Visual Victimology: Seeing Suffering in Photographs and Images

The use of visual material, such as images or photographs, is a method of analysis that has been used in criminological studies from the beginning. In fact, the method of collecting photographs and systematic analysis became Lombroso's main way of identifying criminals from observable physical characteristics, by taking photographs, making drawings and diagrams that could show the relationship (Wheeldon, 2022, p. 32). However, images of crime are increasingly widespread, easily reproduced, and fuel narratives that may be harmful to public perception. Images of crime, violence and trauma are a feature and face of contemporary media culture. It is therefore urgent that criminology engages with the forces exerted by the circulation of visual representations in society (Brown & Carrabine, 2017, p. 1).

Visual criminology has grown to occupy a prominent position in the study of media, violence and its relevance. In viewing visual material, the search for shared meaning (shared meaning) It is important to recognize that a representation is necessary (Walklate, 2017, p. 168). A representation can inform the reality of crime and the control of power, which in turn can influence social action and the formulation of criminal policy (Brown & Carrabine, 2017, p. 2). That reality is not only captured by what is shown or who is showing a visual material, but also by connecting the intersecting social contexts (Walklate, 2017, p. 168).  In other words, visual criminology emphasizes the meaning and contextuality of an image.

Representation of Suffering in Pictures

As a method and technique of analysis, visual criminology encourages the need for incorporation with various perspectives and theories in criminology. Victimology, then, became one of the perspectives that helped develop the use of visuals. The presence of visualization can provide a strong articulation of how the concept of victims (victimhood) is constructed, understood, and responded to. Sandra Walklate (2017), in Mediated Suffering in the book Routledge International Handbook of Visual Criminology, outlines the manifestation of a victimological perspective in viewing images of crime victims. In his writing, he conceptualizes three main dimensions of concern in victimology regarding victims (victimhood), namely the dimension of pain (pain), horror (horror), and resilience (resiliency).

These three dimensions are viewed from three different photos of three different events. In the dimension of pain (pain), Walklate used a photograph of a young woman, Helen Fisher, carrying a small bunch of flowers running towards the funeral cortege at Royal Wootton Bassett (Figure 1). In the procession was the body of her 20-year-old cousin, a victim of the war in Afghanistan. This photo shows the pain and anguish experienced by Helen, as a personal grief. However, the context of the event informs us that this is a collective moment, a shared grief of the sacrifices of war. (Walklate, 2017, p. 169)


Figur 1. Helen Fisher, Wootton Bassett Repatriation, 4 July 2010

Source: Matt Cardy/Getty Images.


On the dimension of horror (horror), Walklate uses a photo of Sissel Wilsgaard, an adult woman whose face and arms are covered in blood, staring into the distance (Figur 2). This photo was captured during the attack and bombing by Anders Breivik on July 22, 2011 in Norway. Wilsgaard's condition has shown the physical and psychological suffering and horror of the bombing. Not only that, Breivik as a perpetrator is not typical of terrorist discourse, and comes from a wealthy society famous for its Nobel Peace Prize. This provides confusion and adds to the horror of the events in the photograph (Walklate, 2017, p. 172).


Figur 2. Sissel Wilsgaard, 22 July 2011

Source: Allover Norway/Rex.


Finally, on the resilience dimension, Walklate used a photograph from the demonstrations and marches in Paris in January 2015 following the attack and murder of the cartoonists of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In the image (Figur 3), Walklate highlights the formation of resilience based on shared solidarity. This can be seen from the use of the statement "Not Afraid (No Fear)" which could indicate the main belief at the heart of the French Republic; freedom (liberty), equality (equality), and brotherhood (fraternity). This belief is challenged by the events that preceded it. Thus, the collective response recorded in this image shows a deeply embedded cultural response to what is constructed as collective victimization (Walklate, 2017, p. 173).


Figur 3. Demonstration in Paris, January 11, 2015

Source: European Photopress.


Bearing Witness to Victims' Suffering

Visually observing the suffering of victims and victimization is a responsibility that social scientists and criminologists interested in harm and victimization must shoulder. There is an ethical demand on them to bear witness in highlighting harm, injustice and suffering. Visual analysis is one attempt to give space and voice to silenced issues. In addition, theoretically, this visual analysis not only presents the victim, but also encourages the reshaping, commodification, and packaging of a victim's suffering to the public.

Recalling the development of media and postmodernism, visual analysis will be critical to construct, mediate, and deconstruct the meaning of existing visual representations, which are social, cultural, and political responses to a context of crime, victimization, and victim suffering. Visuals may be horrific or unworthy of mediation, but ignoring the visualization of a phenomenon risks being absent from sight and mind (Walkate, 2017, p.175).



Brown, M., & Carrabine, E. (Eds.). (2017). Routledge International Handbook of Visual Criminology. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Walklate, S. (2017). Mediated Suffering. In M. Brown & E. Carrabine (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Visual Criminology (pp. 166-176). Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Wheeldon, J. (Ed.). (2021). Visual criminology: From history and methods to critique and policy translation. Routledge.