Creating the “other” in research, photography, justice

September 30, 2009 by Howard Zehr

“Much of qualitative research,” writes researcher Michelle Fine, “has reproduced…a colonizing discourse of the ‘Other.'”  So also, she might have added, has photography.  So also has justice. (See “Working the Hyphens:  Reinventing Self and Other in Qualitative Research” in Denzin & Lincoln eds., Handbook of Qualitative Research, 1st Ed.)

Nils Christie has spoken of this otherness as social distance.  Only by creating social distance from the other can we cause harm.  Only when the one being punished is socially distant, the other, can we punish so severely. Only by “othering” the “enemy” can we make war.

Othering reduces empathy.  Two important books – Mistakes Were Made (But not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson and The Lucifier Effect by Philip Zimbardo –  help us understand not only how “offenders” protect themselves from empathy but how all of us do in certain circumstances.

A central goal of restorative justice is reduce social distance and “othering,” thus increasing possibilities for empathy, accountability and dialogue.

But my primary focus in this entry is on research and photography.  Fine argues that qualitative research has been especially problematic because it has so often taken the story of others and made it our own, reshaped through our eyes.  Consequently, many marginalized people have critiqued social science as a tool of domination. Researchers, in other words, have been complicit in the colonizing construction and distancing of the other.  Fine quotes bell hooks:

“Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story.  And then I will tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own.  Re-writing you, I write myself anew.  I am still author, authority.  I am still the colonizer, the speak subject, and you are now at the center of my talk.”

Photography too has a long history of othering.  Notice how often we as photographers focus on the different, the bizarre.  When I worked internationally as a photojournalist I became acutely aware of this temptation not only in others but in myself. As a photographer in prison settings, I am especially aware of this tendency in prison photography.  By focusing on the strange and exotic, we help the viewer to see prisoners as other than us.  The photo exhibit and the book Police Pictures: The Photograph as Evidence documents the way photographs of those who are accused have served to create a sense of the other, of them and us, throughout American history.  My intention in projects like Doing Life:  Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences and Transcending:  Reflections of Victims of Crime has been to portray people as themselves, without stereotypic clues to their identities, so that we can engage in real dialogs about real people and situations.

I recently came across several pieces I had written on this subject years ago.  In an article in Mennonite Central Committee’s Intercom journal (Jan. 93) I wrote:

“Most of the time we are drawn to photograph people different from us, our social class or culture.  In doing so, our temptation is to emphasize this “otherness,” the exotic, mysterious and unknown.  But there are grave dangers here.  Photography critic Max Kozloff warns, ‘When otherness looks deprived, it invokes sympathy but also confirms prejudices; when it appears lordly, it stimulates envy but also confirms prejudices.” (The Privileged Eye:  Essays on Photography)

Perhaps the highest calling of photography is not to highlight otherness but to find human connections to that which seems foreign and unfathomable.  Photography can build community when it reminds us what we have in common with others.’

So also, one might add, with research.  And so also with justice.