Sandra Ristovska on Seeing Human Rights

Sep 1, 2021

Much of our daily lives is spent in the visual and virtual realm right now. Telehealth appointments, online teaching, Zoom court trials, and a heartbreaking deluge of photojournalism highlight just how central visuality is to our world.

We navigate that visuality with our particular bodily differences of race, gender, disability, and class, revealing the unevenness of that visual realm and the deep ethical and political issues it raises.

In episode 140 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews filmmaker and media studies scholar Sandra Ristovska, who has spent her career investigating the complex ethical, political, and legal relationship between imagery and human rights.

Drawing on her recent book Seeing Human Rights, Sandra explains the role of video evidence in simultaneously exposing and reproducing injustice, especially when such imagery circulates across national borders, social media platforms, and satellite feeds.

Cathy and Sandra talk about the uneasy relationship that courts have always had to visual evidence and the often life-and-death stakes of critical visual interpretation.

Finally, they close out the conversation with where we see the role of the visual going in the future and what it means to turn the act of seeing each other into a practice of human rights.

In this episode

  • The role of visual evidence in documenting human rights violations
  • Why courts struggle with critical visual interpretation
  • How social media and commercial satellites are changing what counts as visual evidence
  • Turning ways of seeing into human rights practices
Cover of Seeing Human Rights, with close up on camera lens

About Sandra Ristovska

Sandra Ristovska is an assistant professor of media studies in the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Her research examines the interplay between images and human rights, particularly in institutional and legal contexts internationally and nationally. 

Her scholarship is informed by her documentary filmmaking and premised on the understanding that without systematic guidance and applications for treating images as evidence, human rights and civil liberties are differentially recognized. 

Sandra is the author of Seeing Human Rights: Video Activism as a Proxy Profession (MIT Press, 2021) and co-editor of Visual Imagery and Human Rights Practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), as well as a recipient of the 2021 Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society Fellowship.  

Teaching and learning resources


Click to read the transcript

[00:00:00] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:00:23] So much of our daily lives is spent in the visual and virtual realm right now. Telehealth appointments, online teaching, Zoom court trials, and a heartbreaking deluge of photojournalism all highlight just how central visuality is to our world.

[00:00:38] We navigate that visual reality with our particular bodily differences of race, of gender, of disability, and of class. Those differences and that navigation reveal the unevenness of the visual realm as well as the deep ethical and political issues it raises.

[00:00:55] My guest on the show today is filmmaker and media studies scholar Sandra Ristovska, who has spent her career investigating the complex ethical, political, and legal relationship between imagery and human rights.

[00:01:09] Drawing on her recent book Seeing Human Rights, Sandra explains the role of visual evidence in simultaneously exposing and reproducing injustice, especially when such imagery circulates across national borders, social media platforms. And satellite feats.

[00:01:26] We talk about the uneasy relationship that courts have always had visual evidence and the often life-and-death stakes of critical visual interpretation.

[00:01:35] Finally, we close out our conversation with where we see the role of the visual going in the future and what it means to turn the act of seeing each other into a practice of human rights.

[00:01:47] Thank you so much for being with us today, Sandra.

[00:01:49] Sandra Ristovska: Thank you so much for inviting me.

[00:01:51] Cathy Hannabach: So in the spirit of the season, this month at Ideas on Fire, we are focusing on the process of harvest, or gathering and putting to use all of the resources that we’ve cultivated over time, often in collaboration with others.

[00:02:06] How are you currently harvesting or maybe adapting the lessons that you’ve learned over the course of the pandemic for a new semester?

[00:02:14] Sandra Ristovska: The pandemic, I really think, only amplified some of the things we knew before, but wasn’t necessarily always thinking about it or we’re not always fully aware of it.

[00:02:27] I think during the pandemic, we realized how much we need our supportive network of friends, of colleagues, of mentors. We know that we intuitively rely on those networks, I think. I know I certainly do. But I didn’t realize, I guess the extent to which I rely on that for inspiration, for energy, for advice, to get going.

[00:02:49] And that’s something I carry with me and I try to really emphasize even as part of my mentorship. To emphasize to the graduate students that I interact with whether through class or whether because I serve on a committee, to tell them how important it is to cultivate those networks, that they really matter.

[00:03:05] Personal relationships matter. You know, in good and bad times, that’s where we turn to.

[00:03:12] I know sometimes writing articles and books may seem like a very isolated process, but the truth is it’s a very much communal experience. We turn to a lot of different people for support, for guidance. And I think that’s something I’m carrying with me and talk about it in a much more intentional way than I did before.

[00:03:34] Cathy Hannabach: I know one big project that you’re so-called harvesting right now is a really amazing new book: Seeing Human Rights: Video Activism as a Proxy Profession. What was your journey into studying human rights media production?

[00:03:49] Sandra Ristovska: My interest in images and human rights finds its roots of inspiration in my upbringing in the former Yugoslavia. I grew up watching the images of the 1990s wars that led to the breakup of my state. I was actually born in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. And then I came of age or I went to school, etc., as somebody who lived in a different state.

[00:04:14] Yugoslavia at that point in time was just something that existed in a museum in Belgrade and in the stories and memories of people.

[00:04:22] But growing up, there was a state channel and there was a specific window for the cartoons. And my generation experienced something very interesting because the evening cartoons were often interrupted with breaking news from the region.

[00:04:38] As a child, you don’t have the framework, the capacity, to really understand what’s going on, but what you’re seeing is images of something wrong going on and the reaction on your parents’ faces, the emotional toll that you’re seeing and how your parents are concerned, how they’re talking. And you’re really trying to kind of grapple and understand that.

[00:05:01] Later on, I actually decided to be a filmmaker and the motivation for that was because I felt there were so many untold stories about the Balkans. A lot of the filmmakers in the region who were going to the big festivals or who were being nominated for Academy Awards were telling important stories. But all of those stories were about the war and were painting a particular, almost self-Orientalist picture of the region.

[00:05:31] So I was interested in how do we tell different stories and what I realized was the working of political economy. To get funding to make films, I was expected to tell an “authentic Balkans story,” but the authentic Balkans story was defined by somebody else.

[00:05:48] So my voice as “filmmaker” was limited to what others thought I could authentically talk about, write about, make movies about it.

[00:05:58] I think that all comes together when I actually decided to pursue a PhD. And trying to find a framework for thinking and talking about these issues in a much more systematic way.

[00:06:12] And that’s really how Seeing Human Rights was conceived. It’s a deeply personal book in many ways, even though I was never kind of thinking about it while working on it. I knew why I was interested in the topic, but I didn’t realize how much of my personal experiences would find ways onto the pages somehow.

[00:06:33] So there is a whole chapter on what it means to give voice and what it means to claim voice. And it was really only when I went back to write the acknowledgements and when I thanked my friends in Macedonia, when I thanked my friends in Serbia, with whom I’ve talked about these questions a lot, is when I realized, this is something very personally felt that I was able to theorize and think about in very different contexts, not just the former Yugoslavia.

[00:07:02] Going into the project, I never thought that, for example, I would look into the use of video as evidence at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Now, some of those images were precisely the images I watched on the news when I was growing up that eventually found their way into the courtroom in The Hague.

[00:07:22] As I was researching this topic and as I was understanding how much the changes in the law were relevant to the dynamics that I was discussing in the context of video activism is when it became so relevant, I would have to look at this court and why I would have to look at this court. It was the first one to really turn to video in a systematic way and to turn to videos shot by activists, by bystanders, by civilians.

[00:07:52] We tend to think about activist bystander footage in the context of the 2000s, in the context of Arab Spring, etc. But actually, VHS cameras were popular back in the 1990s and the Yugoslavian wars had a lot of amateur footage.

[00:08:09] This court really turned to that footage and, in a lot of ways, set precedents for how other tribunals and later the International Criminal Court would think about questions of video evidence and questions about visual evidence.

[00:08:24] So that was kind of the unplanned, not intentional way of going back full circle to the images I grew up with in ways that I didn’t expect to when I started the project.

[00:08:38] Cathy Hannabach: We loved working on this book, by the way, it’s completely fascinating. I think incredibly needed and offers a very unique insight into how film operates in this context.

[00:08:50] You’re looking at human rights video production in the context of what you note is a visual turn in the law, or the way that international and national legal frameworks have to grapple with what visual evidence means, how it changes, who can produce it, who can modify it, who can believe it.

[00:09:10] I’d love to hear where you see this legal visual turn going in the future, especially considering how much has changed since the 1990s contexts, where you entered into this project.

[00:09:21] Sandra Ristovska: Yes, we absolutely live in an era where images are ubiquitous and court systems are turning to them out of necessity. So let me answer this in two ways, first the international and then the national context.

[00:09:34] In the international context, the use of images in human rights trials goes back to the military tribunal in Nuremberg. But then it was seen as something excess. We have all the other stuff, but let us also show you the films so that you see for yourselves. I mean, I’m paraphrasing, but those are some of the famous words that were articulated in the courtroom.

[00:09:57] But then in the 1960s, we have the Eichmann trial. For the film crew to be able to use cameras in the courtroom, they actually had to hide the cameras physically so nobody could see them because everybody was concerned it would be a distraction.

[00:10:13] In France, the Papon trial, when one of the attorneys asked to introduce photographs as evidence, the judge said “this trial is so complicated as it is, we don’t need to add anything else that would distract us from the pursuit of justice.”

[00:10:28] And that tension—the law knowing images are important but being hesitant to incorporate images—is longstanding. But that gets turned on its head really starting in the 1990s and much more today.

[00:10:42] Right now, some of the human rights contexts are accessible to us through mostly not professional sources, whether they’re bystanders on the ground, activists on the ground, etc.

[00:10:56] Think about Syria, which is really the game changer in this international criminal context, as opposed to Yugoslavia where UN investigators could enter the country as the war was unfolding and do investigative work there. The international presence was largely not there in Syria. Journalists couldn’t go there. The international community, human rights organizations, United Nations, etc., they couldn’t go there. Similar with Myanmar.

[00:11:24] At the same time, you have an avalanche of videos on social media that are pointing people to things that are happening, potential human rights violations.

[00:11:36] And then we have the rise of commercial satellites. Again, comparison, in the 1990s, in the Yugoslavia tribunal, this is where satellite images were also a game changer.

[00:11:47] But for the prosecutors to be able to introduce satellite as evidence, they had to go to the embassy of the country who controlled the satellites, mostly the United States, and they couldn’t get permission for all of the satellites. So they couldn’t introduce all those images as evidence.

[00:12:04] Right now with commercial satellites, it’s not that it’s fully free and available to everybody, but for a relatively small subscriptions, etc., human rights investigators can get a lot of different satellite images. So with online videos, online photographs, with satellite images, they have different sources of information that out of necessity, they really have to turn to when they don’t have such a large on-the-ground presence.

[00:12:33] Now they’re trying to obviously corroborate that too with witness testimony on the ground. The gold standard today in the international criminal context is online footage with satellite imagery with on-the-ground testimony to really try to figure it out what’s happening.

[00:12:50] And so this is where courts are saying, “Okay, we really need to think rigorously how to use this type of evidence in ways that maybe we would have dismissed it in the past because we would have thought it’s unreliable. We would have thought it’s biased. We would have thought it doesn’t have the professional quality or the professional authority.

[00:13:12] The challenge with that is that these are institutions that have traditionally dismissed the importance of the visual in their work. And so they’re now oftentimes playing catch up.

[00:13:27] In Seeing Human Rights, some of the people I’ve interviewed who work for human rights organizations, they told me that their concern is that these video materials are so important that they could be too convincing. So judges don’t know how to question the underlying content and so the assumption is, okay, this is all transparent. We don’t have to figure out how to interpret this in court. It’s all done.

[00:13:54] Or two that they’re so concerned about bias, about the potential to mislead, about the potential for prejudicial effects that judges will say, “No, no, no. We’re not going to count this material as evidence at all. So we’ll just dismiss it.”

[00:14:10] Neither of those is good. We do want some kind of standard, some kind of guidelines that ensure rigorous visual interpretation. And we want some kind of baseline so that images don’t oscillate between full transparency and full opacity.

[00:14:26] Images are just an opportunity to ask very important questions, just like with other types of evidence. And if we assume that images say all or images say nothing at all, we are missing an important opportunity to engage with evidence.

[00:14:41] So that’s where I think the international criminal court context is going, figuring out what are the standards and what are the necessary guidelines, so that the weighing of the evidence doesn’t happen in judges’ heads but actually there are some kind of processes and some kind of writing and opinions about what counts as evidence in the visual context and why.

[00:15:06] In the US, it is actually very similar.

[00:15:10] So when I was working on the international content, things were happening: the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the increasing visibility of video activism around inhumane immigration practices in the US.

[00:15:26] Video, the visual was all there. But what was interesting to me is how there was often a rhetoric of certainty and almost what psychologists call a rhetoric of naive realism when introducing the video as evidence, even though precedent has told us that when we talk about seeing, we’re vulnerable to the same markers of power and difference that shape our existence as humans.

[00:15:55] So with Rodney King, the prosecutor said, “Just believe your eyes. You know, who are you going to believe your own eyes or what the police officers are saying?” Well, the jury ended up believing the police officers.

[00:16:09] Fast forward 30 years later, we seeing some of the similar discussions. So I think the US legal system also needs to figure out safeguards that will ensure rigorous visual interpretation in court. My worry is that when the law assumes that seeing is intuitive —we see it and we know what it is—then courts risk replicating and indeed justifying a wider politics of exclusion based on markers of identity and belonging.

[00:16:39] Cathy Hannabach: I find this really fascinating in general but also in particular to the last year and a half that our entire work lives, family lives, personal lives have been upended due the pandemic. We’re all living in visual mediums right now. One could argue that we have been for a long time. We spend our days on Zoom. All of our work practices have shifted online, many of them at least.

[00:17:02] So in many ways, folks who maybe have not thought about the visual are suddenly having to grapple with deeply visual daily practices. I’m curious how you see this visual emphasis shifting with this turn to online work, whether in the realm of human rights or just in the realm of our daily lives.

[00:17:21] Sandra Ristovska: In the legal context, which I’ve been observing for obvious reasons, Zoom trials have some kind of precedent with discussions of cameras in court and introduce whole sorts of questions that we haven’t quite resolved—not in the US, not in the international realm.

[00:17:40] Let me give one example. I believe it was a case in Michigan that involved domestic violence. One of attorneys had to stop and raise the concern that he thought the victim was it in the same house with the man accused of domestic violence. The accused denied that. Luckily, they sent police officers who could intervene, arrest the person, etc.

[00:18:11] It showed how vulnerable we could be when things go fully virtual and we’re so focused on the technicalities of getting things running that some hugely important questions and concerns may not be at the forefront of our thinking. Well, they have to be absolutely front and central.

[00:18:33] We also know about different camera biases. A lot of research has been done about videotaped confessions, about police body cameras, and how camera perspective, angle framing, etc., could bias people.

[00:18:46] So when you move to Zoom, which is fully visual but the framing is all close-ups in tiny windows on a screen, these questions get amplified. And yet we somehow think, “Oh well, the visual gives us more engagement. We’re all here. We can see each other and it’s going to be fine.” So those are, I guess, some of the concerns that I’m thinking out loud that I would say are important then in the legal context.

[00:19:16] And in our daily lives, you know, Zoom is visual but oftentimes I don’t want to ask my students, “Okay, it’s required that you turn on your camera,” for obvious reasons. Not all the students have the ability to do so, and not everybody has the best internet connection, the best circumstances, etc.

[00:19:37] It’s not my job to police their behaviors. But also, even in big classes, I’ve noticed that only a handful of students are comfortable to turn on the camera. It’s difficult to try to create and nurture a community in the online world, but it’s not all bad because sometimes you get positive feedback or engagement in the chat function.

[00:19:58] So even though students don’t have the camera, they’re present in the chat function. And so you’re engaging with that kind of multimodality where students type, talk, some of them are onscreen. That created an interesting opportunity.

[00:20:12] Although I would say Zoom fatigue is real. At the beginning, we were far more comfortable with Zoom and we’ll have Zoom happy hours. We’ll have Zoom meetings. And I think at certain point we were all it’s too much staring at a screen is too much. It demands different kinds of energy from us than what we do in real life.

[00:20:32] Cathy Hannabach: So this brings me to the question that I love closing out our conversations with on this show, which really gets at that big why behind all of this amazing work that you do. And that’s that version of a better world that you’re working toward when you write your books, when you teach your classes, when you put together studies that think deeply about these questions of visuality and ethics. So what’s the world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

[00:21:01] Sandra Ristovska: I was too young when I experienced some of the extreme consequences of what it means when society fails to respect and nurture and promote the markers of difference that make us human. Visual practices have been abused in this way to emphasize divides between us and them.

[00:21:22] So I guess the impulse that I have to study justice and human rights is really figuring out what kind of modes of seeing we need so that we find a way to look and engage with each other as a form of human rights practice itself.

[00:21:41] You know, I like Levinas though it’s oftentimes hard to operationalize what he’s saying, but for him coming out of the post-World War II Holocaust context, we can’t just engage with each other as humans through institutional frameworks, legal settings, etc., because you know, we know where that can go.

[00:22:02] We have to find a way to look at each other as purely humans, where we are allowed to be interrupted by each other, by the face of the other, and really be moved in our exposure to difference. How to turn that into a very humanistic practice where we value, we appreciate, we nurture, the differences because that’s really what we need to respect human dignity in the world. It’s what I hope and it’s what motivates me.

[00:22:36] It’s very difficult to reflect on this in the midst of the news about what’s happening in Afghanistan, where we’re repeating similar mistakes in terms of news coverage, how the news talks about people in the region, what kind of stories and voices get amplified, what stories and voices are being spoken for.

[00:22:57] We need to break that. We really need to empower people to tell their own stories, and we really need to find a way to engage in a mode of seeing that is respectful of the differences of what makes us human.

[00:23:14] Cathy Hannabach: Thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all the ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

[00:23:19] Sandra Ristovska: Thank you so much.

[00:23:21] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by me, Cathy Hannabach. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at, where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.

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