Early in 2015 the image of a Jordanian pilot burned alive in a cage somewhere in the Syrian desert by ISIS jihadis appalled the world. Its circulation in digital media coincided with the showing of film footage of the liberation of the Nazi death camps that had previously been censored in the mainstream. At the same time, images of the face of Raif Badawi, condemned by a judge in Saudi Arabia to 1000 lashes for criticising clerics on his blog, circulated in protests in the street and online urging action against his punishment. Later in 2015 photographs of Alan Kurdi, the three year old child washed up dead on a Greek beach, raised a storm of mediated outrage about the fate of Syrian refugees. This intense proliferation of images of human suffering on a variety of screens compels us to reflect anew on the old question of ‘what to do’ when confronted with the vulnerability of distant others.
Representations, narratives, genres of mediation and their modes of dissemination and reception online and offline are all being transformed by the rise of digital media. At the heart of this transformation, however, lies the old problematic of the human. Suspended as it always is between the promise of the mimetic image to accurately capture the humanity of a sufferer and the failure of the visual to fully humanize the suffering body, the ‘digital human’ continues to resist representation. What it is to be human and how humanity is represented remains one of the most morally urgent and politically significant questions in the era of digital communication.
In this Symposium, we aim to raise discussion of the problematic of the human and images of the suffering body in two key contexts: humanitarianism and human rights. Whether in mainstream news reports, in materials produced by NGOs, or in photographs and film footage that ‘bear witness’ produced by journalists, human rights monitors or people who happen to be on the spot, images linked to humanitarian and human rights claims are increasingly central in public life. We explore these claims through three panel discussions, each addressing a specific proposal to public action: memorialisation, with its concomitant demand to remember; mobilization, making the demand to protest; and testimonialization, making the demand to narrate so as to invite judgment. What difference does digitalisation make to how we remember, mourn, narrate and act upon human suffering in public? And how can we understand the ethics and politics of witnessing the suffering human in the digital era?
Dates & times
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