22.11.2015

Witnessing Violence and the Violence of Witnessing by Frank Möller

This chapter critically explores the space of architecture, identified by Ernst van Alphen (2005) as a means with which to trick viewers into engagement with the conditions depicted in a given image. The space of architecture engages vision by creating obstacles, and obstacles create the wish to conquer them. The process of conquering obstacles can be understood as a process of reflection, in the course of which hitherto neutral and passive observers transfigure into what I (2013), following Taylor (2007), have called participant witnesses who self-critically engage with the conditions depicted in a given image. According to van Alphen, however, the space of architecture also makes viewers wish to enter a space that is not their own and that has to be respected as someone else’s. To respect someone else’s space appears to be pertinent especially when it comes to people in pain: intruding upon their space would seem to be an act of violence disregarding a person’s most intimate sphere – and his or her right to intimacy – even if the intention is to empathize with this person and to acknowledge his or her experience (which is arguably part of the subject positions of a participant witness). Being a vicarious witness of human suffering means witnessing suffering indirectly through representation including artistic representation; such acts of witnessing are ambivalent and precarious: witnessing violence can in itself be an act of violence. When exposed to photographic representations of violence utilizing the space of architecture, then, the problematic issues are not only gratification and pleasure, identified in the aestheticization debate as parasitical, unethical and unproductive. The issue is also one of intrusion and violence: the violence of the photographic act is followed by the violence of the act of vicarious witnessing. A discussion of engagements in film and photography with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda serves to substantialize the above.