Envisioning Justice: Mediating the Question of Rights in American Visual Culture

(with Astrid Böger, University of Hamburg)


In this project, we explore the manifold ways in which American visual culture intersects with the notoriously elusive concept of justice and related aspects such as morality, law, and legality, among others. Documentary photography – as different as Jacob Riis’ images of immigrants in New York slums at the end of the 19th century and James Nachtwey’s contemporary war photography, to give but two well-known examples – is one important area in which the connection between visual culture and justice becomes pertinent, as one of the overarching aims of this type of socially-committed photography is to attract attention to conditions that are deemed unacceptable and therefore in need of change. However, visual culture and justice also intersect in more fictional approaches to questions of justice and the law as they become apparent in, for instance, graphic novels as different as Persepolis (2000-2003) or The Justice League (1960-2015), TV law series such as Suits (2011- onwards), superhero movies including, for example, The Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012), or courtroom dramas à la Michael Clayton (2007). How do such diverse representations depict, expose and negotiate questions of (in)justice across different media? How do they respond to and comment on current crises including terrorism, war, economic and environmental disasters as well as their nefarious consequences for everyone affected by them? Precisely because pictures are often stronger than words, they tend to have a powerful and far-reaching impact, as the example of the scandalous Abu Ghraib images indicates. Yet, visualization and dissemination alone do not guarantee that justice is actually served. As the public, political, and legal responses to that scandal have also shown, images and their meaning inevitably depend on framing, contextualization, and interpretation. Hence, the intersection of words and images is another aspect to be considered. Finally, we are also interested how justice appears (literally) in the world wide web and how self-made images by average users, for instance, uploaded in real-time and potentially accessible world-wide, might impact questions of justice as they reveal events based on eyewitness accounts that might otherwise have been censored, suppressed, and therefore gone unnoticed.


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