Visual Peace: Chapter Overview


Impressions: Stretching the Limits of Representation

The book’s first chapter introduces the main research question of this study: what does visual culture do in order to transform passive spectators into active observers or participant witnesses who self-critically reflect on their subject positions in connection with the conditions depicted in images? Different approaches in painting and photography with which to increase viewers’ sense of involvement and several photographic ways of engaging with and stretching the limits of representation are sketched. In regard of current forms of warfare and their visual representation it is argued that engagement with the limits of visibility is also required. The chapter directs readers’ attention to the importance of the history of the photographic discourse and formulates a research agenda for visual peace research.

1 Ambiguities, Approximations, Abstractions

Chapter 1 discusses one of the most difficult questions in connection with visual culture, namely, the relationship between words and images. Engaging with Walter Benjamin and Martha Rosler, it is argued that any form of writing about images implies approaching images in terms other than their own. Given that language is inevitably a part of the visual experience, the question then is: does language supplement or diminish images? It is suggested that there is something elusive in images that cannot be grasped by means of language. Images carry with them many intended and unintended sites of connotation which can be marginalized by means of language but not erased altogether. Implications for visual analysis are discussed.

2 The Participant Witness

Chapter 2 develops the study’s key figure, the participant witness. Starting with Simon Norfolk’s photographic approach to beauty, different ways of making viewers engage with the conditions depicted in a given image are discussed: for example seduction, implication, landscape, and architecture. The chapter emphasizes the second moment of photographic reception when seeing stops and witnessing begins, triggered by an “initial spark” (Susan Sontag) which is subsequently transformed into long-term engagement with a given image and that which it depicts. The ethical dimensions of looking at representations of people in pain are analyzed and the adequacy of individual responses to such representations is explored. It is argued that the sum of the individual responses may form an adequate response of people acting together with others in a discursively constructed political space.

3 Reflections on Photojournalism

In this chapter, I review three recent conversations among photographers and photojournalists. While this seems to shift the book’s focus from spectators to photographers, I argue that in the digital age the border between photographers and spectators gets increasingly blurred. From this it follows that issue areas that were relevant only for professional photographers are important nowadays to everyone operating a camera or taking pictures by means of camera phones, especially in wars and conflict situations where professional and non-professional photographers alike can easily become targets of violence and where they face similar ethical problems. The conversations I review and comment on deal with crucial issues in connection with photographic activities: interference, risks and dangers, and the current state of photojournalism.


4 The Aftermath: Visions of Rwanda

In this chapter, I discuss the photographic work of Alfredo Jaar, Robert Lyons, and Jonathan Torgovnik in connection with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda – an event which is more present in Western consciousness today than it was at the time of the killings, thanks to a large extent to visual representations. I understand aftermath photography as a means with which photographic reception can be turned into reflection. This visual strategy, deliberately deviating from the photojournalistic approach, respects the unrepresentability of genocide emphasized in the literature and contributes to self-examination with regard to the memory of the genocide. In this chapter, I explore the conditions in which such photography can succeed in both disrupting stereotypical political interpretations of the genocide and transforming viewers into participating witnesses.


Portfolio 1 reproduces four photographs by Rafiki Ubaldo from the series Temples of Memory.

5 Visual Interventions in Rio de Janeiro’s Culture of Violence

Based on a structural understanding of violence, this chapter explores visual representations of living conditions in popular communities (favelas) in Rio de Janeiro. Emphasis is put on participatory photography projects by JR and Vik Muniz who by treating their subjects as co-artists help people who have normally been represented by others to become agents of their own image. It is argued that participatory projects have an important performative dimension in that the process of producing a photograph, often ignored in writings on photography, is as important as the resulting photograph. Participating in the process of doing photography is an experience that no-one can take away from the participants, an intimate experience in the case of Muniz, a public experience in the case of JR.

6 On Combatants and (Other) Victims

Chapter 6 engages with the visualization of the memories of the Portuguese colonial wars in Africa, 1961–1974, in particular with the Monument to the Combatants of the Overseas Wars in Bélem. By using a variety of source materials – academic writings, novels, photographs of material objects, and interviews – the chapter analyzes the historical narrative the monument aims to construct and identifies the politics underlying this construction. The tension between the alleged inclusive character of the monument and the exclusive features resulting from its design and numerous textual approaches is emphasized. In the second part, visual deconstructions by means of two photographic essays, one by the author, the other by Manuel Botelho, exemplify alternative visual approaches and alternative acts of memory.


Portfolio 2 reproduces four works of art (pencil and watercolor) by Manuel Botelho from the series Aerogramas para 2010.


Chapter 7 identifies comics as audience participation media and explores the extent to which readers become involved in and, thus, responsible for the story line’s construction. This question is important because comics increasingly challenge photojournalism’s traditional monopoly over the representation of war and conflict. This conceptual chapter links the notion of distraction, derived from Benjamin’s work and understood as “attentiveness without attention” (Peter Gilgen), with the reading of comics and identifies the gutter as the place where readers become co-artists. The use of photographs in comics is tentatively explained in terms of a triplescopic effect, connecting with one another text, drawings, and photographs in a mutually supportive manner and offering the possibility of including in comics both the un-photographed and the un-photographable.

Unfinished Business

The final chapter summarizes the main lines of thought introduced in the book. It concludes by formulating the necessity of critically approaching not only photography and photographers but also the participant witness, the book’s main figure. Indeed, just as there is no guarantee that photography discloses and demystifies, there is no guarantee that the spectators’ wish to change the conditions depicted in a photograph – should such a wish result from the spectators’ viewing experience – results in progressive and emancipator politics. Ultimately, what is required is not only critical engagement with photography but also with the participant witness.