The Universal Language of Photography? UNESCO’s Human Rights Exhibition in Australia, 1951

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Atrocity imagery has become the principal modern media strategy of arousing empathy and arguing for rights- indeed, recent histories of human rights argue that rights are only visible in their violation. Yet at the end of WWII a new apparatus of human rights was articulated through a range of visual narratives that sought to create a sense of a universal humanity and a shared global culture through picturing ‘unity in diversity’. Roland Barthes’ famous attack on the 1955 photographic exhibition The Family of Man set the tone for subsequent criticism of attempts to visualize universalism - also integral to the 1948 United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights and its culture committee’s work – on the grounds of effacing difference and asserting a Western-centric model of liberalism and identity. Instead of this humanist visual genre, the global visual culture that developed after WWII was characterized by the growing value attached to atrocity imagery. The Australian reception of UNESCO’s travelling 1951 Human Rights Exhibition reveals how the new apparatus of human rights was applied to local circumstances, as local adherents argued in broad terms for rights and the individual, expressed through photos of both the human family and ‘struggle’. However the glaring absence at the heart of the Australian exhibition was the nation’s Indigenous people: echoing UNESCO’s Western-centric narrative of progress and humanity, new domestic visions of assimilation required Aboriginal people to surrender culture and identity, ultimately blending into mainstream society. Ironically, the official assimilation booklets produced by the Australian government, structured by a visual conversion narrative, became the target of attack by the nation’s Soviet critics criticizing Australia’s betrayal of its Indigenous people. Key ‘blind spots’ such as the symmetry between the program of universality espoused by the UNESCO and Australian assimilation reveal how the idealising framework human rights has been profoundly shaped by state agendas and cultural predispositions.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe State of Human Rights
Subtitle of host publicationHistorical Genealogies, Political Controversies, and Cultural Imaginaries
EditorsKerstin Schmidt, Jasmin Falk
Place of PublicationHeidelberg
PublisherUniversitätsverlag Winter GmbH Heidelberg
Number of pages13
ISBN (Print)978-3-8253-4700-0
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Publication series

NamePublications of the Bavarian American Academy


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