In this post, I discuss Eamonn Carrabine’s and Alison Young’s presentations at the third of four seminars in the ESRC-funded series, ‘Visual Criminology: Crime, Criminal Justice, and the Image’. My aim is to draw out their shared theme—both Carrabine and Young charge their spectators with an agency that traditional theories of spectatorship often ignore. My aim in this post, with reference to their work, is to situate us as viewers in the moment we first encounter an image before we pass judgment. I have chosen not to include here any of the images I talk about so as not to risk of prematurely bringing our prejudices to the image, which may prevent us exploring its myriad possibilities. What follows is, rather than a normative argument, a possible starting point from which visual criminologists could develop an ethics for a criminology that takes images as the constitutive part.

Carrabine discussed the ethical issues of representation. He focused on Images malgré tout, an essay by art historian Georges Didi-Huberman, which was part of the photo-historical exhibition ‘Mémoire des camps’. Didi-Huberman justified the exhibiting of four photographs taken by Sonderkommando members inside an Auschwitz-Berkenau gas chamber. Carrabine tells us that Didi-Huberman was subsequently criticised by Gérard Wajcman and Elisabeth Pagnou for violating a well-established ethical convention, exemplified in Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, against publishing ‘documentary’ images of the Holocaust. When understood as documents, these images  offer narrative evidence of the Holocaust, sometimes beyond the the real-life contingencies of the moment in which these photographs were taken, and Carrabine tells us that historians have ‘cropped, adjusted [and] retouched’ these images on that premise.

However, Didi-Huberman's critics misunderstood him to consider the images as narrative documentary. Instead, he considers the images as phenomenological experience. Although the evidentiary premise remains, its character is significantly altered. The images’ existences are evidence of a will to document rather than their content being evidence of a documentary narrative. Understood phenomenologically, it was also too straightforward to accuse Didi-Huberman of aestheticizing the images, an argument made against (the limitations of) documentary photography in general (see, Carrabine, 2012). Most important for my discussion here though, is when Carrabine told us that Did-Huberman's phenomenological interpretation of the images has important consequences for spectatorship—for how we look and think about images. As spectators, we do not passively consume a narrative, but are invited to question the phenomenological experience of the Sonderkommando bearing witness. Carrabine points to considerations of the Sonderkommando’s bodily movements in taking these images, for example.

Carrabine's discussion of the Didi-Huberman controversy prefaced the criminological point of his talk: the same tension between documentary as narrative and documentary as phenomenological experience exists in the tradition of representing and re-presenting, and consuming images of crime, violence and suffering in artistic contexts. For example, he cited Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence (1977), a carefully assembled sequence of fifty-nine images which were originally made to 'objectively' record events. Sultan and Mandel's work can be contrasted with Luc Sante's (1992) Evidence: exposed: voyeurism, surveillance and the camera, an aesthetic and voyeuristic re-presentation of fifty-five photographs taken of crime (mostly murder) scenes by police photographers in the early twentieth century. Carrabine also cited Arthur (Weegee) Fellig's infamous for-profit ‘documentary’ images.

These three examples operate around the principle that narrative documentary photography is fallible, with Sultan and Mandel rendering this fallibility visible, Sante engaging with its aesthetic and Fellig exploiting it for profit. Suggesting a different direction for a visual criminology, Carrabine compared aesthetic with ‘anti-aesthetic’ photography. He cited, amongst others, Martha Rosler's photographs of the Bowery. Rosler’s photographs show us how 'documentary' images are fallible, that those evidentiary inferences and conclusions we could draw from them are based on the photographic-realist idea that 'the camera never lies'. She concentrates on an evidentiary idea of absence, for example, empty, discarded alcohol bottles. These bottles, which have no owner, attest to the unknowable Bowery deviant—rather than concluding some or other person drank from these bottles, as spectators we ask 'who is the person who may have drank from this bottle?', asking these kinds of questions we are charged with more agency in interrogating and thus asking about the person who may have been here, thus, interrupting the more common ‘documentary’ narratives of poverty that capture and further perpetuate a degraded human subject. Carrabine concluded on this premise. The idea of absence, he said, ‘disrupts routine regimes between representation’. Confronted with absence, we might be liberated from the passive consumption of a ‘documentary’ narrative so that we might actively engage with what we could know, rather than what we think we should know.

Young’s presentation also attended to cultivating agency in spectatorship. Her example was Kyle Magee's whitewashing an advertisement in a Melbourne bus shelter outside the County Court of Victoria in Melbourne. Magee was detained, charged with and subsequently convicted in the Magistrate's Court of 'Possessing anything with intent to destroy or damage property' and 'Destroying or damaging property' under ss199 and 197 of the Victorian Crimes Act 1958. The Supreme Court of Victoria upheld these charges.

Magee considered his actions and the image to constitute a political protest against advertising, but the courts rejected this as his legal defence and, Young said, denied him of his agency. Young offered a reading of the judgement in both County and Supreme Court cases to expose a 'semantic struggle' between the limits of the textual and interpretive frameworks of normative legal reasoning and the myriad meanings of images – Young showed how law externalised the image in order to take this or that normative position. Young, following Gilles Deleuze, thinks that concentrating on the ‘affective dimension’ of our encounter with the image may liberate us from committing to any one normative subject position and that doing so is the first step in developing a visual criminology. Returning the spectator to her first encounter with Magee's image shifts the spectator from having to make a judgement about the image to a moment of possibility so we no longer ask ‘what is there?’ and instead ‘what could be there?’ and ‘why might it not be there?.


There are infinitely varied representations of social reality. As criminologists with different epistemological world-views we may be familiar with, for example, statistics, narrative interviews, testimony, images and published research more generally. Yet, as representations, they offer only a contingent picture of some or other reality. Carrabine and Young suggest a prior, tentative, move before bringing images, a further kind of representation, into criminology. They both caution us to take a step back from theorizing about images so as to open up a 'space' in which to consider the particularities of meaning construction behind images, that is, before normative judgement. We no longer interpret what should be there, but address images with a prior sense of caution, asking what is there, what is not there, and, therefore, what could be there. The shared call to cultivate agency in spectatorship I have outlined here is not a normative argument, but, more importantly, an exploration into the ethical climate of an increasingly image-saturated world. This kind of work is not just relevant for criminologists who use images in a self-consciously visual criminology, but for criminology in general; for any author /editor/publisher who re-presents an image on the cover of their monograph, homepage, blog, faculty, or departmental website.