Human rights through the lens: Locating the dignity of the vulnerable subjects of atrocity photographs



The history of human rights is often mapped as a linear progression composed of declarations, conventions and philosophical accords (Sliwinski, 2011). This narrative misses the contribution of images in general, and photographs of battered bodies in particular, to the struggle for the realization of universal rights. Indeed, the employment of photographs of suffering by activists, non-governmental organizations and news outlets has played a central role in defining the parameters of the definition of dignity, as well as who counts amongst the dignified.

The major attraction of photography stems from its supposed proximity to truth. That is, the belief that its mechanical nature means that it is an objective reproduction of the real (Goldberg, 1991: 7). The hope is that confronting the public with images of unquestionable suffering will result in a collective recognition of injustice and an expansion of the purviews of dignity. To locate the human rights project within this framework is to anchor it firmly in the vulnerability of human beings.

To this end, following the cultural theorist Susan Sontag (2003), some scholars have argued that atrocity photographs haunt the spectator (Linfield, 2010). That is, they imbue him with the knowledge of the terrible things that people are capable of doing to each other. The philosopher Judith Butler extends this approach in an essay on the images of the torture at Abu Ghraib. She argues that photographs reflect particular racializing and civilizing norms. These determine whether a photograph is taken, its composition and if the life it depicts is considered to be human and thus “grievable” (Butler, 2009: 67, 70). According to Butler, the figure of the “human” has its inverse in the figure of the “sub-human”. Images that depict the latter’s suffering have the capacity to alter the normatively human (ibid.: 64). However, they can only do so when they “haunt” the spectator; for to be haunted is to register that there has been a loss and thus a life (ibid.: 97-98).

Another strand of thought builds on the work of the cultural theorist Ariella Azoulay. It takes as its starting point the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s contention that, contrary to claims of universality and inalienability, human rights provisions are dependent on the acquisition of citizenship (1968). This being the case, they argue that photographs of violence are a tool through which the injuries of those without recourse to rights can be publically registered as such (Azoulay, 2008; Baker, 2015; Sliwinski, 2011).

And yet despite this belief in photography’s ability to make us see the “other” as human, scholars also often argue that they contribute to the violence they depict in some way. For Sontag, the camera is akin to a “predatory weapon”, which shoots and aims. Elsewhere, she contends that photographs “intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and at the furthest reach of metaphor, assassinate” (1977, 8-10). Whereas for Azoulay, atrocity images “show the photographed persons in situations so harsh” that they “humiliate”, “rape” or “cause injury” to them (2008: 355, 493).

Similarly, Butler has argued that it is not the act of looking or being photographed that is violent per se, rather she is worried about becoming implicated in the torture of Iraqi prisoners. If the point of taking the images was to humiliate inmates at Abu Ghraib by subjecting them to acts that are supposedly considered taboo in the Middle East, then to reveal the identities of the victims would be to acquiesce in their torture. This leads Butler to suggest the names and faces of the victims should be concealed in order to spare them further humiliation (2009: 95).

The historian Carolyn J. Dean has noted that this tendency to equate the act of looking at images of suffering with violence alludes to an anxiety provoked by the sight of vulnerable bodies (2015). In what follows, I trace the roots of this abovementioned anxiety to seminal philosophical literature – from Immanuel Kant to Jeremy Waldron to Natasha Nussbaum – that has played a key part in defining the meaning of the “inherent dignity” of “the human family” enshrined in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


A boy asking for food at Balukhali refugee camp for Rohingya people (photo: Kevin Frayer)

I demonstrate that what draws their disparate theories together is the equation of dignity with stoicism or active resistance. This manifests primarily in two forms, either as denoting the intrinsic worth and equality of human beings on the basis of some capacity such as autonomy and/or morality (moral view), or as a status earned by virtue of holding some high-ranking position (social view). In so doing, I draw out implications for the relationship between human rights and images of suffering.


Moral Conception of Dignity

Existing philosophical literature often conceptualises human dignity as denoting the intrinsic worth and equality of all human beings on the basis of some capacity, such as reason, autonomy and/or morality. This strand of thought is evident in both the Judeo-Christian tradition and Western political philosophy. Proponents of the Judeo-Christian position argue that human beings have dignity, because they are made in the image of God (summarised by Sensen, 2011; Rosen, 2012; Moyn, 2013). This differentiates them from lower animals, because it means that they are capable of conducting themselves through reason as opposed to being driven by bodily desires alone (Sensen, 2011: 78). Similarly, philosophers have located the dignity of man in the human capacity for reason and morality, which affords him an unmatched level of autonomy (Kant, 1991; Kateb, 2011).

The relationship between human rights and dignity is theorised in two main ways. Some present dignity as a justification for granting inalienable rights (Kant, 1991; Griffin, 2000; Donnelly, 1985). That is, they argue that by virtue of our uniqueness we are all entitled to equal rights provisions. Others have suggested that rights are a means through which to achieve the capabilities necessary for a life of dignity (Nussbaum, 2000: 76-101; Gilabert, 2015). Central amongst these are the faculties of choice, selection and reason.

The overemphasis on autonomy within the abovementioned literature on the moral component of dignity means that the “human” of human rights is conceptualised as a liberal individual. That is, an independent subject capable of making his own decisions and following these through as long as they do not curtail anyone else’s rights (Brown, 2004: 454). This approach underestimates the extent to which our ability to achieve our goals is dependent on the support we receive from caring person(s) and state institutions such as schools and hospitals.

A further consequence of the investment in autonomy is that theorists overstate the role that rational deliberation plays in the decisions that people make. Take as just one example, Kant’s contention that the capacity for reason is not only the basis of human dignity, but also means that people embody the moral law.  According to Kant, the moral law is encapsulated in a single principle known as the categorical imperative from which all moral duties and obligations derive (Rachels, 1986: 1). This stipulates: “act so you treat humanity whether in your person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only”. If, as he seems to suggest, the only actions that have moral value are those arrived at through the categorical imperative, then this means that even during times of great adversity we have to be able to quell our natural inclinations in favour of reason (Rosen 2012,34-35). To conceive of man in this way is to render him an emotionless loner, lacking in friends, family ties and sexual desires.

The capabilities approach as theorised by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum goes beyond the liberal view in so far as it is premised on a recognition of the fact that human beings are needy and must be supported if they are to develop their inherent faculties (Freeman, 2002: 66). Moreover, it stipulates that rights must provide for far more than the minimum necessary for a life of agency. This is because, in addition to reason and choice, Nussbuam’s list of essential faculties includes things like the ability to laugh, enjoy recreational activities and form attachments with people outside of ourselves. Despite this, since she argues that in order for a life to be fully human there has to be at least the possibility of exercising all the capacities on her list, she excludes those incapable of reason from the purviews of humanity (Kittay, 2005: 109).

Social Conception of Dignity

The second major way that dignity has been theorized in existing literature is in terms of a status, earned by virtue of holding some high-ranking position (Waldron, 2009; Cancik, 2002). This might be bestowed through the inheritance of a certain title, and/or denote distinction in a particular post. Philosophers have linked this conception of dignity to human rights by arguing that the current rights regime represents an extension of the privileges traditionally preserved for high status individuals to all members of society (Waldron, 2009; Whitman, 2005). Moreover, this is often cited as obliging individuals to behave virtuously during times of great adversity. Such conduct is frequently described as taking one of two forms. The first stipulates that people ought to actively resist any attempts to take away their rights or self-respect (Kant, 1991; Margalit, 2011; Waldron, 2010). The second describes honourable comportment in terms of a capacity to maintain self-control when experiencing considerable physical or emotional pain (Rosen, 2012; Kolnai, 1976; Neal, 2013).

A key limitation of the social approach is that, much like the moral view, it renders the dignified subject invulnerable. This is evident in Fredrick Schiller’s discussion on the dignity of the Greek imitation sculpture “Laocoön”, which depicts the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons being attacked by sea serpents, as punishment from the Gods for warning the Greeks about the dangers of the wooden horse. Key to Schiller’s analysis is the dignity with which Laocoön endures his suffering. He admires the way that while it is apparent from the contortions of the priest’s muscles that he is in pain, he does not let this distort either his face or posture (Rosen, 2012: 32).

The persistence of Schiller’s conception of dignity is evident in more recent work by the political theorists Aurel Kolnai and Avisahi Margalit. While the former compares the temperament of the dignified to steel (1976: 253), the latter argues that it consists of “fighting like a lioness when someone tries to take away her self-respect” (2011: 51). To conceive of dignified comportment in this way is to produce an indestructible subject capable of enduring any calamity.


The equation of dignity with strength means that scholars are so engrossed in the question of whether looking at photographs of vulnerable bodies is good or bad, that they fail to interrogate the significance of such images to victims themselves. Reasoning of this nature is evident in both Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others and Butler’s Frames of War.

Dead Troops Talk

“Dead Troops Talk” © Jeff Wall.

Referring to a reconstructed photograph by the artist Jeff Wall, entitled Dead Troops Talk, Sontag asserts: “one can fantasize that the soldiers might turn and talk to us. But no one is looking out of the picture […]. The dead are supremely uninterested in the living: in those who took their lives; in witnesses – and in us” (2003: 125). Similarly, Butler writes in relation to the Abu Ghraib photographs: “the names and faces aren’t ours to know and affirming this cognitive limit is affirming the humanity that has escaped the visual control of the photograph. To expose the victims further would be to reiterate the crime” (2009: 95). Both claims foreclose the possibility that victims may in fact be interested in us; that is, that they might want their photographs taken or identities revealed, as well as the thought that they do not perceive this to be undignified.


Furthermore, the notion that vulnerability and dignity might in fact be deemed compatible is completely overlooked. What if there is not some level of vulnerability beyond which individuals lose their humanity? And instead, the human capacity to be extremely vulnerable is re-conceptualized as one of the traits that we value most about ourselves and others? In Vulnerability and Dignity, the philosopher George W. Harris does just that.  He argues that Kant fails to take into consideration that if one source of our vulnerability to integral stress is the care we afford to ourselves and others, then it would seem that we ascribe intrinsic worth to our non-rational tendencies. Harris defines “integral stress” as situations in which deeply held commitments central to a person’s integrity are seriously threatened. This being the case, our susceptibility to breakdowns can be seen to be “dignity conferring in itself” (1997: 65).

A conception of dignity that, like Harris’, has its basis in vulnerability is important for human rights, because of the emphasis it places on empathetic relations. Conceiving of all people as dependent beings embedded in relations of care means that the visibly vulnerable can no longer be viewed as pitiable. It works to challenge the normalisation of autonomy and rationality, which posit the powerless as abnormal and blames them for not doing more to help themselves (Kittay, 2002: 268). In turn, it works to remove the shame that the spectator feels when looking at images of unredeemable suffering, and ensures that victims are not denied recognition solely on this basis.

I want to end by affirming the need for further work that both scrutinizes and counters the pervasive tendency to interpret dignity in adversity in terms of resistance or stoicism. Locating the dignity of the vulnerable in the intrinsic value we attribute to our caring relations with others is just one way of doing this. However, it remains to be seen how such a theory can attain cultural currency given the persistence of the cult of autonomy within Western political philosophy in general, and photographic criticism in particular.

Meet the author

Taif Alkhudary holds a first-class BA in History of Art from UCL and was awarded a distinction from the LSE for her Human Rights MSc. She is currently a legal trainee at the Alkarama Foundation, focusing on issues of enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial killings in the MENA region. She tweets @ALKTaif.

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