Accepted Paper:

Visualizing the unseen scars and silent narratives of torture  


Janus Oomen (University of Amsterdam)

Paper short abstract:

This contribution attempts a medical anthropological discussion on an ‘Atlas of Torture’. Can the discourse connect the visual with the narratives of victims? The content and photography, under discussion, is collected since 1996 in a ‘scarring from torture’ project by the Medical Examination Group of Amnesty International, Amsterdam.

Paper long abstract:

How telling are scars? Can photographs support the evidence of torture? In the restrictive socio-political context of Fortress Europe, Amnesty International (Netherlands) organized since 1978 volunteering medical clinicians to give affidavits, when asylum was denied to victims by the immigration authority and extradition threatened. One salient stipulation of Dutch procedure is that medical expertise is to play no role. The looking away from torture can only be explained by denial. This paper reviews cooperation between Human Rights and Medical NGO's, collecting photographs for an 'Atlas'. The rationale of client oriented photography is described and the visualization as a tool of documentation for medical purposes is analyzed.

Scars are body memory and signifiers of pain and suffering, impossible to understand without context. The medical clinical practice meets difficulties in representing victims confronting asylum procedures. Some tortures leave physical evidence, but many do not, and all victims have significant mental and emotional scars, they want to forget and avoid speaking about. In procuring safety and healing, however, their story is all they have. We want an appropriate medical setting linking visual ethnography with a medical and anthropological approach. What perspectives can be applied towards the narrative; what photograph is a striking one; how does one get to the point; how should the photograph be made and described with the assistance of victims? The social and ethical aspect of retraumatization and misrepresentation is important. Why are pictures interesting in relation to torture? How are they politicized?

Panel W032
Processing trauma in (post-)conflict societies