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.

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Sex Tourism and Legal Change

Christopher Ewing is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Virginia Commonwealth University and in summer 2019 was a visiting scholar at the Dahlem Humanities Center, working with Ulrike Schaper on a project examining overlapping discourses of (male) homo- and heterosexual sex tourism. His past work examines race and male homosexuality in the Federal Republic of Germany since 1945 more broadly and has been published in Sexuality & Culture, The Bulletin of the German Historical Institute, and Sexualities.

Through much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European colonies served as places of refuge for same-sex desiring German men fleeing legal persecution under Paragraph 175 and, after 1935, Paragraph 175a. At the same time, they also allowed German men to pursue their desires for exoticized men and boys – a trend dating back decades and often based on contradictory conceptions of racial difference.

Although West Germany decriminalized sexual acts between men over the age of 21, many same-sex desiring men continued to seek sex abroad, often traveling to places which they thought offered greater sexual freedom than the Federal Republic. In the context of shifting laws de/criminalizing homosexuality, sex work, and tourism, often in the wake of decolonization, many West German men determined their travel on the basis of the enforcement of laws (or second-hand reports thereof). This information could sometimes stand in opposition to racialized desires; however, it nevertheless helped shore up understandings of West Germany as politically and sexually progressive over the course of the 1970s and early 1980s.

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