Publication Details

Mackie, V. (2014). Putting a face to a name: visualising human rights. Cultural Studies Review, 20 (1), 213-236.

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Cultural Studies Review Journal


In this essay, I focus on a text which attempts to deal with human rights issues in an accessible media format, Kälin, Müller and Wyttenbach’s book, The Face of Human Rights. I am interested in this text as an attempt to translate between different modes of communicating about human rights, which we might call the academic mode, the bureaucratic mode, the activist mode and the popular media mode. There are significant gaps between the academic debates on human rights, the actual language and protocols of the bodies devoted to ensuring the achievement of basic human rights, the language of activists, and the ways in which these issues are discussed in the media. These issues are compounded in a transnational frame where people must find ways of communicating across differences of language and culture. These problems of communicating across difference are inherent to the contemporary machinery of the international human rights system, where global institutions of governance are implicated in the claims of individuals who are located in diverse national contexts. Several commentators have noted the importance of narrative in human rights advocacy, while others have explored the role of art. I am interested in analysing narrative and representational strategies, from a consciousness that texts work not only through vocabulary and propositional content, but also through discursive positioning. It is necessary to look at the structure of texts, the contents of texts, and the narrative strategies and discursive frameworks which inform them. Similar points can be made about photography, which must be analysed in terms of the specific representational possibilities of visual culture.

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