images became therefore integral to demands for human rights and decolonization. Expositions like “The Family of Man” by Edward Steichen in 1955 that aimed at showing the universality of human action in photographs have been coined as „prescriptive statements claiming universal rights“ (Azoulay). Underlying the traveling Human Rights exposition by UNESCO in 1949 too, was the conviction of Photography acting as a „universal language” to get people to understand the equality of all men, regardless of class, race, culture, religion, age or gender. This postwar conception of photography produced „a standardized visual language that underpinned a shift from nationalist to internationalist conceptions of identity“ (Leydon). Nevertheless, photography has not always been perceived to be useful in respect of a universal implementation of human rights. In Susan Sontag’s essay collection “On Photography” from 1977, no linkage was evidenced between the representation of suffering and a feeling of pity, to sufficiently trigger humanitarian action by the public. However, images did not only stimulate debates about the implementation of human rights or the power of images of suffering, but also led to debates about the limits of representability when in fact harming individual rights.

During the second Half of the 20th century more and more images of children of the “Third World” circulated in humanitarian campaigns. For example, while the Nigerian Civil war during the late 1960s or the hunger crisis in Ethiopia during the mid 1980s. These images provoked critique against this kind of “images of Africa” transferred by those and led to discussions between several British humanitarian NGOs resulting in new guidelines concerning their use of imagery (Lidchi). The debates show contemplation processes about limitations and boundaries to the use of imagery and furthermore a rising extent of reflections about a possible level of concreteness in displaying the image of man through photographs in service of human rights politics. Images that are spread through the media and various communication channels today constitute and consolidate human rights institutions and practices (Keenan et.al.), but also provoke conflict and destabilize existing legal frameworks. Moreover, as digitalization in recent history shapes strongly the life of society, the more and more forms of visual languages and visual media have developed. While photography was longtime promised to function as evidence to the violation of rights, todays questions often concern the possibilities of manipulation of the digital image.

As this introduction already shows: The history of human rights and the visual is intertwined on many levels. The interrelation between the life of images and the development of human rights as a political concept is the central interest of this blog. Contributions combine aesthetics and legal history in different critical and contextualized readings of human rights discourses: How did and still do images stimulate discourses about human rights and their acceptance and what is their contribution to shape, implement and legitimize fundamental human rights or to initiate movements? How do they negotiate the subject positions of victims and agents, function as evidences of rights violations or as visual remembrances of such? And on the other hand, how can images also violate human rights or manifest inequalities themselves when neglecting the dignity of individuals or groups?


Carolin Behrmann and Lia Börsch



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