Friday, 7 March 2014
Eamonn Carrabine's 'Just Images'
In his Radzinowicz Prize-winning article ‘Just Images’ Eamonn Carrabine explores the issue of ethics in relation to images of atrocity and violence, especially pertinent given the increasing use of images within criminology, associated particularly with the growth of cultural criminology. Quoting Ferrell and Van de Voorde’s work which posited that we have now reached a ‘decisive moment’ (2010) where the representation of crime and crime control can no longer be meaningfully separated from the fact of crime, Carrabine provides a thorough review of the literature on the topic, presenting a foundation stone to the question of how we should use images in criminology.
The title of his article is taken from Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980). Barthes sought a ‘just image’ of his mother following her death and used this to explore the nature of photographical representation. The difficulty of finding an image which accurately captured something of the intangible was Barthes’ key question. Barthes himself posited the idea of an image possessing two qualities, the stadium, that which is connoted by the image, and the punctum, more difficult to quantify but something that ‘punctured’ the viewer.
Carrabine also draws on Susan Sontag’s (1977) On Photography which contends that horrific images may absorb us, yet they simultaneously neutralise us. However Sontag later scaled down her view of the harm, and wrote in 2004 that these alarmist predictions were merely a further iteration in the cycle of fears relating to modern life.
Carrabine draws on a wide range of thinkers to illustrate his question. He contrasts the views of Howard Becker and Pierre Bourdieu, suggesting opposing theoretical frameworks for an understanding of ‘art’ and photography. Howard Becker’s approach revolves around social organisation and can be summarised as essentially moralistic, things that deserve the moniker of art versus those which do not, a concept related to finding consensus. Bourdieu’s theory stated that the value of a piece of artwork is not intrinsic and suggests that ‘hierarchies of difference’ are utilised to create value, with judgements within this stratified system used to denote taste and class.
Part of the ethical dilemma posed by images of violence and suffering is outlined by Alison Young: ‘we find the body of the spectator registering sensations relating to what she/he is seeing without undergoing or having undergone that which is depicted and seeing sensation become sense (meaning)’ (Young, 2010, in The Scene of the Crime’: 18). This shows the voyeuristic, entertainment-value which can derive from witnessing such scenes in a mediated manner, either through film or photograph. For example, one reaction to the recent feature film ‘12 Years A Slave’ may be revulsion and horror, yet if this is mingled with an awareness of the aesthetic beauty of the film is this an appropriate juxtaposition? Do ethical issues only present when a human subject is present in the image? HrairSarkissian for example uses images without subjects, providing stark images of places of execution early in the morning while they are deserted.
In a response to Carrabine’s article, Katherine Biber has suggested a ‘jurisprudence of sensitivity’ as a means of delineating those uses to which difficult images can and cannot be put. This article comes at a time when many criminologists are considering the use and issues surrounding troubling images (see for example Seal, 2012 on the effects of unearthing disturbing images in the archive and Brown and Rafter, 2013 on the possible uses of genocide films as a tool of public criminology).
If, as Carrabine has suggested, we are blasé about mediated images of suffering then why have many become such vividly remembered cultural touchstones (from his own work on Abu Ghraib, to images of Vietnam, the liberation of the concentration camps during WWII, Rwanda and so on)? Does this suggest that the use can outweigh the harm? For example, Cindy Sherman has used photography to advance awareness of a gendered perspective; while, as Carrabine shows in his article, Ingrid Pollard utilises the image as a comment on race by photographing herself in the countryside, providing a counterpoint of topics and creating tension. Further, in this new Kodak age of digital photography, can there be a blurring of object and subject through the proliferation of ‘selfies’ and self-recorded footage, for example the increasing prominence of the place of citizen journalists (as outlined by Greer andMcLaughlin in their writing on the G20 protests in London).
Sontag, in 1977 speculated that photography was avowedly anti-intervention, one who records cannot intervene and one who intervenes cannot record. However, is recording not an act of intervention in itself, changing meaning of that event, giving longevity to issues. For example, the recording on the ground during protests which occurred during the ‘Arab Spring’ provided a perspective unavailable otherwise. The ethical issue around this stems from our understandings of empathy and imagination, which is based on awareness of difference between us and others, thereby sparking concepts of individuality and the self. The utilisation of images of others within this can be a powerful tool. However, the purity of the image is always inherently contested, most recently demonstrated by the controversy surrounding Narciso Contreras.
This blog was written by Lynsey Black.
The views expressed herein are those of the author alone.