Visual Victimology and Veterans

Vicky Hart (2013) ‘Remembrance Sunday’. Flickr.

[V]isual victimology draws attention to the visualisation of real and/or imagined victims and victimisation. It recognises and acknowledges that representations of victims “entail more than those resultant from crime as encompassed in the criminal law” (Corteen, 2016, p. 268). Visual victimology is an invitation to, and an analytical tool for, the exploration of victims of crime and zemiological victims – that is victims of social harm. Walklate et al. (2014) draw attention to the role of visual victimology in revealing the power of the image in the legitimation and delegitimation of victims. Similarly, visual victimology enables an investigation of the manner in which victims of crime and social harm are “articulated, rearticulated and dearticulated” (Corteen, 2016, p. 268).

Media and Representations

Central to representations, visual and otherwise, is the media, especially news media in all its manifestations. McQuail (2010) rightly discusses the heterogeneity of the media in that there is no one format, purpose or agenda. Rather the media is a global, developing and growing, multi-faceted industry that is complex, contradictory and contested. There are disputes and disagreements regarding intended and received media messages, visual or otherwise.  There is, however, some agreement. For example, theorists such as Cavender (2004), Marsh and Melville (2009) and Jewkes (2015) contend that the media is a significant communicative tool that plays an increasing important function in contemporary societies…It plays an important role in ideological struggles and setting agendas. Cavender (2004, p. 336) comments that the media “help define what we think about, what we see as problems and the solutions we consider”.

Contemporary media inherently relies on the visual. The visual has always been an important and dynamic factor in how individuals make sense of themselves, each other, and society. Thus it is important to understand the manner in which the visual is used today. For example, at the level of visual popular culture what do we see, how do we see it, who is doing the showing and telling, what goes on behind the scenes, and what is it that we are not being shown?

Walklate and Mythen (2008) and others…have highlighted that new media technologies have resulted in a greater public awareness of victims and victimisation. When using the term ‘visual victimology’ I too wanted to acknowledge that “as visual representations of crime have been increasing, so too have images of victims, both fictitious and real” (Corteen, 2016, p. 268). But how informed or deformed is this awareness and what are the consequences for those being visualised and those rendered invisible?

Visual Victimology of War and Veterans

War, conflict, soldiering, and the transition from military life to civic life entails individual and collective human suffering…Höijer (2004) comments on how “pictures of distant victims of civil wars, genocide, massacres and other violences against civil populations” play “a basic role in giving publicity to human suffering” (p. 513)…visual displays of “distant suffering have become part of ordinary citizens’ perceptions of conflicts and crises in the world” (p. 514).

With regard to the coverage of war, BBC war reporter Martin Bell noted the shift in focus from the visualisation of “military aspects, such as strategies and weapons systems” to that of “the people who provoke them, the people who fight them and the people who suffer from them” (cited in Höijer, 2004, pp. 515-16). But what of veterans of legal and illegal wars and conflicts who have imposed suffering and who have and are suffering?

[M]ainstream representation or misrepresentation of veterans is selective containing repeated, continuous tropes and stock images.…As Emily Gee (2016) rightly points out the prevalent visual image of the veteran is that of an elderly (white) male paying their respects at Remembrance Sunday.  Put the word ‘veteran’ into Google Images and the above image is the first that you will see, followed by hundreds like it. Whilst there may be a smirch of truth in these representations they most definitely do not convey the lived material corporeal realities and truths of the majority of contemporary veterans – post Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.

Jonathan Greenwald (2007) ‘Homeless Veteran’. Flickr.

Jay (2016) an ex-military soldier highlights how ex-military personnel have been detrimentally depicted as ‘mad’, ‘bad’ or ‘sad’ and how such a response acts as a barrier to understanding the ontological transition from life as a soldier, and a trained killer, in the collective and contained world of the military, to that of a disconnected world of the individual, private self

For Hannah Wilkinson (2016) the dominant media representation of veterans as veterans… is problematic. This is because it invisiblises and silences an unidentifiable group of ex-military personnel who do not identify as veteran and who may also be experiencing a lack of civilian identity. Ontologically located somewhere in between a military identity and a civic identity such veterans exclude themselves from networks and support aimed at veterans…Wilkinson explores the experiences of ex-military personnel through the theoretical or conceptual lens of ‘combat capital’ – a term coined by her. In doing so she demonstrates how academic research and theorisation together with the voices of returning soldiers and speaking on their behalf can enable a more sophisticated way of understanding ex-military personnel.

Sandra Walklate (2016) discusses how soldiers returning from war have always been problematic due to the experiences of war. Drawing on critical victimology she questions why contemporarily there is the framing of the soldier as deviant and she highlights the difficulties in framing the soldier and veteran soldier as victim

Putting soldiers in the frame as victims…tells a different truth in terms of soldier’s experiences during war and conflict and post war and conflict. Significantly it spotlights the legal, illegal, ‘lawful but awful’ and harmful actions on the part of states and state actors – including against soldiers and veterans. Murray (2016)…sums up this position well when she states “[w]hile framing the soldier as a victim is not without its challenges, it directs a critical criminological and victimological understanding of the effects of war and an all too often obscured culpability” (p. 221).

Jon Martin, 2010. Flickr.

Visual victimology is a conceptual lens that can be employed to challenge the use of imagery and text in truth claims about veterans…This includes recognition and critical contextual analysis of multiple mainstream and marginal imagery, narratives and testimonies of trauma, survival, resilience, and resistance. Critically unpacking the complexities of visual representations of human suffering as a result of war and conflict is necessary in order for public, political and institutional responses to returning soldiers to be better informed and for best polices and practices to be devised. The Reimagining Conflict website and resources is a clear illustration of how veterans, academics, and artists and art, independently and together have a role to play in the deconstruction, reconstruction and reimagining of the veteran and their shared and individual experiences.

Karen Corteen is a Senior Lecturer in Criminal Justice at Liverpool John Moores University, UK. This in an edited excerpt from her article ‘The Veteran, Veteranality and Visual Victimology’ first published by the University’s ‘Reimagining Conflict’ group. You can read the full piece, and further publications in the area, here.


Cavender, R. (2004) ‘Media and crime policy: A reconsideration of David Garland’s ‘The Culture of Control’. Punishment and Society, 6(3): 335-348.

Corteen, K. (2016) ‘Visual victimology’. In K. Corteen, S. Morley, P. Taylor and J. Turner (eds) A companion to crime, harm & victimisation. Bristol: Policy Press, pp. 266-269.

Gee, E. (2016) ‘Reimagine the veteran: Interviews’. Available here.

Höijer, B. (2004) ‘The discourse of global compassion: The audience and the media reporting of human suffering’. Media, Culture and Society, 26(4): 513-531.

Jay (2016) ‘Reimagine the Veteran: Interviews’. Available here.

Jewkes, Y. (2015) Media and crime (3rd edn). London: Sage.

Marsh, I. and Melville, G. (2009) Crime, justice and the media. London: Routledge.

McQuail, D. (2010) McQuail’s mass communication theory (6th ed). London: Sage.

Murray, E. (2016b) ‘Soldiers and victimisation’. In K. Corteen, S. Morley, P. Taylor and J. Turner (eds) A companion to crime, harm & victimisation. Bristol: Policy Press, pp. 266-269.

Walklate, S. (2016) ‘Reimagine the veteran: Interviews’. Available here.

Walklate, S. and Mythen, G. (2008) ‘How scared are we?’ British Journal of Criminology, 48: 209-229. DOI: 10.1093/bjc/azm070

Walklate, S., McGarry, R. and Mythen, G. (2014) Trauma, visual victimology and the poetics of justice. In M. H. Jacobsen (eds) The poetics of crime: Understanding and researching crime and deviance through creative sources. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 263-284.

Wilkinson, H. (2016) ‘Reimagine the veteran: Interviews’. Available here.

Share This: