The visual world in which we live is a world where one hundred hours of video are uploaded every minute to YouTube; where Americans take more photographs in two minutes than were made in the entire nineteenth century. These images are our way of trying to see and make sense of a world actually too big to see but crucially vital to imagine—this is now the study of visual culture. Many of these images represent distinct forms of visual activism that confronts deep-seated hegemonies like racism, encourages silenced voices to emerge, and works as a catalyst for reform.
This talk explores visual culture and visual activism in the context of three health and human rights movements of the 20th century—breast cancer, AIDS, and disability rights—which foreground the critical practice and political strategy of producing visibility and deploying testimony in forms such as documentary, video, photography, and poster art. It considers the difference between looking and witnessing; how visual images influence attitudes towards patients and impact health policy; and the balance between inciting moral outrage from exposure to images and inducing compassion fatigue from over-exposure to them.