Peace, Complexity, Visuality: Ambiguities in Peace and Conflict: Chapter Overview

Part I Complexity and Ambiguity

In the book’s first part, titled Complexity and Ambiguity, we discuss two of the book’s main concepts in connection with peace and conflict research.

Approaching Complexity in Peace and Conflict

In chapter two, we introduce complexity which we understand as a specific way of thinking, a frame of reference. In the chapter, we discuss diverse literature from IR and peace and conflict research and explore what complexity means for our understanding of international relations. Thinking in terms of complexity offers a profound basis for a critique of existing approaches and practices – a critique from which new spaces of possibility can emerge. We end the chapter with brief remarks on the relationship between complexity and visual representation in terms of photocomplexity.

Tolerance of Ambiguity

In chapter three, we suggest accepting complexity and ambiguities rather than reducing them. Accordingly, we engage with the question of how to deal with ambiguity without resorting to disambiguation and simplification. To this end, we look at complexity through the concept of tolerance of ambiguity (TA) and discuss it in relation to IR theory, suggesting how to deal with TA constructively. Essentially, attempts at disambiguation – reducing complexity – will also have effects that actors cannot anticipate. Becoming aware of various consequences of an action in a complex system makes us recognize the multitude of possible and permissible interpretations that any event engenders. At the same time, we need some borders for what counts as permissible interpretation to avoid a politically dangerous and morally questionable anything goes approach to ambiguity. We conclude the chapter with reflections on the relationship between ambiguity and visual representation in terms of photoambiguity.

Part II New Photographies and Visual Ambiguities

In the book’s second part, titled New Photographies and Visual Ambiguities, we add the concept of visuality to our conceptual tool kit and exemplify it with reference to new forms of visual representation, especially photojournalistic representation, that emerged in the 1990s in post-war Bosnia.

The Crisis of Photojournalism and the Emergence of New Photographies

In chapter four, we introduce selected new photographic approaches to war, genocide and violence that emerged in Bosnia and Herzegovina (and elsewhere) in the 1990s. Journalists had recognized that conventional photojournalistic work could not stop violence, although it often managed to raise international awareness and produce memorable photographs. The conventional linkage between photography, awareness and political response that had informed photojournalism since its inception turned out to be simplistic. In this chapter, we develop a typology of the new photographies emerging in Bosnia at that time comprising aftermath photography, forensic photography, post-conflict photography and participatory photography. It is this visual environment within which IR and peace and conflict studies try to make sense of what happened in Bosnia.

Visual Ambiguities: Controlling the Meaning of Images in a Digital and Interactive World

In chapter five, we further develop our theoretical background concerning visual images, especially the word–image relationship, and explore how different approaches to words and images affect the extent to which images can be controlled by means of words. An image’s hidden ambiguity awaits rediscovery by curious observers. Viewing, thus, becomes an essentially political act enabling viewers to understand and critically interrogate the politics of interpretation inherent in each single designation of meaning. Indeed, in the digital world, viewers may contribute not only to the evolution of meaning assigned to an image but also, through active interaction, to the evolution of the image. Accepting the existence of ambiguities and explicitly leveraging them, we believe, will create a space to change how we think about ambiguity, control of meaning, difference of perspective and, ultimately, politics and society.

Part III Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace

In the book’s third part, titled Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace, we introduce and discuss the online project Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace created by Fred Ritchin and Gilles Peress in cooperation with the New York Times on the Web in 1996. By emphasizing interactivity, the project challenged the authorial voice of its creators while allowing an unusual degree of audience participation and co-authorship thus appealing to tolerance of ambiguity rather than to disambiguation.

Introducing Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace Pages

In chapter six, we present the project’s main ideas, its practical implementation and its design. Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace acknowledged the messiness of violent conflict rather than reducing it to simple, one-dimensional narratives. Narrative pluralism and the website’s interactive design challenge both photojournalism’s operating procedures and the audience’s viewing experience, acknowledging the creator’s limited knowledge about the issue at hand thus inviting a variety of interpretations of the conflict to emerge.

Navigating Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace Pages

In chapter seven, we sketch different navigational approaches to Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace. We show that different approaches connect us differently to the website and that which it represents – post-siege Sarajevo – thus diversifying our experience with both the website and the city. We perform a weak form of auto-ethnography and auto-navigation with recourse to our research notes and share with our readers our own personal experience when navigating the website.

The Grids: Architectural Space and Panel-to-Panel Transitions Pages

In chapter eight, we analyze the project’s grids – compilations of smaller images taken either in Sarajevo or in the city’s suburbs – in light of different navigational approaches.

Interactivity and the Author-Audience Relationship

Concluding this part, chapter nine explores the project’s interactive design. Digitization has indeed changed how image-makers and viewers interact both with each other and with visual material – a process that Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace anticipated by understanding meaning as the result of a conversation among the material presented on the website, the photographer, the picture editor and the audience. Rather than capturing complex, ambiguous and contradictory stories in the ostensibly authoritative voice of the photographer/journalist, it enables the emergence of a plurality of authors and voices co-constructing the story in its complexity, reflecting shifting roles, authorities and responsibilities.

Part IV Leveraging Ambiguity for Peace

In the book’s final part, titled Leveraging Ambiguity for Peace, we slightly increase the distance between our argument and our case study.

Embracing Difference: Learning from Bosnia?

In chapter ten, we adress politics and society in terms of difference rather than sameness and identity. Western discourse deems difference problematic, a danger or a challenge, sometimes even a source for violence and war. However, social conflict offers many possibilities to deal with difference constructively: it can serve the improvement of social interaction among and between different social groups. In the chapter, we show why we consider embracing difference a relevant resource for peaceful change, first against the backdrop of the Bosnian and the Sarajevan context and then in regard to more general and (photo-)philosophical reflections.

Exploring the Surround, Appreciating Complexity

In chapter eleven, we explore the surround – peripheral image components – as a place for alternative meaning making and knowledge production. We note that interpretive-hermeneutical approaches to image analysis may increase the invisibility of some image components by emphasizing others. Visibility and invisibility thus do not simply follow patterns of inclusion in and exclusion from the frame linked to an inside and an outside, respectively, as the literature on representability tends to argue. Analysis of the surround shows that the outside may be inside. It may increase our knowledge of both the scenario depicted and photography’s role in it and, therefore, perform a critical function. The surround offers alternatives to merely unimaginatively accepting or rejecting established designations of meaning.

Active Looking: Images in Peace Mediation

In chapter twelve, we explore the potential contributions of images to international peace mediation. Inspired by the concept of active listening and narrative approaches to mediation, we advance the notion of active looking in peace mediation as a visual-discursive practice that includes images as a mode of expression and contribution to meaning-making processes, capitalizing on specific characteristics of images, especially as regards their relationship to verbal language. We propose active looking as an approach to conflict mediation and as a mediation skill derived from an understanding of conflict transformation that – instead of aiming at problem-solving based on sameness – appreciates openness, difference and ambiguity.

Concluding Reflections: Tolerance of Ambiguity and the Ambiguity of Tolerance

Concluding the book, we ask in chapter thirteen: What are the limits of tolerance? Is our case study well chosen? Do we create new binaries strictly distinguishing tolerance of ambiguity from disambiguation and visual-narrative simplification from complexification?