Belong through the Lens: A Summary of NYU’s Visual Citizenship Conference.

Visual Citizenship: Belonging through the Lens of Human Rights and Humanitarian Action
April 23-24, 2010
Photo Exhibit runs through July 17, 2010
Lee Douglas, NYU Anthropology
On April 23 and 24, 2010, New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge hosted an interdisciplinary conference that sought to explore, and in part define, what it means to be a visual citizen. Bringing together a wide range of visual culture theorists, including WJT Mitchell, Ariella Azoulay, and Robert Hariman, as well as image-makers like photographer and documentarian Susan Meiselas and image-focused human rights and humanitarian organizations such as WITNESS and Doctors Without Borders, the conference aimed to rethink citizenship outside of a juridical-only framework and to consider the roles that the visual plays in establishing, delimiting, and claiming space. The conference also served as a platform for lively debates about the ways in which diverse kinds of digital visual media are being employed to carve out new political communities and to redefine concepts of national and local belonging. The underlying theoretical and on-the-ground practical motor behind the conference’s multiple panels and accompanying photographic exhibition, curated by Fred Ritchin, was the idea that it is not only what we see, but how we see that deserves close attention when discussing ways in which to reposition the citizen as a more inclusive category and to expand definitions of community belonging.
The conference’s kick-off began with the inauguration of the Visual Citizenship photography exhibit, in which students, alumni, and faculty of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Photography Department displayed work, documenting issues such as race and memorialization (Jessica Ingram), individual will during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Joseph Rodriguez), homelessness (Robert Sukrachand), and self-identification in Brazil’s urban slums (Peter Lucas). In describing “the histories of photography” as often being about “the subject who is rendered paradoxically invisible… [and] denied agency,” curator Fred Ritchin underscored the importance of innovative kinds of photographic initiatives through which unseen subjects emerge and through which image-makers and image-viewers reject a voyeuristic gaze and embrace a more dialogic form of engaged belonging, mutual recognition, and visual citizenry. An important element within the conference’s overall design, this exhibit set a visually engaged tone for the upcoming panels by asking participants to rethink the ways in which they see and look at the world around them.
Keynote speaker, WJT Mitchell, discussed the relationship between migration, the law, and the image. Referring to John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, Mitchell called for a movement beyond the “Veil of Ignorance,” in which migrant non-citizens are made to undergo processes of invisibilization and to, instead, examine the ways in which migration and the legal constructs around it can make the migrant body visible. Advocating for a notion of citizen that situates the individual as a person who has standing before the law – a person who can be seen as a citizen – Mitchell underscored the intense work that must be done in order to make those who have been made invisible under the eyes of jurisdiction, visible. Touching upon the ways in which bodies move across borders and through space, Mitchell provided a provocative discussion of how bodies are made anonymous and erased not only by one’s refusal to look but also by the written codes of governance. Mitchell’s ideas incited a lively question and answer session in which audience members asked the question, how do images of the “illegal” citizen also construct the image of the “legal” citizen? And, perhaps more importantly, how can visual documentary practices, such as film and photography, render visible those who are legally undocumented and hidden by the veil of ignorance? Recent debates regarding national immigration reform and Arizona’s passing of its new immigration law highlight both the theoretical pertinence and the practical importance of this kind of visual work.
Ariella Azoulay and Robert Hariman provided provocative analyses and approaches to the ways in which images both make present and erase different kinds of citizens in the panel entitled, “Visual Citizenship and the Role of Visual Imagery.” Exploring Hannah Arendt’s discussion of autocratic regimes in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Azoulay explored the physical and conceptual layout of the Museum of Dark Regimes, an imaginary institution and visual archive, in which the violence experienced under despotic regimes can be documented, filed, and exhibited. Citing the museum’s ability to simultaneously produce meaning and make things public, Azoulay approached this imaginary museum as a space in which spectators could create new narratives and understandings from the images they would see. Calling for a new kind of museum design and experience, Azoulay suggested that images and the institutionalization of dominant histories must be read “against the grain” if we are to embrace a more inclusive body politic. In a different tone but with a similar objective, Hariman defined the visual citizen as a “person of compassionate seeing.” Describing the ways in which the circulation of images through the mass media and their movement in and out of one’s line of vision create a kind of “stranger relationality,” Hariman suggests that the photographic experience – the encounter between image-viewers and the lives and suffering of others – is often a phenomenological one. For Hariman, it is the structures of feeling embedded in the act of seeing that allows for the possibility of recognizing, rather than gawking at, the injustices that others face. The eye must, therefore, be unlocked and approached as both a sensory and an affective tool. By situating compassion as the emotional, affective equivalent of justice, Hariman rejects the idea that photography promotes fatigue and passivity. Instead, he posits, photography should act, make visible the ways in which individuals dwell together, and translate politics into a way of life.
Throughout the conference’s many panels and discussions, presenters and audience members struggled to define and describe acts of seeing that would produce neither apathy nor pity, but rather mutual recognition and action. Much of the debates and discussions fostered by the conference were very much in line with material approaches to visual media, especially that of the photographic image. Photographs were repeatedly described as things that are not only looked at but also objects that are capable of constituting dialectical relationships. Pushing against the idea that visual media simply represents a past moment in time, panelists and discussants focused on the ways in which these mediums create and recreate meaning in the here and now. While the conference did pay close attention to image-makers involved in the creation and circulation of visual media that make present those often deemed invisible, the two-day event presented little analysis of how those who have been the object of the distant gaze are also themselves embracing and creating new image strategies that make them and their communities visible. It is, no doubt, important to examine the ways in which those who visually represent can read images of the past against the grain and put forth new, more dialogic image practices. However, it is also important to examine the ways in which those who have been denied an active position within the visual citizenry are also creating innovative visual practices that not only combat compassion fatigue but also carve out new arenas of visual belonging. In the end, to leave out this part of the visual citizenship narrative would be to once again limit the range of seeing and being seen and, thus, relegate others to new regimes of invisibility.
For a full list of panelists, discussants, organizers, and exhibitors, please visit:

1 Comment

  1. Can you imagine a world without photographers? Think about it. So much of our social construct is supported through the professional and pro-am photographer tell the stories of what is happening in the world. We take for granted there contribution. what would time or newsweek or the news paper if all we had were words.

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