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date: 05 December 2022

Visual Criminologyfree

Visual Criminologyfree

  • Michelle BrownMichelle BrownDepartment of Sociology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Visual criminology emerges from a call to rethink the manner in which images are reshaping the world and criminology as a project. The mobility, malleability, banality, speed, and scale of images and their distribution demand that we engage both old and new theories and methods. Visual criminologists pursue a refinement of concepts and tools as well as innovative new ones to tackle questions of crime, harm, culture, and control. Concerned with how ways of seeing are foundational to social orders, visual criminology gives close attention to the production of crime’s power and spectacle in the visual field and relies upon emergent conceptual terms and vocabularies to do so. It insists that it is no longer possible to understand crime and control separately from how they are represented. Visual criminology is born as an alternative academic space that is neither supplementary nor secondary to mainstream social science; rather, it calls us to understand the power of crime and punishment beyond the written and numeric registers of reports, studies, and research.

The concerns of visual criminology are numerous. Visual criminologists are interested in the role of vision and the visual in the historical foundations of criminology as a discipline. They push crime and media scholars to investigate more deeply the role of the image itself, beyond conventional studies of crime and media. Using a growing and sophisticated set of theories, methods, and concepts, they track how the various optics of criminology and criminal justice (defined by disciplinary, institutional, and epistemological boundaries) are produced, culminating in popular and scientific perspectives that inevitably bring certain principles, claims, and possibilities into the line of vision and omit others. They also give attention to how these optics are contested and transgressed. Focal points of this work span a variety of media and artistic modes that continue to grow at an unprecedented rate: photodocumentary, photoethnography, new and social media, interactive and social documentary, architecture, data visualizations, design, conceptual and performance art, mixed media, theater, embodiment, spatialization, surveillance and aerial/satellite/drone technology, graffiti and urban aesthetics, ruins and dark tourism, models, exhibitions, and imaginative interventions to envision crime and punishment otherwise. Even as this visual focus expands the disciplinary tools and insights of criminology, it also broadens the field’s boundaries, drawing from a rich theoretical terrain of interdisciplinary studies.


  • Crime, Media, and Popular Culture


Visual criminology gives attention to the relation of representations and images of crime and control to power. It takes as its focal points the structure and operations of visual regimes, their coercive and normalizing effects as well as their contestations. And it does so in the context of an unprecedented proliferation of images, sites of production, and modes of analysis. In the words of visual criminologist Eamonn Carrabine, “as images of crime, harm and punishment proliferate across old and new media, there is a growing recognition that criminology needs to rethink its relations with the ascendant power of spectacle” (Carrabine, 2012, p. 463). Visual criminology seeks a more theoretically and methodologically informed understanding of images, one that aims not simply to supplement existing studies of crime and justice but to expand our lexicon of conceptual tools, approaches, and interventions. It offers a new center of analytical, theoretical, and methodological approaches from which to understand the power of the image of crime and punishment beyond the written and numeric. It privileges the emotive and affective life of the crimino-visual, including the assemblage of imagistic sensory elements that give meanings to crime and control and their relations to spectacle, power, transgression and resistance. As qualities that are suppressed in the singular textuality of social science registers, the visual emphasis of this form of criminology offers a key site for the expansion and deepening of the overall field of study. Invested in a studied visual sensibility, visual criminology builds upon a working set of analytical approaches that are attuned to the fraught relations between words, images and power, necessary undertakings in understanding the global flow of visual fragments, transgressive montage, and their various sensory, material, and discursive relations. Thus, the emergence of visual criminology marks a lively arena of original research with seemingly few limits on its application.

While there may be few limits, attention to the historical and contemporary parameters of what it means to pursue visual criminology are paramount to lend the nebulousness of the visual a meaningful place within social science. Against emergent societal contexts saturated by the visual and its distribution, scholars have searched for meaningful ways to name such rapidly transforming spaces and processes. Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s (1996) early use of the term mediascape captures this sense of transformation as a space of global cultural flows with new modalities and capabilities in dissemination. Similarly, historian Martin Jay’s (1993) emphasis upon the rise of ocularcentrism tracks the dominance of the visual in language, social, and cultural practices. He traces how a preoccupation with the visual and sight is embedded in foundational epistemologies of Western modernity, with ways of knowing often equated with ways of seeing (see also Berger, 1972; Mirzoeff, 2011; Neocleous, 2000, 2003; Scott, 1998). In this regard, visualizing and theorizing bear close affinity. As Jay writes, “there is something revealing in the ambiguities of the word ‘image,’ which can signify graphical, optical, perceptual, mental, or verbal phenonomena” (1993, pp. 8–9). Ocularcentric pathways to knowing and understanding speak to our fascination with visually dominated phenomena. They also magnify the tensions of spectacle and surveillance, both processes that rely upon and simultaneously are suspicious of the image in a world in which the camera and digital culture proliferate. These obsessions and tensions take on remarkable salience when attempting to understand public and cultural attractions to images of crime. In such a context, visual criminology is viewed by many as a necessary step in the evolution of criminological thought. As criminologists Jeff Ferrell, Keith Hayward, and Jock Young (2008, p. 2) write, “there can be no other option but the development of a thoroughgoing visual criminology.”

Such dramatic shifts in an increasingly globalized mediascape have transformed much of what it means to do criminology in a world where images, media, and technology will not hold still, marking the visual as a new mainstay of criminology. The stakes, urgency, and need for rigorous depth in analysis are amply evident. Put a bit differently by the same authors (Ferrell et al., 2008, p. 184): “How, today, can there be a viable criminology that is not also a visual criminology?” Central to the area’s development then is an indictment against “disciplinary drift into the realm of the image” or importation models in which the visual is supplementary. As images of crime and punishment carry a special and unique set of moral and ethical quandaries, this call to be attentive to foundational knowledges beyond criminology and powerful tensions within the field itself lie at the heart of a well-theorized visual criminology.

Criminology’s Visual Foundations

Visual criminology invites the development of alternative objectives and methodologies but with an astute understanding of its place within criminology and within broader historical visual knowledges, such as art history, visual culture, cultural studies, media studies, and critical theory. Criminology’s relationship to the image is less internally driven, but rather grounded in the approaches of visual culture and cultural studies as well as the visual methods of social research (Carrabine, 2015). One familiar strand of its disciplinary history develops out of deep attention to the role of documentary photography in sociology and anthropology, both of which house active “visual” subfields. For instance, core sociologists such as Howard Becker (1974, 1982, 1995), Pierre Bourdieu (1965), and Erving Goffman (1979) each contributed to new ways in which to understand the importance of the visual in sociological understanding, laying the foundations of visual sociology. Such work has influenced pioneering criminologists as well. As Sandra Walklate writes of criminologist Richard Quinney’s photos in his personal collection Things Once Seen, “they constitute an extension of Quinney’s own commitment to the role of criminologist as witness, a role in which we are challenged to reflect upon what we ‘see’ as well as that which we do not ‘see’” (Walklate, 2014, p. 242).

As Carrabine (2012, 2015, 2016) and Ferrell (2017; see also Ferrell & Van de Voorde, 2010) exemplify, photodocumentary, with its emphasis on social suffering and its aestheticization as well as dislocation, uncertainty, immediacy, and engagement plays a pivotal role in the development of visual criminology. Important early precursors, often widely overlooked, for visual criminology include the images of Jacob Riis, Lewis Hines, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, and Robert Frank. Their work captures the visual elements of what a sociological study dedicated to social reform and change might look like. Some of this work is inseparable from the visual, cinematic qualities of ethnographic studies, foundationally developed in anthropology. However, it is the gritty fieldwork and life experiences of sociology’s Chicago School researchers where photodocumentary and ethnography converge in a criminological field. Founders of the Chicago School, such as W. I. Thomas and Robert Park, wrote extensively of the visual elements of the city, identifying their trampings about as foundational to the exploration of the emergent metropolis through ethnographic immersion in taxi dance halls, Jewish ghettos, Italian slums, and hobo wanderings.

Out of this comes one of the most powerful criminological visual exemplars of modern social life, the city imagined as a series of concentric zones, characterized by various levels of disorganization in relation to such markers as crime, disease, vice, insanity, and suicide. The zone model, importantly to visual criminologists, however omits the affective, lived experiences of its authors, students, and subjects. One could also say that the zone model is also (as Judah Schept has pointed out in personal dialogue) a visualization of visuality in its attempt to map and categorize the social body, a cartographic process that critical scholars of mapping have pointed out (see also Crampton, 2001; Knowles, Westerveld,& Strom, 2015; Story, 2016). Alongside of this large scale work is the tale told less often, of a deeper form of visual criminology—the visual aspects of primary Chicago School methodologies which, while rigorous, were improvised, intuitive, and deeply engaged at a number of sensory levels (sight, sound, smell, etc.) in street observation and dialogue with the people caught at the abject edges of early modern city life (see, e.g., Anderson, 1923; Thrasher, 1927). The photos they collected along the way, while essential in their rudimentary contributions, were only one part of an important tradition that would lay the groundwork for the elaboration of detailed contemporary photodocumentary and visual ethnographic research.

Visual criminology is also rooted in the study of iconography and iconology, key traditions in art history (another contested and overlooked arena of visual study), whose forms aim to excavate the processes by which meanings develop around visual artifacts. With attention to symbolic and intertextual features, the study of iconography lays the foundations for semiotics, psychoanalytical, cultural studies and postmodern approaches, all of which problematize the seemingly natural or given meanings of representations (Carrabine, 2015, 2016). As criminological work on iconography demonstrates, themes of pathos, cruelty and suffering predominate in Western art, materializing in contemporary forms, such as the photographs of U.S. soldiers torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib (Brown, 2005; Carrabine, 2011a;) and technologies of punishment as they manifest in photographic spectacle (Carney, 2010; Carrabine, 2011b). A powerful medium through which to integrate material analyses of social life and institutions with the visual, iconography has served as an important place from which to map the distinctive and parallel structures and functions of visual artefacts, such as the portrait and the photograph, against the themes of social suffering and its spectacle that are foundational to criminology. This work extends across early theoretical efforts to understand the relationship of photography and the photograph to the pain of representation in modernity, including the historical work of Susan Sontag (1979, 2003), Roland Barthes (2000), Walter Benjamin (1968) and contemporary studies by Ariealla Azoulay (2008) and others.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, visual criminologists are among the first to have recognized the primacy of the visual in criminology at its foundations. Excavating the work of pioneering Italian criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso (Lombroso, Gibson, & Rafter,2006; West, unpublished manuscript) forward to the cinematic criminological and disciplinary exemplars in the work of philosopher Michel Foucault (think: panoptic prison, prison timetable, spectacle of public execution), visual criminology reveals the development of the science of criminology as both producing and imbricated within visual registers of power and hierarchy (see also Sekula, 1986). Lombroso’s work has long been overlooked in its visualization of science, in part because of its racialized roots and underpinnings (a structure that, precisely for these reasons, should make it urgent). But as Rafter (2014, p. 130) provocatively insists, “No criminologist has ever drawn more heavily on the visual, or revelled more in the imagery of crime.” Rafter’s work exemplifies an important theme of visual criminology: that criminological science would build from and play a role in shaping the formidable pleasure derived from looking in upon the visual artefacts of crime and punishment—and it would do this in ways that structured racial formations and gendered and sexualized ways of viewing in scientific and popular understandings of crime and punishment, leading to distinctive historical understandings of “born criminals” (Rafter, 1997). Jonathan Simon speaks to the double vision of criminology when he emphasizes the distinction between later “reform” criminologies (such as efforts to end solitary confinement, the use of the whip, and the chain gang), intent upon depicting the suffering of carceral subjects against basic standards of human dignity, and Lombroso’s ultimately dehumanizing efforts to catalogue his subjects through fragmented scientific images such as mug shots, death masks, tattoos (2017). For Simon, the visual is central to projects of public criminology, both legitimizing and delegitimizing their subjects within the field of vision.

Relatedly, criminologists have pointed to the work of Alan Sekula (1981) and John Tagg (1988, 2009) in understanding how the photographic identification of criminal bodies for police and prison records is a profound mechanism of stratification (Carrabine, 2015). By marking the law-abiding citizen as the subject of a booming middle class portraiture industry against that of the new form of criminal mug shot, one sees the rise of modern photographic evidence within emergent systems of classification and control. From Lombroso’s efforts to catalog the “criminal man” through careful measurements and records of their bodies to the anthropometric techniques and bureaucratic methodologies of sorting found in the vast collections of criminal photographs introduced by Francis Galton and Paris police clerk Alphonse Bertillon, archival visual media capture something important about the daily modern practices of policing and criminal justice and, consequently, criminology. The foundations of visual regimes, in their attention to the visual medium and its evidentiary and archival propensities, are bound up with the development of criminology as a discipline and its modern forms (Biber, 2007; Finn, 2009). In this manner, the history of photography has been essential to visual criminology work, with the camera a key technology through which to enhance the scientific qualities of surveillance data collection across time, from crime scenes to police stations and jails, border crossings and immigration offices, and the manifold emergent public and private sites of CCTV and biometric recordings. As Jonathan Finn argues, these tactics “not only negate or reverse the presumption of innocence . . ., but presuppose criminality, deviance and threat as something that is latent in all bodies . . .. Criminality exists in every record of identification archives and in every body those records represent. It is something that is latent in all of us and, therefore, awaiting identification and visualization” (Finn, 2017). And yet, expertise, whether in the form of physicians, coroners, anthropologists, journalists, police officers, psychologists, or military analysts, is foundationally challenged in a realm where the work of representation is so irrevocably interpretive. This genealogy of criminology’s past as a deeply visual one is only just the beginning. There are many unexplored ways in which to think about both the presence and absence of the visual in the field’s history, through its historical and contemporary dominant paradigms, and as a key resource in its future.

Beyond Media and Crime

In our efforts to understand criminology’s reticence to engage the visual, Nicole Rafter (Rafter & Brown, 2011, p. 3) and I were driven to ask, “Why take seriously ‘criminology in the image’?” First, crime and punishment are overwhelmingly dominant media presences in societies that now are structured through the turn to the visual. In our volume (Rafter & Brown, 2011), we caution against ignoring the largest public domain in which thought about crime and control occurs. And yet criminology has been slow to conceptualize the nature of this relationship outside of media effects, gap studies (which seek to measure the difference between reality and its representation) and moral panics (episodes in which the media suddenly define a group previously regarded as harmless as a social threat). As central as the visual is to modern meaning-making, rarely have we asked about the work that images do. While visual criminology interfaces with some of these crime and media approaches (the field bears a strong debt to the literature of moral panics in particular), it also marks a departure point framed through the lenses of cultural and critical criminology.

In its contemporary manifestations and emergence, visual criminology means something more specific, grounded in the cultural life of the everyday, and developing with and through the trajectory of cultural criminology. Borrowing from cultural studies’ emphasis upon meaning-making, Jeff Ferrell, Keith Hayward, Wayne Morrison, and Mike Presdee (2004, p. 4) famously write in their volume Cultural Criminology Unleashed, “Images of crime and crime control have now become as ‘real’ as crime and criminal justice itself,” circulating “within an endless spiral of meaning, a Mobius strip of culture and everyday life.” In this regard, visual criminologists have moved away from earlier studies of crime and media that foreground the analysis of reality, representation and media effects research. Rather, they look at more constitutive ways in which the visual represents and reproduces the worlds within which we live. Some attention dedicated to these historical forms of crime and media analysis will assist in illuminating the distinctions between these early forms and a visual criminology.

A good deal of criminological research focuses upon the ways in which media practices fuel public ignorance and fear of crime in the realm of public perceptions for the sake of spectacle. Because public knowledge of crime and justice is largely derived from the media, criminologists contend heavily with media and misrepresentations of crime and justice. This predicament is foundational to classic social constructionist positions articulated in the work of scholars such as criminologist Ray Surette who argues, “[P]eople use knowledge they obtain from the media to construct a picture of the world, an image of reality on which they base their actions. This process, sometimes called ‘the social construction of reality,’ is particularly important in the realm of crime, justice, and the media” (Surrette, 1992, p. 1). In the social constructionist account of crime and media, “gap studies” focus on disparities between what is “real” and what is “imagined”—with special attention to the empirical manner in which crime images fail to represent what is known about crime realities and yet serve to moderate public discourse on crime. Much of this work has historically been text-based through content-driven sampling methods or case studies that reveal and emphasize the dramatic disparity between crime, justice, and the image. The work of visual criminology seeks to move beyond these early gap and constructivist approaches, which, while foundational in many respects, no longer fully unpack the manner in which image and reality are imbricated.

A number of classic texts that are essential to the project of visual criminology through the very forms it now seeks to move beyond include the early work of Stanley Cohen, Stuart Hall, and others. Critical to its foundation is ground-breaking work by Cohen (1972) in Folk Devils and Moral Panics, and by Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, and Roberts(1978) in Policing the Crisis. These volumes mark the most historically prominent contributions of criminology to the interdisciplinary study of media and social constructionism. Cohen’s introduction of the term “moral panic” pointed to the processes by which “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests” (Cohen, 1972, p. 9), moving beyond gap studies and giving attention to the conditions that produce crisis and categories of crime. In his formulation, the intensity of feeling that accumulates around an issue becomes defined as a fundamental threat to social order in a manner that is disproportional from the actual threat posed. In Policing the Crisis (Hall et al., 1978), the media emerge as part of a similar and larger story about the politicization of crime, a key site where “consent” is won or lost through processes built upon signification spirals, amplification, and tolerance thresholds that legitimate new forms of state violence and social control. At the heart of both volumes is an event and process where race, crime, and youth were condensed into particular issues—“youth violence,” “mugging,” etc.—that then became the articulator of a crisis with political, economic, and ideological dimensions. Both “crises” are argued to have changed British civil and political life, ushering in new modes of political subjectivity.

Similarly, criminologists insist that news media—and the ways in which media agents construct “newsworthy” or news-making events depend upon the presumption of shock value—“if it bleeds, it leads”—as hallmarks of modern media (Barak, 1988). The construction of criminals and victims are essential to this tale and certain myths persist in media coverage of crime. Against measurable declines, crime rates are depicted as increasing. There is preoccupation with representations of the least common crimes, especially violent crime such as serial killers, murder, sex crimes, and drug-related violence against the far more pervasive realms of harm where poor, racialized communities are criminalized through low-level public order offenses and far-ranging state and corporate crime are simply omitted. Media often focus upon violence committed by random strangers when evidence demonstrates that most violent crimes occur among loved ones and known acquaintances. The media also distort the relations between race and crime, disproportionally focusing upon African-American and Hispanic people who commit harm against white victims, even as white-on-white crime is the dominant mode of harm and offenses. And while public interest in crime is high, public knowledge is low. Criminologists consequently point to law and order and get-tough-on-crime policies as embedded in a larger reactionary or populist attitude fueled, in part, by images of crime. A politics of fear and a penal discourse that is characterized as more emotional, vindictive, and punitive are argued to have deepened the rift of social exclusion that spans the planet—a powerful intertwining of images, politics, crime and control on a global scale. Research examining the ways in which gaps and distortions affect popular attitudes have led to an emphasis upon the complex and perpetual circular, “looping,” and “spiraling” processes at the heart of crime, justice, and media intersections (Ferrell, Hayward, & Young, 2008; Manning, 1998).

In this way, criminological research that gives attention to the visual has had much to say about the birth of law and order and carceral societies and the complex role of media in these formations. Katherine Beckett, in her widely read Making Crime Pay(1997), maps similar processes in the post-Civil Rights era United States, marking how race became coded into criminal justice policies and mass incarceration through a visual kind of “talk” about crime rates with public opinion and political slogans relying heavily upon the media as a conduit for racialized discourses. In the context of the United States, milestone studies have demonstrated the power of media discourse in shaping the War on Drugs and the rise of a racialized carceral regime predicated on visual practices. For instance, classic media studies from the 1990s highlight the amplification and saturation of racial violence as a fiction of white perception. As crime began its long decline, television and newspaper coverage of murders increased by more than 400%, a period in which the homicide rate decreased by thirty-three percent (Chiricos, Eschholz, & Gertz, 1997) trajectories that continue into the present in mainstream crime media representation. These visual practices echo Gilliam and Iyengar’s classic experimental study in which sixty percent of viewers of crime news stories identified a crime perpetrator when there was none, and seventy percent of that group identified the non-existent perpetrator as African American (Beckett & Sasson, 2004; Gilliam & Iyengar, 2000). Now studies that find that police and citizens are more likely to shoot black than white people (Correll, Park, Judd, & Wittenbrink, 2002) frequent our news feeds, evidence of a continuous and deepening normalization of raced perceptions of dangerousness. Critical race and anti-blackness studies demonstrate the ways in which racism undergirds and sustains intersecting visual practices, such as multiplicities of ordinary surveillance (Browne, 2015) and the manner in which even the blind see race (Obasogie, 2013). In such a context, the scale of crime’s spectacle continues to enlarge but in new and more nuanced and often insidious group-differentiated forms.

Another historical area of research for criminologists, one that is particular popular in the public forum, centers upon the role of media as a cause of crime: media effects research that explores the relationship between media exposure and violent, aggressive behavior. These studies rely upon laboratory research and experimental design as well as content analyses, national surveys, and observational studies. For criminologists, the media’s role in the production of violence has complex sociological underpinnings. As criminologist Yvonne Jewkes argues, the “legacy” of media effects is fraught with problematic assumptions and:

cannot adequately address the subtleties of media meanings, the polysemy of media texts (that is, they are open to multiple interpretations), the unique characteristics and identity of the audience member, or the social and cultural context within which the encounter between media text and audience member occurs. It mistakenly assumes that we all have the same ideas about what constitutes “aggression,” “violence,” and ‘”deviance,” and that those who are susceptible to harmful portrayals can be affected by a ‘one-off’ media incident, regardless of the wider context of a lifetime of meaning-making . . . . It also ignores the possibility that influence travels the opposite way; that is, that the characteristics, interests and concerns of the audience may determine what media producers produce.

(Jewkes, 2004, p. 11)

In this manner, criminologists have been more likely to build from social constructionist research and to downplay the media as a single or primary factor in the formation of crime and violence.

The scope and nature of these frameworks and approaches have been seriously challenged in the contemporary late modern global mediascape. Visual criminology is positioned at the cusp of a new era in the study of media, violence, and relevance. Such an evolving framework emphasizes the tension that characterizes much of the work of cultural representation in criminology. In the first account, reality is measured against a mediated “picture,” which in turn shapes social action and crime policy—there is a discrepancy between “reality” and popular knowledge, what is classically referred to as an old view of representation, and that pursues an interrogation of the gap between an image’s “true” meaning and its representation. In the second and newer view of representation, the image is no longer separable from reality. Images of crime constitute, even as they seek to represent, the world through complex intersections of event, meaning, affect, power, and ethics. Images of crime and control are produced at the messy intersections of violence, emotion, spectacle, calls for punishment, claims for recognition, and consumption patterns caught up within complex media environments, diverse political institutions, and vast economies of the image. They accuse and stand accused, raising unresolved moral and ethical tensions. Criminologists have sought to speak back to these complexities through empirical and theoretical research. At these many intersections, images of crime and control overlap with various interrelated calls for a critically engaged criminology of the image (See Carrabine, 2012; Ferrell & Sanders, 1995; Hayward, 2010, 2008; Rafter, 2014; Rafter & Brown, 2011; Sarat, 2000; Yar, 2012a, 2012b; Young, 2005). This is the point at which the term “visual criminology” begins to take meaningful shape.

Formative Concepts in Visual Criminology

Visual images, artifacts, and circulatory processes often exceed the analytical language of formal criminology in their relationships and explanations of crime and control. Endlessly flexible and intricate, elements of contemporary mediascapes fashion explanations of crime and control that are affectively more persuasive and multifaceted than those of expository criminological discourse. And visual criminology’s transformative aspects, the manner in which it asks us to see the production of crime and control differently, extend the boundaries of critical practice, making room for the production of new concepts and knowledges. This complexity takes a variety of forms and is accompanied by an emergent lexicon of terms from interdisciplinary work on visual culture: Visuality and countervisuality are two of these key constructs that assist us in better understanding the optics of criminology and criminal justice. They are both situated then in a context of aesthetics, ethics, and accusation, moral tensions and contradictions, which images of crime and control cannot escape. In this regard, the search for new and better terms to help us name the role of the visual come not only from the study of visual culture, art history, new and old media studies, but that of critical race, ethnic, and legal studies and postcolonial, feminist, gender, and queer studies.


From a general perspective, the study of visuality focuses upon the generative qualities in the act of looking and its relationship to subjectivity. It begins with the notion, as outlined by Mieke Bal (2003, p. 9) that “the act of looking is profoundly ‘impure’.” For Bal, the question of visuality begins when we ask: “what happens when people look, and what emerges from that act? The verb ‘happens’ entails the visual event as an object, and ‘emerges’ the visual image, but as a fleeting, fugitive, subjective image accrued to the subject . . . joined at the hip in the act of looking and its aftermath” (2003, p. 9). This fusion of event, object, and subjectivity is practiced and patterned over time, making visuality a formation of social power. It is capable of producing specific visions of social hierarchy and difference, including systems of race, gender, sexuality, class, and so on. It is foundational to regimes of militarism, capitalism, colonialism, heteronormativity, and white supremacy, and institutions, like criminal justice, that operate within these dominant structures.

Visuality captures the manner in which vision is essential to empire and the state. It is a term that names the authoritative mobilization of specific forms of seeing and ordering the world, practices that police (through interrupting, diverting, and denying) other forms of seeing and visualizing difference. These dominant ways of practicing seeing then produce scopic regimes that appear as historical inevitabilities, their contestations subsumed. Only certain kinds of social effects, social problems, and categories will achieve recognizability (Haraway, 2013; Rose, 2016; Sturken & Cartwright, 2003). A savvy awareness of these regimes, however, allows for disruption and contestation. Visual assessments of others and the world in which one is surveilled can create strategies of resistance in how one looks, is seen, or resists the gaze of others.

The form of visuality to which criminology is perhaps most usefully related is Nicholas Mirzoeff’s understanding of the term as a specific technique of colonial and imperial practices that claims authority and produces consent. For Mirzoeff, who draws carefully from postcolonial race theorist Franz Fanon (1963), visuality is a practice composed of three elements: a) classification: the creation of distinctions and hierarchies of difference; b) separation: the physical distanciation and removal of classification—Fanon’s barracks and police station of the colony is one primary example; and c) aesthetics: the beauty of normalized respectability and the status quo. As he frames it, visuality encompasses systems of control as diverse as slavery, panopticism, and deportation, all of which are unified through the relations foundational to regimes of vision, and is best understood, according to Mirzoeff from its site of application, locations such as the plantation, the colony, the neo-colony, which derive their authority from metropolitan sites of forceful deployment and definition. It is that moment, Mirzoeff insists, drawing from Rancière, when the police insist that we move on, that there is nothing to see (see Neocleous, 2000, 2003; Rancière, Panagia,& Bowlby, 2001; Scott, 1998; Wall & Linnemann, 2014). As Judah Schept writes (2016), “Visuality, then, is the mechanism by which the quotidian violence underwriting authority is made illegible and un-seeable . . . [its] work is to mask the inherent violence of states in a vocabulary that leaves intact the very logics, infrastructures and institutions necessary for the violence to occur in the first place.” In this regard, visual criminology is invested in relationships between aesthetics and ideologies, optics and politics with an eye for the production of social difference. The image, the photograph, the representation are cued to visual criminology when we consider the registers through which they achieve recognizability and legibility—or fail to do so. And it is through structures of visuality that the ocular logics of the carceral state and criminal justice are maintained (see Ashley Hunt’s contribution to this encyclopedia).

It is through visual studies of policing in criminology that we see a certain kind of exemplary attention to visuality. A new wave of visual and policing researchers refuse the common narratives of the development of policing. Instead of assuming the predominant story of the institution’s invention in the early 19th century to deal with crime and enforce the law, these studies position policing as a broad range of powers through which social order is fabricated (Neocleous, 2000) and subjects constituted. Police power is structural, exercised by a range of agencies bound up with the implementation and authorization of concepts of social order, and therefore foundational to visuality. Its institutional persistence requires close attention to representational practices and tactics of policing.

For example, Travis Linnemann (2016) examines the popular police practice of officers photographing themselves with large sums of cash, illicit drugs, weapons, and posed captives, as a result of busts, sweeps, seizures, and arrests. He writes, “In the context of precarious late-capitalist economies, trophy shots as proof of death usefully reveal how police are actively involved in seizing the means of subsistence and administering, displaying, and celebrating everyday domination and death” (Linnemann, 2016, p. 1). Wall and Linnemann (2014) extend Neocleous’s work by arguing that policing is foundationally directed at eradicating anything deemed a threat in the name of security and social order. Their work elaborates policing as primarily a pacification process where police-citizen encounters are defined by compliance and confrontation to authority—not crime. Nowhere is this more evident than in the interplay between coercion and consent at the heart of illegal crackdowns by police on those who take cell phone camera video of police brutality and misconduct. Policing is revealed to be a technology of governing largely non-crime phenomena (wage labor, poverty, private property, rule of law, surplus bodies) by the unending insistence and dramatic enactment of police authority, a spectacle that has taken center stage in contemporary social movements worldwide. Through these kinds of visual practices of resistance and control, Wall and Linnemann make clear that “policing is no mere ‘criminal justice’ institution then, but a dynamic project that maintains markets, generates subjectivities, and subsumes struggles” (2014, p. 144).


Critical visuality studies claims the right to look at that which authority wishes to conceal. This is not an optical process but a contest as to who is capable of visualizing events, whether in and as the History proposed by the state, or as alternative subaltern or decolonial readings. So, if visual culture is for the claiming of a place for those who have no place, what Rancière would call “democracy,” it must be against visuality.

(Mirzoeff, 2011)

The contestation of authority’s right to conceal from sight is essential to understandings of crime and punishment. From images of prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib (Brown, 2005, 2009, 2013; Carrabine, 2011a), to underground photos of Auschwitz (Carrabine, 2014), to the internal conditions of prisons themselves (Armstrong, 2017), visual criminology takes up the space of the everyday that Mirzoeff lays out, not in the banal or ordinary sense, but in the state of exception—the ordinary, normalized space of the excluded and their claim to the right to look. As Mirzoeff (2011) lays out, in his volume of the same name, The Right to Look, who claims the right to look is closely bound up with the right to be seen (to be visible as opposed to disappeared), and this is essential to understanding the stakes and claims of a visual criminology. Being attentive to the productive contradictions of representation or, as Judith Butler puts it, its failures is then a cornerstone of visual work in criminology. Butler writes (2004, p. 144), “For representation to convey the human, then, representation must not only fail, but it must show its failure. There is something unrepresentable that we nevertheless seek to represent, and that paradox must be retained in the representation we give.”

We see the need and potentiality for this kind of work across criminology. One exemplar is found in the tired and historically objectifying stock conventional uses of the quintessential carceral image: the racialized body displayed in confinement. Furthermore, prisons as prohibited zones for photography and visuality systematically remove other ways of making incarcerated people and the force of the state visible. As Ruby Tapia writes, “the structural, geographic, and institutional properties of the prison elude visualization in material ways. Because the prison and its populations are largely invisible, because they are made to exist only in the jettisoned reaches of our society’s landscapes, the possibilities of knowing them through seeing are foreclosed” and our “theories of images and visualities” must address the catch-22 of the spectacle of disappearance and the human-in-a-cage as the sole mode of visibility (2008, p. 687). Out of these dilemmas, a space of political urgency for making sure the incarcerated are visible as disappeared subjects has materialized among their loved ones, organizers, and activist scholars (Brown, 2014).

In all of this, there is an important element of visual criminology that depends, in fact, upon the work of unseeing. As Judah Schept (2016) writes, “a counter-visual criminology aims also to stimulate the project of un-imagining the prison from the landscape” through a cogent analysis of its ideological and material production and the attendant visual and analytic vantages such frameworks support (see also Schept, 2014). It asks how landscapes of deindustrialized and abandoned labor become carceral landscapes—and what precisely makes them carceral, all of which is bound up with the work of the image. Criminological and criminal justice optics are incredibly powerful in the ways in which they facilitate practices of seeing and not seeing, practices that have the ability to render people, harm, and control visible and invisible, apparent or disappeared. Such work is foundational to the structured learning and unlearning of ways of understanding crime and punishment. As carceral geographer Dominique Moran writes,

In the study of distribution of carceral spaces, rather than seeing, for example, prisons as spatially fixed and bounded containers for people and imprisonment practices, rolled out across Cartesian space and straightforwardly mappable in scale and distance, carceral geography has tended towards an interpretation of prisons as fluid, geographically-anchored sites of connections and relations, seeing them as connected to each other and articulated with wider social processes through mobile, visual, haptic and embodied practices.

(Moran, 2015, p. 122)

Sarah Armstrong (2017) deepens this dialogue by introducing the concept of “seeing-as,” a term that “positions imagination at the heart of both critique and change. As a tool of critique, seeing-as involves seeing what is in terms of something new and unfamiliar, not so that we can see things for what they really are, as if reality precedes human experience, but to open up new conversations and connections about the problems something like prison poses and the causes of its persistence.” For Armstrong, such words depend upon attention to the multiplicity of social realities, all riven with contradiction and oriented toward absence (over presence) as the baseline for a productive visual criminology. Here, she insists, we might engage the “inventive tactics of showing which would enable seeing, for instance: the violence of a bullet point, the murderous intent of a building, the addiction of a justice system,” and all the relations, processes, and conditions of their formation and possibility. This work is emancipatory for Armstrong who writes “Seeing is connected to seeing-as when acts of description do not lock in the present as inevitable and inescapable. A stronger form of the argument is that acts of description, ways of making visible, themselves make (or prevent) change by helping to enact the realities they describe.”

Countervisuality, then, is about the deployment of a politics of visibility for change and transformation. It is this power to make strange what has been naturalized into the landscapes and logics that surround crime and control that is one of visual criminology’s key contributions. Scopic regimes develop from the cultural, technological, and political apparatuses that mediate the assumed or given world of objects in what is presented as a neutral perceptual field, when more often than not, it is precisely what lies beyond—for instance, privilege, patriarchy, whiteness, authority—that is nonetheless central to the compromised formation of the visual field. Crime and punishment are never neutral, nor total in their representation. Only in rendering the world strange again, defamiliarized, deconstructed, do we get to rethink the terms of their production and this is terrain essential to the work of visual criminology.

Aesthetics, Ethics, and the Imagery of Accusation

Crime and punishment representations depend upon the voyeurism, sympathies, and judgments of moral spectators (Brown, 2009; Young, 2005). Visual criminology always enters a vexed space defined by the contradictions and moral consequences of looking. It seeks to engage the cultural production of crime and punishment in which representations are designed to draw forth moral indignation, jaw-dropping dismay, fascinated disgust, and too often, scene-of-the-crime proximate sensations of crime and punishment exposed. Paul Kaplan and Daniel LaChance’s (2017) work on crimesploitation; Chris Greer and Eugene McLaughlin’s (2011) “trial by media”—a convergence of new and old media forms in a politicized consumer context; and Majid Yar’s work on E-crime 2.0 (Yar, 2012a, 2012b) all emphasize varying aspects of this emergent socially constructed reality and its relationship to exploitative spectacle.

As one example, Kaplan and LaChance (2017) describe the dominance of a particular form of commercial reality television whose features promote a real proximity to crime, criminals, and justice actors; yet, in every aspect of their low-level for-profit production, the genre is driven towards a mode of spectacle that defies the normative workings of criminal justice, even as it thrives on crime and feeds into the justice system’s enlarged production. Promising “off limits” thrill-seeking experiences of police work, police chases, arrests and imprisonment, spectacles of power are definitive to the genre. The authors conclude that this massive form of image production is deeply unethical, “one that has both documented and justified human misery in a punitive age”—a “harmful regime of representation” in need, they argue, of accessible, critical, public disruption. As Jacqueline Wilson writes, however, the ubiquity of aestheticizing processes in representation often cut both ways—evoking positive and negative responses, often simultaneously in a kind of orchestrated ambiguity that aims to exploit an escalating series of emotions, not all of them registered consciously by the viewer, to achieve a final reaction (Wilson, 2017). She points to a growing suspicion of the aestheticization of images (no image is to be trusted) as viewer sensibility and sophistication grows more complex in proliferating image environments, sometimes moved, other times emotionally irresponsible, and, perhaps more often than not, anaesthetizing and deadening, but no less scandalous or spectacular.

The primary representational forms (film, television, news stories) for eliciting these affective and moral responses rarely challenge the logic of justice configurations, such as police, courts or prisons. As Stephen Pfohl writes, visual fascinations of this sort tend to nullify the productive experience of contradiction, enabling viewers “to imaginatively transgress, but without responsibility or guilt, the distanced spectator eye” (Pfohl, 2017). In this regard, the complex, multidirectional affective streams of new media technologies challenge critical criminological approaches to take into consideration the intensified sensuous optical unconscious that Pfohl finds foundational to understandings of crime and criminal justice. An awareness of ways of seeing that are so naturalized as to risk unconsciousness allows for a useful form of “optical estrangement,” a visually discomforting approach that demands new modes of analytic discernment and visual practice. In revealing the social contradictions of crime and punishment, alternative ways of seeing and new and better possibilities for justice materialize (alongside, of course, new possibilities for control and harm).

For example, as carceral geographer and filmmaker Brett Story (2017) argues, most prison films engage a problematic prison cinema of humanization that is inseparable from spectacle and rarely demonstrates the work that prisons do but instead moves us singularly toward reformist work within the bounds of the existing penal system. Story, echoing Schept, calls for a counter-visual ethnography and parallel forms of representation (see her documentary, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, Brett Story, Director [2015]) that better attempt to see, understand, and reveal the ideological work that naturalized forms of justice do, including law-making and law-preserving violence, apparent in the edifice of the prison, and the violence inherent in seemingly humanizing representations of people in cages. With echoes of Armstrong’s work, this requires looking for what is not there or present in the depiction or cultural landscape and asking how this absence structures what we feel, see, experience in normalized depictions of crime and control.

Sandra Walklate (2017) provides us another example of the challenge of aesthetics when she focuses upon the pain, horror, and resilience of criminological visual landscapes and a politics of victimhood. In the realm of images that accuse, she writes:

there is that which lies behind what is seen: that which remains unseen if not invisible in the world of mediated suffering. This suffering lies within people’s everyday lives: from those who suffer from the worst excesses of post-traumatic stress to those whose lives are marked by the violence(s) of the state (physically, materially, and environmentally). These sufferings are not necessarily newsworthy or mediated. Yet in their absence from the visual world they run the risk of being absent from the mind too: out of sight, out of mind, as the adage goes. By implication, one of the consequences of seeing the world through pain is that some kinds of pain (or horror or resilience) become privileged over others.

(Walklate, 2017)

In the criminal justice system, pain is closely configured through the symbolic pursuit of closure on behalf of the figure of the victim. In prosecutorial contexts and media representation, closure is invoked not as a process of memory work, but as justification for punishment—and finality. Ongoing closure is more open-ended. This is the kind of closure that legal and media scholar Jody Madeira addresses, in her recent volume Killing McVeigh, where she writes that closure is not “a state of consummate finality,” but rather a strategic, sense-making “process” without term limits (Madeira, 2012, p. 48). These two kinds of closure interact, as Madeira writes, with memory being very “dependent upon institutions and events in the outside world” (Madeira, 2012, p. 48). Ongoing closure does not end, as is often depicted in the media, however, with an arrest or, in her study of the families of murder victims, even an execution. Rather, ongoing closure is communicative, an ever-developing narrative of how actors “wrench lived meaning from horrifying experiences” (Madeira, 2012, p. 50, emphasis in original).

In the context of emergent criminology, critical new media work has focused upon one of the most invisible, under-reported, persistent and widespread forms of everyday harm in the politics of victimhood: violence against women. The social, political, and structural underpinnings of “rape culture” are increasingly central to an understanding of the ways in which sexual violence is celebrated, tolerated, eroticized, minimized, contested, and resisted—online and offline. With victims’ rights efforts historically occurring across highly regulated, criminalizing, and punitive administrative pathways of law and prevention, many women have resorted to and insisted upon other mechanisms of justice beyond law and criminal justice for recognition and relief (Bumiller, 2009; Richie, 2012). As Anastasia Powell (2015, p. 571) writes, communication technologies not only facilitate and extend the harm of gender-based and sexual violence but also have become critical in “mediating new mechanisms of informal justice outside of the state” and the criminal justice system. Such efforts tend to focus on the cultural and structural dimensions of women’s experience, including the complex, knowing ways in which they seek protection and prevention, lived ways of being, premised in epistemologies of critical race theory and intersectionality, many of which do not rely upon criminological or criminal justice frameworks.

It is, of course, vital that we understand the role of new harms: New technologies and visualities allow for new mediums of perpetration, as in the Steubenville, Ohio case, where a 16-year old girl was assaulted by two high school football players for hours while filmed by other students on mobile phones, then collectively posted and shared across social media (Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, etc.). These “new” forms of sexual violence range from the unauthorized creation and distribution of sexual and sexual assault images, to online bullying, sexual harassment, and cyberstalking, to gender-based hate speech (pro-rape pages), and more. A “technosocial criminality” (Brown, 2006; Powell, 2015) takes shape in often anonymous, online spaces that facilitate the amplification of effects for multiple victims, perpetrators, bystanders, and voyeurs. But in all of this, we are brought more closely to the affective intensities of humiliation, shame, blame that make up injustice and embodied harms—enacted online but lived in the flesh (Henry & Powell, 2015).

While this sets the stage for new forms of trauma and exposure, it also reveals the patterned practices of rape culture—its celebration of a culture of male violence and its reliance upon a supportive set of male and female bystanders. And it provides “unparalleled opportunities to form and participate in counter-publics in which allegations of sexual violence are being received, discussed and acted upon in ways contrary to established social and legal norms” (Salter, 2013, p. 2), as girls and women generate and disseminate alternative modes of understanding and responding to gender-based violence, naming their oppressors, laying claim to their own brutalized bodies, and defying the laws that allow immunity for the boys and men who violate them, garnering public support, visceral backlash, public debate, and the complex collage of media narratives that both repudiate and reify instead of challenge repressive, dominant, discriminatory notions of sexuality and gender.

Such image work opens up new venues for interpretation and meaning-making in the epistemologies of the everyday—and their relationship to harm, violence, transgression, the criminalization of everyday life, social control, social justice. As Salter writes, against the Habermasian claims of fragmentation of the public sphere, there is also “an integrating function served by the dense networking and interactivity of social media,” allowing for the rapid transmission of information, new social facts, genuine debate, agonistic discussion as well as the entrenchment of discrimination and reproduction of violence (Salter, 2013, p. 13). This is a new kind of discursive scene of unprecedented depth, scope, and accessibility for understanding both hegemonic forms, oppositional knowledge and counter-publics. In other words, the technosocial is a key site for alternative forms and new practices of justice, new recognitions (and mis-recognitions) of harm, and new forms of criminological technosocial feminism. As Lara Karaian (2012) argues, counter-discourses may also work to curb the ever expanding definitions and categorizes of law that criminalize (for instance, child pornography that subjects youths to the net-widening harms of criminal sanction) and may present an opportunity to advance new ways of knowing and being in and beyond the law.

Similarly, against Western dominant visual codes, the indigenous visual object or artifact of social suffering and harm plays an important countervisual role. Easily misconstrued as simply art, representation, or a lens through which to understand social and cultural processes, the meanings of indigenous art, as Chris Cunneen argues (2010, 2017) are far more deeply integrated in the sacred systems central to the cultural life of its members, more so than Western understandings of law and visuality allow. As forms of resistance, indigenous visual expressions are law-making evidence and traditional counter-narratives, doing work to expose and “‘unsettle’ colonial power and its claims of political, legal and moral legitimacy” (Cunneen, 2017). Images indict and accuse, part of historical and material records of state violence and colonialist projects.

On the other side of this argument, certain images may be given evidentiary status unproblematically. Katherine Biber (2017) insists that a “visual jurisprudence is still in a fledgling state.” She writes “For law, photographs purport to tell the truth; they are evidentiary. For the most part, courts ignore centuries of scholarship on visual culture and aesthetics, never attempting to articulate a jurisprudence of vision, and looking at images as if there were nothing impeding its capacity to see.” In the use of gruesome, dehumanizing images of victims in courtrooms, court observers and legal decision makers are immersed in emotional sympathies of suffering and otherwise complicated relations to evidence are erased.

In this regard, both the research and focal points of representations in visual criminology seek to disrupt the ocular logics and optics of law, criminology and criminal justice by depicting the relationships that produce unproblematic, normative modes of justice by illuminating and putting in relief the social relations at the heart of such reifications and ossified practices. Representations directed at contradictions, processes, and the social relations that produce naturalized forms of state power, such as police and prisons, have the potential to reveal various forms of lethal, legal, and state violence and the moral and ethical fields in which they are embedded. In exposing the failure of their representation, neither crime nor punishment retains their intractability but rather new configurations and alternative forms of justice become possible.

The Expansive Future of Visual Criminology

As Mieke Bal writes (2003, p. 7), visual scholars have historically been best served when less concerned with the naming of the boundaries of their work and instead are committed to the “business of analysing cultural artefacts that are primarily visual, from a theoretically informed and savvy perspective that demonstrates its relative novelty in the quality of the analyses.” Bal (2003, p. 12) emphasizes the impurity of the visual object—to list the possibilities and projects of the visual domain is more than a bit misleading: “Since the object domain itself is limitless, the attempt to define what the objects have in common can only invoke banality.” While such statements are important qualifications to keep in mind in the pursuit of a visual criminology, it seems appropriate to name some of the ways in which the visual is materializing as a topic of study, out of which may emerge something specific and innovative in our understanding of the nature of crime and control and its representation. Focal points of this work span a variety of media and artistic modes that continue to grow at an unprecedented rate: photodocumentary, photoethnography, new and social media, interactive and social documentary, architecture, data visualizations, design, conceptual and performance art, mixed media, theater, embodiment, spatialization, surveillance and aerial/satellite/drone technology, graffiti and urban aesthetics, ruins and dark tourism, models, exhibitions, and imaginative interventions to envision crime and punishment otherwise.

Carrabine (2017) provides us with a useful way in which to break down the expansive future of approaches in visual criminology. The first involves a “detailed interpretation of an aspect of visual culture (whether this be a photograph, piece of film, internet design, television series or the practices of visualization deployed in scientific representation)” (2017). The second: “the use of visual methods in social research (such as photo-elicitation, virtual ethnography, spatial mapping, video diaries and other kinds of explicitly collaborative documentary making).” But he identifies these as only starting points with many other possibilities on the horizon. The task of discerning all manifestations of our visual environment and experience, as daunting as it may be, leaves open the analytical capacity to renew our understanding of foundational knowledges and epistemologies in criminology and the social sciences. It allows us to open up, bring into discussion, and interrupt naturalized ways of knowing and seeing crime and punishment.

Criminology broadly lacks the foundations for the successful pursuit of a truly visual criminology and must turn for resources to documentary photography, visual anthropology and sociology, and visual research methods adapted from cultural and media studies. Ethnographies, for instance, while deeply visual at their core, must be approached through literatures that provide tools for understanding the method’s relationship to a deep cultural, emotional, and affective knowledge of crime and social control. Fieldwork and much of qualitative social science research often involve documentary photography, video diaries, and a wealth of footage from phone, video, and digital cameras. Much of this ethnographic work may require reflexive, collaborative, and participatory methods (for a methodological guide, see Sarah Pink’s Doing Visual Ethnography [2007]; for examples of fieldwork in visual anthropology, see Philippe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg’s Righteous Dopefiend [2009], and Joao Biehl’s Vita: Life in a Zone of Abandonment [2005]). Furthermore, to study ethnographic contexts increasingly involves a relocation of the field in multiple spaces: “real” life, online, and other virtual and global spaces where actors, ideas, and images perpetually cross.

Key to all aspects of photo-ethnography and social documentary is the situating of the visual in relation to field observations, life histories, lived experiences, and theoretical explanations that assist in exploring the tensions of social structure, power and spectacle, and ethical aspects of aestheticization. The rise of narrative and discourse analysis allows researchers to give attention to some aspects of this by focusing upon the manner in which power, identity, regimes of truth, institutions, and technologies are produced. Following Foucault, researchers can then pursue questions about how various arrangements of representations produce different kinds of truth claims—whether those that make up a website, justice campaign, online platform, or prime time crime drama. But essential to visual criminology is that these singular sites not be situated in ahistorical frames without context. In other words, it is no longer viable to lock one’s analysis within the text or artifact alone (as many conventional crime and media studies have done). The image of today’s mediascape brings a contextual life world with it in a new and unprecedented manner. Now its production, circulation, and scale of distribution are politicized functions and its presence appears less as an image and more as the locus of a complex interface among networks, humans, technologies, and global flows. This requires a thorough articulation of the relationship of the image to the work it does and the larger mediascape from which it derives.

Certain methodologies will be more attuned to this depth of work than others. For instance, content analyses, media effects research, and narrow quantitative and qualitative methodologies as conventionally organized overlook major shifts in the study of processes of production, selection, and circulation of images of crime and control. Such work usefully expands our area of focus and directs us toward large bodies of media and visual work that examine political violence, social inequality, and spectacles of suffering—terrain that criminology has largely overlooked until recently. From Auschwitz to the Sudan, Abu Ghraib to post-Katrina New Orleans, the Arab Spring to the Movement for Black Lives, questions continue to arise as to the depiction of the vulnerable, the criminal, the state, and the planet and the role of criminology in its analysis of unprecedented media in these formations.

Visual criminology is also important in that it pushes our attention beyond the visual. It points to the importance of affective and sensory life, broadly, in doing justice to the material realities and lived experiences that criminology engages (Young, 2010). It will benefit from avoiding visual essentialism (the study of the visual in isolation or with a pure primacy, or, as Bal [2003] describes it, a privileging of the visual aspects of an object or even to the exclusion of all other senses) as few visual events are without sound, touch, smell, and other sensory aspects. As one example, the study of the visual is relational in the sense that it necessarily overlaps with sonic materialities: the acoustics of an arrest, the noise pollution of solitary confinement. If one has visited a jail tank, prison tier, courtroom, or police station, then one knows that the ethnographic details of such spaces are never reducible to the visual—or any one sense alone. There is emergent room for sensory engagements that give primacy to the haptic, sonic, spatial, temporal, visceral, and embodied—modes of phenomenological immersion and immediacy that grow over time into patterned forces, performances, practices, and institutions of crime and control. The turn to the visual is indicative of a larger turn to the sensory that brings back the material, physical, affective, and embodied experiences of harm, control, injustice, and resistance.

Finally, visual criminology represents a remarkable forum for pedagogical pursuits. It is increasingly apparent across university classes, courses, and departments, usefully expanding “crime and media” precedents with both a larger and deeper curricular scope. More significantly, it is foundational to community education, organizing and social justice efforts that rely upon a growing body of new and alternative media efforts that provide free print and digital resources via action and outreach materials, flyers, posters, curricula, toolkits, zines, legislative packets, newsletters, infographics, photos, and videos. These materials then circulate quickly from direct action community events and social justice campaigns to social media (email, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, websites) and alternative media outlets, having an unprecedented effect in enlarging their sphere of impact. Organizers argue this work is directed at providing alternative public forums for social justice discussions; building community-based education and histories of organizing among those directly impacted by the carceral state; providing tools to think about both criminalization and racism; and promoting abolitionist and alternative (i.e., restorative, transformative) configurations of justice and history.


“Given the ascendant position of the image/visual in contemporary culture,” writes cultural criminologist Keith Hayward (2010, p. 9), “it is increasingly important that all criminologists are familiar with the various ways in which crime and ‘the story of crime’ is imaged, constructed, and 'framed' within modern society.” A visual criminology, by broadening the parameters of knowledge about crime, criminalization, and punishment, provides a point from which to develop a more contemporary set of questions foundational to the field. It promises simultaneously a more expansive body of knowledge about control, one that offers new kinds of foundational insights. What is most noteworthy about the comments and calls of visual criminologists is the manner in which they call for reinvention, for research, and creative interventions in understanding crime and control that can bring together theory, method, and image. In their estimation, to do criminology at all, we must pay close attention to the visual and the act of representation. As a locus of the modern, visual criminology takes crisis as its occasion: insurrectionary images that trouble, transgress, coerce, constrain, fail—the endpoints of the modernist landscape. By centering the visual, this approach brings with it the potential transformation of criminology.

In pursuing the work that images do, the field of visual criminology expresses unique possibilities in illuminating the social relations that are foundational to the production of harm: not just in the conventional sense of legal categories of crime, but of processes that produce criminalization and interpersonal, legal, state and structural violence. For instance, visual criminologists seek to disrupt the dyad of crime and punishment by way of analyses of the visual that disrupt common sense assumptions that punishment is meaningfully related to crime’s reduction. The visual is a powerful means through which to map the production of control: prisons, policing, surveillance and their counterpoints; the production of transgression and resistance against old and new categories of criminalization; the historical resurgence of social movements, justice campaigns, insurgencies, and uprisings. It brings the possibility of new rigor and new life to the discipline, one that is committed to understanding the power of the image in the perpetually mediated worlds of harm, violence, control, and resistance in which we exist.

Review of the Literature and Primary Sources

For important work on visual culture, see Nicholas Mirzoeff’s foundational volume on visuality, The right to look: A counterhistory of visuality (2011). Additional key authors, particularly in relation to photo documentary, are W. T. Mitchell (1995), A. Sekula (1981, 1986), J. Tagg (1988, 2009), and Ariela Azoulay (2008). Methodological resources include work by Sarah Pink (2007) and Gillian Rose (2016).

Key texts that introduce visual criminology through the lenses of cultural criminology include Jeff Ferrell, Keith Hayward, and Jock Young’s primer Cultural Criminology: An Invitation(2008) and Keith Hayward and Mike Presdee’s edited collection, Framing Crime: Cultural Criminology and the Image(2010), which includes important chapters such as Hayward’s introduction “Opening the Lens” and Ferrell and Van de Voorde’s “The Decisive Moment: Documentary Photography and Cultural Criminology.”

Introductory treatments of visual criminology can be found in a variety of contexts. The 2013–2014 Visual Criminology Seminar Series, funded by the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council, stands as a key starting point where scholars sought to critically address the visual from within the discipline. Eamonn Carrabine’s work is essential in tracing the genealogies of documentary photography, art history, and iconography in relation to representations of social suffering and their relevance to visual criminology: See “Just Images: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Visual Criminology” (Cararbine, 2012), “Visual Criminology” (Cararbine, 2015) and “Doing Visual Criminology” (Cararbine, 2016). The 2014 special issue of Theoretical Criminology serves as a useful introduction to visual criminology, including work by Nicole Rafter, Eamonn Carrabine, Alison Young, Judah Schept, Steven Wakeman, and Michelle Brown. As a space in which to explore visual criminology’s nascent growth, with over a decade’s worth of research, see the Sage publication Crime Media Culture, criminology’s leading media journal, and the forthcoming Routledge International Handbook of Visual Criminology (Brown & Carrabine, 2017), the first primer on visual criminology, assembling leading and emergent international scholars in the field.

Further Reading

  • Biber, K. (2007). Captive images: Race, crime, photography. London: Routledge.
  • Brown, M. (2014). Visual criminology and carceral studies: Counter-images in the carceral age. Theoretical Criminology, 18(2), 176–197.
  • Carrabine, E. (2012). Just images: Aesthetics, ethics and visual criminology. British Journal of Criminology, 52(3), 463–489.
  • Carrabine, E. (2015). Visual criminology. In H. Copes & J. M. Miller (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of qualitative criminology (pp. 103–121). New York: Routledge.
  • Ferrell, J., Hayward, K., & Young, J. (2008). Cultural criminology: An invitation. London: SAGE.
  • Hayward, K. J., & Presdee, M. (2010). Framing crime: Cultural criminology and the image. New York: Routledge/GlassHouse.
  • Mirzoeff, N. (2011). The right to look: A counterhistory of visuality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Rafter, N. (2014). Introduction to special issue on visual culture and the iconography of crime and punishment. Theoretical Criminology, 18(2), 127–133.
  • Schept, J. (2014). (Un)seeing like a prison: Counter-visual ethnography of the carceral state. Theoretical Criminology, 18(2), 198–223.
  • Stallabrass, J. (2013). Documentary (Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Young, A. (1995). Imagining crime. London: SAGE.


  • Anderson, N. (1961). The hobo: The sociology of the homeless man. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in 1923.
  • Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity al large: cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Armstrong, S. (2017). Seeing and seeing-as: Building a politics of visibility in criminology. In M. Brown & E. Carrabine (Eds.), Routledge international handbook of visual criminology. London: Routledge.
  • Azoulay, A. (2008). The Civil Contract. New York: Zone Books.
  • Bal, M. (2003). Visual essentialism and the object of visual culture. Journal of Visual Culture, 2(1), 5–32.
  • Barak, G. (1988). Newsmaking criminology: Reflections on the media, intellectuals, and crime, Justice Quarterly, 5(4), 565–587.
  • Barak, G. (2007). Doing newsmaking criminology from within the academy,” Theoretical Criminology, 11(2), 191–207.
  • Barthes, R. (2000). Camera lucida. New York: Vintage.
  • Becker, H. (1974). Photography and sociology. Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication, 1, 3–26.
  • Becker, H. (1982). Art worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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