Images, Ethics, Action: Online Video, Human Rights and Civic Activism in Syria

Salt Galata

March 16, 2015 19.30

A discussion with Eliot Higgins, Thomas Keenan and Yassin al-Haj Saleh

We live in a world where images of violence and atrocity regularly flow from battlefields and streets in conflict, and circulate with increasing velocity. Whether they are intended to terrorize, shock, expose wrongdoing, “raise awareness,” or simply show what’s happening — and whether they are made by journalists, fighters, activists, citizens, or even satellites and surveillance cameras — they appear before us and ask us to respond. They raise not only political questions, but ethical ones as well. They are ultimately addressed to public opinion, and their fate is uncertain. Do they end in action, engagement, avoidance, prejudice, empathy, revulsion, memory or oblivion?

There are more and more images of conflict today, and more and more debates about them. From Gaza to Raqqa, Ferguson to Paris, Donetsk to Baga, the conflicts over images, “telegenic” or “savage,” escalate. But there are other things to do with them besides just watching, as important as that is. Images can function as clues, hints, instruments, as witnesses and evidence of events and actions. In the hands, not just of experts, but of ordinary people, they can be assembled and interpreted and analyzed in ways that allow different stories and unexpected outcomes to emerge. And that open new horizons of actions for those otherwise left out of legal, policy, and decision-making forums. Alongside the classical media modes, a new field of open-source investigative journalism, civil counter-forensics or “forensis,” is opening. This discussion will focus on images from the war in Syria, and will explore a range of things to do with them.

The discussion will be held in English.

Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. He is an investigative blogger and publishes the work of an international alliance of fellow citizen investigators using freely available online information. He has helped inaugurate “open-source” investigations by trawling through vast amounts of data uploaded constantly on to the web and social media sites. His inquiries have revealed extraordinary findings and exposed the shortcomings of intelligence services and the professional news media.

Thomas Keenan teaches media, literature, and human rights at Bard College, in New York. He founded Bard’s Human Rights Project, which introduced the first undergraduate degree program in human rights in the United States and encourages a critical, experimental, and sober exploration of the limits and possibilities of the concept. His work investigates the media of conflict and the visual rhetoric of evidence, especially in the emerging arena of civic counter-forensics. He is the author of Fables of Responsibility (1997), and with Eyal Weizman, Mengele’s Skull (2012). He is co-editor with Tirdad Zolghadr, of The Human Snapshot (2013) and, with Suhail Malik and Tirdad Zolghadr, of The Flood of Rights (2015).

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer and a former political prisoner. He is a recipient of the Prince Claus Award for 2012. After spending 21 months hiding out in Damascus and other locations in Syria, for fear of also being abducted by either the government or by radical Islamist militants, Al-Haj Saleh fled to Turkey. He currently lives in Istanbul. Al-Haj Saleh’s recent writings on the state of Syria can be found here.