Why Images? The Role of Visual Media in Protest Movement Research

Dr. Dorna Safaian is an art and media scientist who lectures and researches at the University of Siegen. She is a research assistant on the project “Images of Indignation – Amateur Practices of Visualizing Protest” (University of Siegen/TU Berlin), funded by the German Research Foundation. Safaian studied Art History, Philosophy/Aesthetics, Art Science/Media Theory at the University of Heidelberg and University of Arts and Design Karlsruhe, where she earned her doctorate with a dissertation on the Islamic prohibition of images and the reception of this concept by fundamentalists. Her publications focus is on aesthetics and the linking of politics, religion and image.

In protest movements, visual media perform various functions, such as communicating grievances, attracting public attention, shaping communal emotions, or defining a collective self-description.

Despite the central role of visual media, few substantial analyses tackle their complex role in protest movements. Typically, social movement research concentrates on textual sources; visual material is often treated as mere illustration rather than a source in its own right. “Images of Indignation – Amateur Practices of Visualizing Protest”[1] (University of Siegen/TU Berlin) addresses this research gap. Which media practices and visual discourses are characteristic of protest movements? How is indignation about a postulated grievance visualized? What is the relationship between emotion and image in the context of protest? “Images of Indignation” pursues these questions by examining three German protest movements since the 1970s, including Gay Rights. The following example demonstrates the value of studying visual media while researching this movement.

Pink Triangle: Visual Discourse in the Gay Rights Movement 

In the early 1970s, the first homosexual action groups saw themselves as socialist collectives.[2] The mid-1970s’ introduction of the Pink Triangle as a symbol of the movement marked a shift towards gay identity politics.

Info booklet of the Homosexual Action Westberlin, Nr. 18, Berlin 1978 (CSG Cologne)

Originally, pink triangles were used to mark homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps. The use of the Pink Triangle as a symbol of gay identity originated from a controversy during a demonstration organized by “Homosexual Action Westberlin” (HAW) in 1973. Conflict arose when drag queens from Italy and France joined the demonstration in West Berlin. Some HAW activists rejected the drag queens’ performances because they were concerned about the public reputation of the movement and its socialist goals. In the course of this conflict, known as the “Drag Queens’ Dispute”, the HAW’s “feminist group” declared its solidarity with the drag queens. Members demanded the introduction of the Pink Triangle as a sign of HAW. They argued that wearing the Pink Triangle would make homosexuals recognizable in public, just as the drag queens were recognizable, and would connect their present criminalization to the history of homosexual oppression during the Nazi era.[3] In 1975, the Pink Triangle was officially introduced as the sign of HAW. It soon became the symbol for the entire Gay Rights movement in West Germany.

Adopting the Pink Triangle connected the Gay Rights movement with a history of oppression. Its political demands, such as the abolition of Article 175 of the penal code, which criminalized homosexual acts, were now read against the backdrop of Nazi persecution of homosexuals. This shift highlighted a group-specific historical experience that distinguished it from other left-wing groups. Where previously HAW and other groups oriented themselves towards leftist aesthetics, the movement now became recognizable in public as specifically homosexual. As a result, socialist positions diminished in favor of arguments based on the homosexual lifeworld. The Pink Triangle was not only an identifier of the movement, it introduced a new discourse of political identity.

Such processes of visual discourse are characterized by a complex interplay of actions: The sign is debated within the movement. It is made public and recontextualized on flyers, posters and in other media. The Pink Triangle is then integrated into the everyday life of the activists, e.g. on posters or buttons. It becomes the object of private exchange and, in other forms, of visualizations, texts and oral conversations. To understand how visual media produce social reality one must reconstruct this dynamic, multimodal relationship between production, distribution and medial reflection. Taking visuality in protest movements seriously means understanding visual media as media in motion.

Media Practices – Practices of Emotion

No image or sign used in a social movement can be reduced to what it shows. It has context, it is in use, it is part of action. In short, it is the subject of a media practice of protest. As such, it cannot be separated from emotional practice, if one follows social anthropological emotion research. This line of research assumes that humans do not have emotions, but practice them. Emotion does not precede action, it is action.[4] In protest movements, emotions are explicitly identified and strategically used. The emotional effect of wearing the Pink Triangle, for example, formed new media practices within HAW. Again, it was the feminist group in HAW that led the way. In a 1973 Plenary Paper, it reported on the observation that wearing the Pink Triangle would cause fear for the activists: “In the discussion about the Pink Triangle last year, as a counter-argument, reference was made to the tension one is subjected to when wearing this sign. In our opinion, this argument is important and justified, because the appearance of this sign generates real fear, which can hardly be overcome in some cases”[5]. To overcome this fear, small action groups were proposed and created, according to witnesses.[6] For example, activists wearing the Pink Triangle went in groups of three to ride the subway and distribute flyers to passengers in each carriage.[7] The purpose of this action, apart from the introduction of the Pink Triangle, was “to organize that some of us begin to emancipate ourselves with the help of small groups”[8].

Here, the visual sign was the catalyst for an emotional practice of protest. Wearing a Pink Triangle made the subject the focus of activism. Instead of being visible only in a mass demonstration, an individual in a small group could work on personal change through political action. The Pink Triangle is one example of the pivotal role that visual media can play in the discourse and emotional self-regulation of protest collectives. Including visual media in protest research enhances our understanding of how protests change social meaning by establishing symbolic power.


Diesen Artikel zitieren: Dorna Safaian, “Why Images? The Role of Visual Media in Protest Movement Research “, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 13/10/2019, https://hsl.hypotheses.org/995, (abgerufen am: Datum).


[1]  For further information on the project visit: https://empoerung.phil.uni-siegen.de/
[2]Cf. Henze, Patrick (2019): Schwule Emanzipation und ihre Konflikte. Zur westdeutschen Schwulenbewegung der 1970er Jahre, Berlin: Querverlag, pp. 106ff.  
[3] Gay Museum, Berlin (1973): HAW Feministengruppe (Working Group), Feministenpapier, Berlin, pp. 14ff.
[4] Cf. Scheer, Monique (2012): Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and is that what makes them have a History)? A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotion, in: History and Theory 51, pp. 193-220.
[5] Feministenpapier, op. cit., p. 5.
[6] Research interviews with former HAW activists on 24.9.2018 and 9.1.2019.
[7] Feministenpapier, op. cit., p. 23.
[8] Ibid.


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