Philip Gourevitch opens his book on the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, with a quote from Plato:
Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was coming up from the Peiraeus, close to the outer side of the north wall, when he saw some dead bodies lying near the executioner, and he felt a desire to look at them, and at the same time felt disgust at the thought, and tried to turn aside. For some time he fought with himself and put his hand over his eyes, but in the end the desire got the better of him, and opening his eyes wide with his fingers he ran forward to the bodies, saying, ‘There you are, curse you, have your fill of the lovely spectacle.
Many people desire to make sense of violence, a pursuit that often leads to engagement with violent imagery. However, as Susan Sontag captures in Regarding the Pain of Others, depictions of violence cannot ever replicate its lived experience. While graphic imagery or descriptions of violence may serve to aid in an understanding of violence, they also hold vast destructive potential. In contrast to assumed education benefits, they can also dehumanize or inhibit agency. As such, we are responsible for critically reflecting upon how we engage with this content in our roles as both researchers and educators.
To do so, we must acknowledge that representations of violence are not equivalent across populations. Historically, a hierarchy of suffering has prioritized the humanity of some groups above others. Within this hierarchy, violence against the Black community, Indigenous groups, people of color, and throughout the Global South is devalued in contrast to White populations in the Global North.
In “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights,” Makau Mutua reflects upon the limiting and, at times, the dehumanizing impact of human rights institutions and their depictions of violence. Commonly held understandings of human rights violations, especially against marginalized communities, can have the effect of reducing individuals to their experience of atrocity. This constructs violence as something that happens elsewhere, to other people, and it characterizes those who experience violence into limiting, unagentic categories. They may be hapless and helpless victims, incapable of caring for themselves, or barbaric, savage perpetrators. When people think of genocide and mass atrocity, for example, they often think of Africans before thinking about Native Americans. This violence is colloquially understood as being perpetrated by Africans against Africans, rather than by the early settlers of what we now call America against Native communities.
Crucially, our role as scholars can have the impact of reinforcing these destructive identities, especially when we share graphic imagery that supports these archetypes. Sharing depictions of violence can have the effect of shrinking a nameless individual’s identity to the experience of violence, as a “victim” or a “perpetrator,” an “other.” Closely intertwined with the capacity of violent imagery to reduce the subject’s humanity is an ethical conversation of agency.
There is a profound intimacy in the experience of violence and death, and more often than not, those depicted have no voice in how their experience is captured. This, of course, is especially true for the dead – they cannot support or counter the narratives that depictions of their passing are utilized to further. Images of victims strip agency from those whose death and pain we voyeuristically consume from the comfort of our air-conditioned rooms.
We need to ask ourselves why we need images of death and suffering to make the point that humanity can be destructive, and further, what it means when we share such depictions in our classrooms. We need to think about the secondary traumatization process we put students through when they see bodies that look like theirs displayed for all and sundry to consume in the name of education.
If the constant images of police violence against Black people in this country has not stopped the killing of Black people, why do we think that showing images of victims of genocide and mass atrocity will prevent these events from happening? These images are destructive in how they perform the function of allowing their consumers, subconsciously, to think of certain groups as already socially dead. They run the risk of presenting Black and Brown bodies as disposable. Just another body. Seeing as most images of victims of genocide and mass atrocity often look like the second author’s body, this is not merely an intellectual debate. It is position viscerally felt by him even as he studies the representation of genocide and mass atrocity in Africa.
Brooke Chambers is a Ph.D. Candidate in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Sociology. Her research interests include collective memory, cultural trauma, political sociology, genocide, mass violence, and the sociology of law. Her dissertation work examines generational trauma in contemporary Rwanda, with a focus on the commemorative process. She is the 2018-2019 Badzin Fellow in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and a 2019-2020 Fulbright Research Fellow.
j. Siguru Wahutu is an Assistant Professor at NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard. His primary scholarship examines media constructions of knowledge in Africa, with a particular focus on genocide and mass atrocities. His research interests include the effects of ethnicity and culture on the media representations of human rights violations, global and transnational news flows, postcolonial land claims, and the political economy of international media, with a regional emphasis on postcolonial Africa. His primary book project offers an extensive account of media coverage of Darfur between 2003 and 2008 within various African states (including Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt). When not studying media and genocide, he works on issues surrounding data privacy, and media manipulation in African countries. This secondary research stream is the subject of his second book project currently under contract with MIT Press. Wahutu’s research has appeared in African Journalism Studies, African Affairs, Global Media and Communication, Media and Communication, Media, Culture, and Society, and Sociological Forum.