Book review: “Images and Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives,” Nancy Lipkin Stein and Alison Dundes Renteln (eds.)

By Josh Pemberton[1]


In 2015, a three year-old Syrian refugee named Alan Kurdi drowned after the boat carrying him and his family from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos sank. Turkish photographer Nilüfer Demir’s images of Alan’s lifeless body, lying facedown on the Turkish beach, were widely published, and generated public shock and outrage. The pictures came to be seen as personifying the Syrian refugee crisis and illustrating the inadequacy of the international response to it.[2]


What role do images—including not only photographs, but also video clips, films, memes and other forms of online media—play in human rights education, advocacy, and activism? To what ethical obligations ought the maker of such images be subject? And who controls the dissemination of human rights images? These are the sorts of questions explored in the diverse collection of essays that make up Images and Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives.


The volume, which is edited by Nancy Lipkin Stein (a visual anthropologist at Florida Atlantic University) and Alison Dundes Renteln (a Professor of Political Science at the University of Southern California), begins with a brief introductory chapter by the editors. Here they provide the background necessary for exploring the sorts of questions posed above, giving a high-level overview of key international human rights institutions and introducing some of the “risks” associated with producing and disseminating human rights images.


This idea of risk and the image-maker’s ethical obligations is explored in more depth in several of the essays that follow. In Chapter Two, Renteln and Michel Angela Martinez examine the human right to photograph. They make normative arguments for the existence of such a right, consider the ways in which public interests might inveigh against it, and explore ethical issues associated with image capture, such as fraudulent use of images, self-aggrandizement, and the reinforcing of stereotypes. Martinez and Renteln also sketch out, through mini case studies, the impact that such human rights-related images can have on popular understandings and discourse. In doing so, they consider a number of iconic human rights images—such as Demir’s photographs of Alan Kurdi, Kevin Carter’s photograph of a vulture watching an emaciated child in Sudan, and George Holliday’s video of LAPD officers beating Rodney King. Here, as in the rest of the book, the images discussed by authors are reproduced generously (in the case of videos, through stills), both in black and white and in color.


Later chapters explore the image-maker’s ethical obligations, and the choices they face in portraying subjects, in more discrete contexts. In Chapter Three, Anastasia Klupchak critiques human rights films’ common reliance on either “shock-effect” footage or “positive imagery and resilience narratives” in portraying disability, and argues the merits of “observational cinema” as an alternative practice. In Chapter Six, Fabiene Gama examines the ways in which Bangladeshi photographers adopt Western-style practices and techniques to empower themselves to shape global perceptions of Bangladesh and Islam. In Chapter Seven, Aubrey P. Graham considers the historical lineage of humanitarian photography in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, identifying tropes that have characterized such photography for more than a century and considering how Congolese self-representation might disrupt and redefine the photographic portrayal of Congolese people. In Chapter Eight, Katherine Wahlberg examines the portrayal of sex trafficking in film. Wahlberg analyzes the way in which film-makers’ choices as to visual images, aesthetics, and narrative all construct the audience’s perception of those who are trafficked and the industry as a whole. These chapters explore related subject matter and complement each other neatly. Taken together, they provide an interesting exploration of the sorts of questions posed by the editors in the first chapter.


Other chapters address separate, though related, themes. Two focus on authors’ personal experiences as image-makers: in Chapter Five, Rina Sherman reflects on the experience of working as a visual ethnographer in Namibia, and in Chapter Nine, Andra Opalinski, Susan Dyess and Stein recount the process of making images of people experiencing homelessness in southeastern Florida. In Chapter Four, Sarah Brown gives an introduction on how the brain perceives the visual.


The volume manages to be both historically grounded—for instance, in Martinez and Renteln’s tour of iconic human rights images, and in Graham’s discussion of the evolution across time of humanitarian images in the Congo—and admirably contemporary. There is much analysis of recent films and photography and, in Chapter Ten, consideration of very current forms of imagery: memes and internet mashups. Here, Tek Thompson analyzes such images as contemporary folklore, and considers the ways in which laws protecting copyright and national heritage threaten to impede their production and dissemination. Finally, in Chapter Eleven, Stein analyzes the ways in which memes, social media posts, and more traditional sorts of imagery are shaping public perception of transgender issues.


While the quality of much of the analysis offered and the importance of the issues raised in the volume cannot be faulted, persistent minor errors are somewhat distracting. Certain chapters contain spelling and formatting mistakes and repeated sentences that, along with the disproportionate (stretched) reproduction of some images, give the impression of a lack of consistent professional editing. Although these mistakes are not major, their presence—in a text that is premised on the importance of the medium to conveying a message—is unfortunate. Another such oversight is the omission of biographical information of chapter authors. Given that the volume presents such diverse and interesting perspectives, readers might well value having some sense of a particular authors’ background or area of expertise, even if conveyed only through a job title or brief statement of the author’s background.


Overall, though, this should not be seen as detracting from the valuable contribution that the volume makes toward understanding different facets of what is an important and understudied issue. The editors open Chapter One with this statement: “Images, moving and still, are clearly powerful, and yet we do not know exactly how they affect us and our world.”[3] Images and Human Rights does not seek to conclusively answer this, nor to present the sort of empirical study about how the visual can influence rights advocacy that the editors acknowledge is missing.[4] But this is not the point of the volume. Images and Human Rights presents analysis and discussion that broadens the perspective and awareness of the reader. It suggests promising lines of future inquiry and asks the sorts of questions that all those interested in communication of human rights — be they an activist, scholar, educator, or practitioner —will benefit from reflecting upon.


[1]   Josh Pemberton is a student at Harvard Law School (LL.M. ’17) and a graduate of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand (LLB(Hons) / BA). Prior to coming to Harvard, Josh clerked in the Supreme Court of New Zealand, and worked for Justice Base in Yangon, Myanmar. At Harvard, he was a student clinician in the International Human Rights Clinic and an Articles Editor for the Harvard Human Rights Journal. From September 2017, he will work as the Presidential Fellow in Law at the Open Society Foundations.

[2]   See Michel Angel Martinez & Alison Dundes Reteln The Human Right to Photograph, in Images and Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives 11, 34 (Nancy Lipkin Stein & Alison Dundes Renteln eds., 2017).

[3]  Nancy Lipkin Stein & Alison Dundes Renteln, Images and Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives, in Images and Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives 1, 1 (Nancy Lipkin Stein & Alison Dundes Renteln eds., 2017).

[4]   Id.

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