Creating the “other” in research, photography, justice

“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.

9 comments on “Creating the “other” in research, photography, justice”

  1. Ted Lewis says:

    Hi Howard, Glad to start connecting to your site. Feel free to post this response.

    Within the setting of restorative justice work, there may be another important area where othering can happen beyond working with clients, and how clients view each other. I have experienced the potential for RJ workers (including myself over the years) to ‘other’ various referral agencies. We want to have them give cases ‘to’ us, because we will do things differently, do things better. The so-called system is other than us.

    But the longer I am in this field, the more I want to do cases ‘with’ the folks in those referring agencies. Real partnership is more than a hand-off, just as real humanitarian partnership is more than a hand-out. It involves ongoing relationship, working with folks to the point where there is a two-way street of giving and taking. This is similar to the reciprocal empathy that can happen between victims and offenders when they truly connect. It’s a two-way connection.

    So as I continue to work with professionals in schools, police departments, corrections, etc., my guiding question is how can I best work with them on a given case. How can they be engaged, take part in aspects of a resolution process, and learn about outcomes? Could an officer serve as a community member in a conference? This all leads to their empowerment, just as we want to empower victims and offenders to be fully engaged.

    And what if we face someone within a traditional agency that is resistant to our work, perhaps an obstacle to our work? The temptation to ‘other’ them can certainly rise up. But if we understand what Thomas Merton meant (within his writings about activist work for peace and justice), we live with the fact that within us, too, are “seeds of destruction.” In our humanity, we share common ground with our enemy, and this honesty allows us to offer bridgework toward them in spite of the walls presented against us. One could start getting theological at this point.

    Thanks, Howard, for your words.

    Ted Lewis
    Executive Director for Barron County Restorative Justice Programs

  2. Henry Hasse says:

    Dr. Zehr,

    I recently discovered and read your Blog on God’s Justice – Punishment or Restoration? posted March 30, 2009. Your conclusion interested me:

    “Biblical justice is shaped by God’s intention for humanity: that we might live in what the Biblical writers call shalom – in right relationship with one another, the creation, the Creator. What matters about wrongdoing is that it harms these right relationships. What justice requires is that conditions for shalom be created or restored.”

    “God is a God of love, a God who never gives up on us. That’s the essence of the biblical story.”

    I say, “Amen!” to that. I would only add that included in that love and patience is God’s forgiveness. In fact, his justice IS his unconditional love and forgiveness. And I think that saying so can empower the restoration we look and hope for!

    I found your post while checking the web for anything on my current interest: God’s Humanitarian Justice. I like your term, “restorative.” My concentration is on God’s unconditional love and forgiveness with no strings attached, no “if you do…then I will…” and certainly no payback at all. It is that pure clarion call that I think has the power to restore relationships. I think we need to forget about a relationship with a sky-god above and beyond our relationship with each other. I think God can be found in a loving horizontal human relationship. I think that once this scandalous (by our “payback” standards) humanitarian justice of God is clearly proclaimed, and finally heard and realized, (DUH! What a Jerk I have been to you when I …!), not only is a behavioral turn-around (repentance) inevitable, but the “wrong-doing” is no longer an issue. (Forgiveness offered – forgiveness received – shalom – welcome home to the party!) To be sure, it may take “seventy times seven” or even more of these pure declarations to finally see and experience the “shalom” or restoration. I do not think there is room in this process for finding fault, blaming, shaming, social distancing, othering, punishing, etc. I think a clear example of “shalom” behavior, unconditional love and forgiveness, in the face of wrong-doing, is the real teacher. Any further comparison of right and wrong behavior is really counter-productive toward changing the issue at hand. Such comparisons can be made as preventive maintenance measures during times totally unrelated to a specific wrong-doing by the “student.”

    You have encouraged me to think more about the wrongdoing of those who seem to despise this call, those who will not turn around and come home to shalom, those who would not think twice about beating, robbing, and even killing us. Right now, all I can say is that the government’s justice is certainly not kind and merciful whether used a deterrent or as punishment. And who will go to declare the scandalous gracious news of God to those being punished in prison?

    I am very thankful for finding your Blog, Dr. Zehr, and the thoughtful comments of your readers are helpful to me as well. Unlike you, I still have not learned the skill of presenting where I am in my journey without sounding judgmental at times. Never-the-less, I risk releasing my Blog to you and your readers for your consideration and comment. I promise to listen and learn if you are willing to teach.

    My Blog:

    Henry Hasse

  3. Jason Ekk says:

    Great post Howard. Keep up the good work and look forward to seeing you next time you are in Fresno.

  4. Thank you all for the comments. I came across this blog when looking for information about “othering” after hearing Bishop Robinson’s speech on the subject on NPR. My wife is an ordained minister and so I get to speak sometimes at her services. I have been taking a few moments here and there to bring up the topic of “othering” and the need to resist such for spiritual growth. These entries have been most educational and encouraging to me as I educate myself on the subject. I am a doctoral psychologist during the day and find teaching the peaceful response is facilitated through connecting not othering: especially in helping parents cope with their children’s transition into adolescence. I found the discourse on photography particularly enlightening regarding my own internal process of distancing myself from others. In our field this is mistakenly called boundaries at times. Although professional distance is appropriate, I have found that often it is being available to a client is much more therapeutic than anything (psychological) I might say. Thank you all again, I hope to continue following this blog.

  5. Sujatha Baliga says:

    Thanks for this post, Howard. In reading it, I’m reminded of an experience growing up in rural Pennsylvania, and the visceral feeling of not belonging, of being “other,” when I saw a cover of a National Geographic with a picture of an Indian girl on my father’s colleague’s coffee table. There was nothing remarkable about her to me, but to the photographer and my father’s colleague, the very fact of her generic difference made her a worthy subject — a word in and of itself that troubles me. I love your statement about your two portrait books, how they’re lacking “stereotypic clues to their identities, so that we can engage in real dialogs about real people and situations.” So often I look at pictures of people from “other” countries and wonder what the photographer’s point was in taking it. It’s nice to hear this same awareness about photos of crime victims, of people serving time.

  6. I wonder what you all might think of our new movement, The International Guild of Visual Peacemakers (IGVP). (this is a temp blog; official site with member galleries and more, coming soon).

    We are working with about 8 professional photographers and photojournalists, some pretty high-profile (Nat’l geo, Newsweek, best-selling authors, etc). In the visual peacemakers community will be hundreds, maybe thousands more who share the convictions of our ethical code and who aspire to make a living as photogs.

    Our idea came from these ideas about the “othering” that creates distance and the current slew of media slander and lack of accountability in images. We’re passionate about a term we use often, “common humanity.” It seems Dr. Zehr would also value that term in visual communication.

    Our vision is:

    “We are visual communicators devoted to peacemaking and breaking down stereotypes by displaying the beauty and dignity of various cultures around the world.”

    Our staff is Americans, most of which are now living in Turkey, getting our own experience of closing the social distance between people like us from the West and this unique Turkish Muslim culture. Once the site is live and our business is officially off the ground, we are planning to form relationships with Turks so that we might partner with them in this restorative process.

    I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Visit the site. Email me:

  7. Well said! Shunning is about survival and its dark side is about power over others.

  8. .. Thank you all for the comments. I came across this blog when looking for information about “othering” after hearing Bishop Robinson’s speech on the subject on NPR. My wife is an ordained minister and so I get to speak sometimes at her services. I have been taking a few moments here and there to bring up the topic of “othering” and the need to resist such for spiritual growth.

    Cabal Online blader Warhammer Online chosen

Comments are closed.