Guest post by Kate West, DPhil candidate at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. Kate’s doctoral research explores narratives ascribed to late-nineteenth century prisoner portraits (mug shots) in the work of Cesare Lombroso’s ‘Criminal Woman,’ Perth Prison Scotland, and the Salpêtrière hospital France. It argues that these narratives derive from the politics of race, gender, and class rather than the photographs themselves. This post is the second instalment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Visual Methodologies.  

My post constitutes part of Border Criminologies’ ongoing efforts to integrate the visual as method into its epistemological discourse. As a doctoral student working on criminology’s historical and continued neglect of the image, it seems important to ask a question about why we may wish to do so. This ‘why’ question raises a fundamental epistemological question: how does the image ‘work’? Or, more explicitly, how do the image’s politics justify its employment as method (in the case of James Bridle’s work as image-maker) or interpretation (in the case of Sarah Turnbull as spectator [links to follow)?

As criminologists, the most disciplinary-relevant (and perhaps obvious) answer to this question can be found in the origins of the discipline. Cesare Lombroso features in the field most often in terms of historical temporality (the late-nineteenth century) or as an epistemological counterpoint. Less frequently explored is the relationship between Lombroso’s methodological use of images and his positivist epistemology. Approaching his work in this way reveals criminology’s counter-intuitively intimate relationship to the visual, but within an epistemology with which Border Criminologies should take issue.

Lombroso understood the image to work in terms of the realist paradigm. In this view, pictures, and particularly photographs, were analogous to their material or real-world referents. Underpinning this perspective was the implicit assumption that the image, somehow, ‘speaks for itself.’

Why, as border (visual) criminologists, should we care today about Lombroso’s use of images? Aren’t they ancient history? The answer is, quite simply, ‘no.’ In the criminal court, for example, the image occupies a privileged position of evidential objectivity. Nikolas Rose shows how the criminal court, with its emphasis on moral responsibility and blameworthiness for actions, has historically been resistant to questions surrounding identity or character, questions which become relevant at sentencing and only as mitigating factors. However, character-based defences based on apparent biological predispositions have been accepted in the court where images, rather than oral testimony alone, have been used as evidence. Likewise, Katherine Bieber has explored how apparently objective images are used in and by actors of the criminal court to construct and prosecute character, namely ‘race,’ and perpetuate colonialist racial politics in Australia. The point here is that images are inherently political. Contrary to the premise on which they are employed in the criminal court, the image doesn’t operate without the discourses of race, geography, and nation-state that are in fact inscribed onto it. Lombroso’s images, incidentally, were used similarly as evidence of the apparent immutability of race, gender, and class in the ideological (albeit constitutional) unification and making of the Italian nation-state.

A different version of the same discussion can be found in the idea of ‘affective and communicative power of visualisations’ that Sarah speaks about in her post published yesterday. Perhaps as criminologists unfamiliar with the visual, we might locate this affect in the materiality of the image as distinct from text, a medium with which we are more familiar. Roland Barthes infamously speaks of the image’s punctum (its power to stir or provoke a personal (emotional) reaction) as compared with another side of a duality, studium (the image’s power to frame or situate a larger cultural or interpretive discourse). Yet, in either case, affect doesn’t exist qua image, but rather comes from the discourses within which we, as makers and viewers, situate it. The image as political is evidenced by the existence of a huge literature written by prominent intellectuals who work across the disciplinary divides of biopolitcs, art history, and visual culture, such as Judith Butler, Susan Sontag, Georg Didi-Huberman, and Jacques Rancière.

Acknowledging the inherently political character of the image means that as (border) criminologists we must make, view, and/or engage with images in a way that’s sensitive to their inherent political dimension. This is why Border Criminologies researchers employ visual methodologies that contravene the realist paradigm to integrate image-making (method) and image-interpretation (theory) into an epistemology that understands the image as political.

Sarah’s interpretation of James’ installation reflects on these epistemological and methodological ideas particularly well. The self-consciously cultivated artificiality of James’ (moving) images parodies the ideological operation of detention—to identify, segregate, and in effect create a risky population. As a viewer, Sarah’s experience seems to capture this quality; the immersion in this ‘digital walkthrough’ contravenes her experience of being in detention centres as a researcher. Yet, whilst Sarah’s own experience of detention appears to allow her to identify the politics of James’ images, what about those of us, she quite rightly notes, who have never experienced detention, or another carceral environment, in any meaningful way? How can we prevent the walkthrough from becoming tantamount to voyeurism? The distribution of cameras to detainees [link to follow] attends to this ethical predicament well, as does the Immigration Detention Archive [link to follow]. These visual methodologies privilege the lived experience of detention, breathing life into images that would otherwise be passively consumed by those of us who can only ever be ‘outsiders.’ Being brought into this dialogue as spectators, we can bear witness to the politics or affect that James’ images were designed to stimulate.

Image from Edmund Clarke's 'Control Order House' (Source: Here Press)
Sarah’s final observation about the absence of detainees from James’ work―which James himself also notes [link to follow]―raises important questions about the ethics of spectatorship. Practical ethical concerns, as Sarah mentions, oscillate around ideas about privacy. However, from the perspective of the ethics of spectatorship or looking, to ‘document’ (in the modernist or twentieth century ‘fly-on-the-wall’ sense) treads too thinly the line of objectification and voyeurism. What is the middle ground for criminologists who, for some reason, may wish to include detainees or prisoners when making images for their research? Long ago, sociologist Howard Becker suggested that social science should learn from the critique of the documentary photography tradition. The absence of detainees in James’ work speaks to awareness in that tradition which is exemplified in Sophie Ristelhueber’s photography of the Westbank and Afredo Jarr’s photography of the Rwandan genocide. Similarly, Edmund Clarke, the first photographer to gain access to Guantánamo and a control order house (a carceral environment for those suspected of terrorist-related activity), doesn’t feature detainees in his work, which arguably constitutes a more critical comment on detention, highlighting the artificiality and politics of the detention environment.

To close, I’d like to reflect on the image and criminology more generally. Being asked to write for Border Criminologies highlights the politics of canonicity. At the beginning of my doctorate, the term ‘visual criminology’ provided a ‘hook’ or opening for my work. Now, as I approach the end of that project, it makes little sense to speak of a ‘visual criminology’ in the way it has been spoken about by, for example, cultural criminologists. As in anthropology and sociology, the visual is a method and in that sense my doctorate is not ‘visual’ because mug shots or portraits feature throughout the work, but because of my engagement with the epistemological assumptions behind the visual method of late-nineteenth century positivist criminology.

Themed Week on Visual Methodologies:

  • MondayVisualising Immigration Detention and Deportation [link to follow] (S. Turnbull) 
  • Tuesday: The Politics of the Image (K. West)
  • Wednesday: Using Images in Research on Immigration Detention: Tensions and Challenges [link to follow] (F. Esposito)
  • ThursdayRETURNED: Portraits of People Deported to Brava, Cape Verde [link link to follow] (A. Wise)
  • Friday: Photo-elicitation in Prison: Visual Methods and Visual Culture [link to follow]  (L. Gariglio)

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

West, K. (2015) The Politics of the Image. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/the-politics-of-the-image/ (Accessed [date]).