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Colloquium Archive

Diana George

Name: Diana George, Michigan Technological University

Presentation Title: "Witness to Voyeur: A Visual Rhetoric of Execution and the Death Penalty Debates"

Date: September 19, 2002


"Seeing" or "witnessing" is at the center of what Professor George proposes for this discussion as she examines the rhetorical role the visual media--particularly television, flim, and photography--play in a civial society regarding a very serious debate like that currently raging about the usefulness and appropriateness of the death penalty. What function these images perform depends very much on their uses and on the political or social climate in which they appeared.

Professor George proposes to take as a point of departure for this discussion those visual images--from the past as well as the present--of both legal and illegal execution, and to examine the place those images take in gauging the state of populate debate over the death penalty. Specifically, she has in mind three visual "moments" in the history of the debate.

The first is represented in crime photos from the first half of the twentieth century--particuloarly the visual trope of the slaim killer-as-animal, displayed trophy-like in city morgues. The second is most powerfully illustrated in James Allen's (et al.) Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, a visible record of a culture of hate and fear. And, finally, we have what I will call the Dead Man Walking phenomen--the Tim Robbins film credited with re-awakening, in 1996, the death penalty debate in this country.