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Distorting visualisations?

Politics without pictures is not possible. Political science is joining this field in a project at Kiel University.

© pur.pur

Everything is a question of presentation. These very figures on criminality in the country can appear very dramatic – or not.

"We understand visuality as the political power of showing and seeing," says Dr Axel Heck. What and how things are displayed makes politics visible by telling a story in pictures. And the visual narrative conveyed as a result is, again, its own story. "Refugees can be portrayed as needy, suffering people who are an enrichment to our society, but also as a threat," the political scientist explains as an example. 

But isn’t political science encroaching upon the territory of communication and media science with this topic? Not at all, Heck emphasises. He is coordinating the project together with his colleague Dr Gabi Schlag from the Technische Universität Braunschweig. He believes communication and media science primarily addresses the politics of pictures using reception studies, which is to say, it researches the impact of visualisation. Heck says that the meaning is what is important in political science. Or, as Gabi Schlag puts it, "the question of how politics can be made possible and legitimised through the use of pictures".

For almost three years, the project "Understanding Visuality in Global Politics. A Multidisciplinary Conversation on Theories, Methodologies and Research Practices" has been running against this background. It is being financed with €38,000 from the German Research Foundation (DFG). Fourteen researchers from Germany and the Netherlands are participating. Initially, they had to make do with comparatively little money because this field is very new in political science, and they needed to do some networking for it first. Above all, travel costs and some supplies are necessary to organise workshops where issues in political science are addressed theoretically, methodically and empirically.

Upon closer inspection, there is actually a very diverse research landscape in the politics of pictures. Photography and film are part of it, as expected, as are cartography, the graphical representation of statistics and even comics. Axel Heck says he "learned an incredible amount" when cultural scientist Stephan Packard visited one of the network meetings as a guest and took on the Marvel Comics series "Spiderman". That fundamentally sharpened the Kiel-based researcher’s sense of understanding texts and pictures as one unit: "Even when analysing an article in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, you need to consider the visualisations cloaking the words." 

Especially where comics are concerned, Gabi Schlag is interested in developing a feeling for the rules of this medium in order to understand how they handle political events, such as the terror attacks of 11 September 2001. The political scientist from Braunschweig adds that the direction of impact can vary incredibly, ranging from dull propaganda to subtle, ambivalent portrayals.

The effect of pictures is also evident in diagrams. Red on world climate maps or conflict barometers for peace research typically indicates danger, but this colour can also be selected to dramatise the increase in burglaries – possibly on a distorted scale. 

And there is the question of which pictures are not actually shown. "Power always plays a role," Schlag says, because independently of specific motives, it is always people who decide what the public gets to see and what it does not.

An examination of the power of pictures from the perspective of political science is to be published this year as a collection which provides a platform to all fourteen members of the project group. The responsible parties hope to push their discipline to pay more attention to visualisation and not just texts in the future.

Author: Martin Geist