Seeing Torture Anew: A Transnational Reconceptualization of State Torture and Visual Evidence

37 Pages Posted: 18 Jul 2014

See all articles by Hedi Viterbo

Hedi Viterbo

Queen Mary University of London

Date Written: July 17, 2014


This article puts forward two interdependent conceptual reforms at the intersection of state torture, visuality, and law. First, to qualify as good evidence - legally and socially - torture images are usually required to be “accurate” and “transparent,” to successfully suppress all traces of the mediation and representation at work. However, this article suggests that this prevalent visual-evidentiary paradigm unwittingly serves state attempts to downplay, decontextualize, deny, and disregard torture allegations. In this light, drawing on the interdisciplinary field of visual studies, this article re-envisages the limitations as well as the critical potential of torture images. Second, international and domestic law tend to conceptualize state torture in exclusively physical and mental terms. Challenging this tendency, this article argues that the extreme gravity of the physical and mental violence of torture ought not obscure, and in fact warrants closer attention to two other, interrelated forms of violence through which state torture operates, acquires its meaning, is experienced, and is made possible: (a) the violence of state mechanisms of (in)visibility - representational violence - which includes state efforts to control by whom and to what degree state torture can be seen; and (b) the violence of law - legal violence - which manifests itself in the contribution of legal institutions, lawyers, and legal rhetoric to enabling, legitimating, and keeping state torture out of public sight. The perspective of this article is transnational, focusing on three cases of state torture: detainees in U.S. custody overseas; Palestinian detainees in Israeli custody; and opposition group members detained in Syria. Legal examples and visual materials from these three cases provide a contextualized basis for exploring what new light the proposed conceptual reforms can shed on the socio-political complexities and consequences of state torture.

Note: Copyright by permission of the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University, from the Stanford Journal of International Law at 50 STAN. J. INT’L L. 281 (2014).

Keywords: torture, law, visual evidence, representation, violence, United States, Israel, Palestine, Syria

Suggested Citation

Viterbo, Hedi, Seeing Torture Anew: A Transnational Reconceptualization of State Torture and Visual Evidence (July 17, 2014). Stanford Journal of International Law Vol. 50(2), pp. 281-317, Available at SSRN:

Hedi Viterbo (Contact Author)

Queen Mary University of London

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