Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 21, 2012
Sharon Sliwinski Human Rights in Camera Chicago: University of Chicago, 2011. 192 pp.; 29 b/w ills. Paper $22.50 (9780226762760)

During the past decade, humanities scholars have brought increased attention to the cultural and affective practices that, along with political philosophies, legal policies, and social efforts to ameliorate suffering, comprise international human rights discourse. Given this challenge to the disciplinary dominance of the social sciences as well as broad media publicity surrounding atrocities in the twentieth century, it is notable that attention has been paid only recently to issues of visuality. New publications such as Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008) (click here for review) and Wendy Hesford’s Spectacular Rhetorics: Human Rights Visions, Recognitions, Feminisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011) have begun to analyze the visual politics of spectacle and empathy that compel and constrain contemporary human rights discourse. Sharon Sliwinski’s Human Rights in Camera makes an important contribution to this field through a study of the foundational role that images have played in the historical conceptualization and development of human rights. Focusing on the role of the spectator, Sliwinski persuasively demonstrates that images of trauma, violence, and suffering, more than the abstract concept of rights, have been instrumental in fostering an international community of spectators around the political tenet of universal shared humanity.

Human Rights in Camera analyzes the dialogic relationship between mass-produced images of disasters, genocidal conflicts, and other human rights crises, and the aesthetic judgments that have emerged in response to them. Engaging with political philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Jean-François Lyotard, and Hannah Arendt, Sliwinski examines the ways in which visual encounters with catastrophes and atrocities have shaped political theories about humanity and “inalienable” rights. Building upon contemporary theories of recognition, Sliwinski argues that human rights emerged as a political ideal only when spectators, looking from a distance, came to recognize the suffering Other as human. As she argues, “inscribed into the very idea of justice, therefore, is the necessity of spectators, a public who bears witness to the procedures of justice” (4). Sliwinski examines the visual archive of human rights abuses in the context of Kant’s claim that the spectator’s response of moral outrage can be read as a sign of humanity’s progress.

In a discussion of the influence on, and limitations of, this ideal for a political theory of rights, Human Rights in Camera also wades into current debates in visual culture studies about the efficacy of advocacy media. Rejecting the dichotomous trajectories that have dogged these debates, Sliwinski explores the precariousness of spectatorship, insisting, “When world events capture distant spectators’ attention, what is starkly evident—and deeply important to reflect upon—is the great diversity of affective responses” (33). Challenging characterizations of the eyewitness as a coherent and singular subject position, Sliwinski insists that the ambivalent nature of looking necessarily produces complicated affects that can encompass both moral outrage and the voyeuristic pleasure of looking.

Through four case studies, Human Rights in Camera revises popular assumptions that the history of human rights has been one of political progress, instead providing a history of ambivalent looking practices too often marred by moral and political failures. Presenting an alternative origin story to that of the French and American Revolutions, Sliwinski analyzes popular visual responses to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that sought to document, explicate, and comprehend the horrific loss of life and destruction of the city. She argues that the widespread circulation of images produced an international debate about the human subject; aesthetic encounters with catastrophe called for empathy for distant strangers, what Sliwinski refers to as “a kind of tele-pathos” (19; emphasis in original). In this foundational moment of visual interaction with distant suffering, the eighteenth-century spectator began to embrace the “fragile but critical task” (47) of judgment, that is, of recognizing the other as human.

This “fragile” task was urgently taken up by early twentieth-century human rights reformers who turned to photography to provide evidence of atrocities being committed in the Congo Free State, the personal colony of King Leopold II of Belgium. Reformers helped secure the now-inextricable connections between aesthetics and rights, Sliwinski argues, by making the visual representation of atrocity essential to world spectators’ recognition of human rights violations. Carefully attentive to the problematics of spectatorship, she also explores what she calls the “fantasy of moral progress” in human rights discourse, arguing that “missionaries did not stray far from a kind of spectatorial lust evident in imperialist interest in Africa” (79). Here, Sliwinski attends to the complicated ways in which reformers’ cameras captured both the spectacular optics of an imperial gaze and, crucially, an empathetic representation of human suffering.

In the third case study, Sliwinski turns to one of the most vexing issues in trauma studies, that of the (in)abilities of representation to depict trauma. Analyzing Lee Miller’s photographs of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps of Buchenwald and Dachau, she argues that the affective power of these photographs lies in their capacity to represent that which cannot yet be understood. Detailed visual analyses explore how Miller’s photographs display recurring visual symptoms of intense suffering, figures, and tropes whose presence disrupts previous conceptions of shared humanity. As Sliwinski says, Miller’s photographs do not so much provide evidence of atrocities as “bear the mark of this horror” (88; emphasis in original).

Human Rights in Camera further extends its interrogation of the connections between representation and recognition in its study of the highly publicized genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s. In Sliwinski’s discussion of Gilles Peress’s The Silence (New York: Scalo, 1995), a book depicting the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, she describes the ways in which the photographs provide a “a unique kind of phenomenological evidence” that provokes a sense “in which one can feel oneself to be in a prior time” (133; emphasis in original). This temporal proximity brings spectators into a disturbingly intimate space but not necessarily one that provokes action. Despite widespread publication of photographs of the genocide, as in Bosnia, failures by international media, political leaders, and audiences to find effective means of intervention speak to the persistent limitations of visual representation as a tool of human rights advocacy.

Finally, Sliwinski asks: what can we take from the failure of visual representation to intervene effectively in genocidal acts of violence? In what is, to my mind, the most original contribution of the book, she explores the ethical implications of photography’s inability to stop violent social conflict and brutality. Working through Arendt’s writings on human rights as a “flawed” but necessary concept, Sliwinski concludes that failure, rather than a mark of shame, can be politically generative. As she notes, the magnitude and brutality of human rights abuses like genocide cannot be imagined in their totality. Instead, Sliwinski eloquently writes, “aesthetic encounters with these successive breakdowns of society oblige us to enter the political and historical scene with no false innocence, bearing no redemptive offering for human subjects who have suffered, but instead to recognize the difficult relation we have to the shared landscape in which we must participate, negotiate, and ultimately reside” (137). This argument for an ethics of failure offers an innovative approach to what has been a thorny conundrum in visual human rights advocacy. As Sliwinski argues, visual encounters that provoke a confrontation with moral failure can themselves foster an ethics of recognition, not only of the humanness of others but also one that grapples with the complicities of the spectator’s own gaze.

Human Rights in Camera is an insightful study that importantly attends to the central position of the spectator in human rights discourse. It would have been helpful, however, had Sliwinski interrogated in more depth the concept of distance, upon which her discussion of the world spectator rests. While she is clearly well aware of scholarship by feminists, critical race theorists, and others on structures of power embedded in distant viewing, this thematic is unevenly addressed in the book. For instance, while Sliwinski discusses the racialized gaze in analyses of representations of atrocities in Africa, dynamics of power structuring the world spectator are less well theorized in discussions of the Lisbon earthquake or the Holocaust. How, for instance, do atrocity photographs rely upon and/or problematize temporal, cultural, and/or geographical distances in human rights violations that occur closer to home? It would have been interesting, as well, to consider the myriad facets of distance in relation to the question of failure. For instance, a comparative analysis of media reportage of the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides might open up space to consider how proximity and distance contributed to different kinds of moral failures.

Questions about how to theorize distance are less a criticism than a desire to continue the insightful conversations initiated in Human Rights in Camera. This is an impressive study of key developments in the history of visual human rights that advances current theoretical discussions initiated by Azoulay, Jacques Rancière (The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott, London: Verso, 2009), and others about the role of the spectator in contemporary visual rights practices. Moreover, Sliwinski’s argument about an ethics of failure offers a powerful corrective to critics of advocacy photography, an inspiring contribution in a moment of great visibility for intractable human rights crises around the world.

Wendy Kozol
Professor, Comparative American Studies Program, Oberlin College