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Associate professor: This is how you should show unpleasant images in class

A debate has been set off about instructors' use of language after a group of University of Copenhagen students walked out of a lecture in protest. But we should also discuss the display of violent images, according to an associate professor whose specialty is the visual documentation of violence.

A group of students on the international master’s degree programme in Global Development stood up and left a lecture in protest earlier this year.

The instructor had included a number of old advertisements illustrating slavery at a lecture on European colonialism. One of the illustrations featured a racist text which the instructor opted to read out aloud which resulted in a demonstrative walk-out by students.

READ ALSO: A group of students walked out of the lecture in protest. Then the head of studies was bombarded with emails

Since we published the article, the story has spread to other Danish media, where the debate has revolved around the teacher’s use of language.

But according to associate professor at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies (ToRS) Nina Grønlykke Mollerup, something has been overlooked in this debate. It is the power of images. Images are namely interpreted completely differently, depending on whose perspective it is.

Nina Grønlykke Mollerup is an anthropologist. She researches and teaches various forms of visual documentation of violence, and how images of violence are perceived and interpreted. She works with various civil society organisations, and works on the ethical use of imagery.

»I was not present at the lecture in question, and cannot, of course, comment specifically on it. But from the descriptions I have read, I think it seems that the problem has not only been about words, but also potentially about the pictures that were shown,« says Nina Grønlykke Mollerup.

Orange border around image

Pictures are not just pictures. A reception and reading of a picture will always depend on the viewer’s history and own experience, according to the associate professor.

»Two people can look at the same picture, and one can be completely unaffected, while the other can be deeply traumatized,« says Mollerup, adding:

»This also means that we don’t all have the same starting point for theorizing over a picture. And for some, viewing an image can seem like a violation in itself, regardless of the intentions behind it.«

In her work, Nina Grønlykke Mollerup often has to look at what she describes as »terrible and traumatizing images.« She is therefore familiar with a number of techniques that can make it easier to look at unpleasant images. She also tries to incorporate them into her own teaching.

»I always, first of all, make sure that my students are prepared for the fact that the teaching will contain images that can be potentially unpleasant to look at. I also say something just before an unpleasant image is shown, so the students can choose to look away,« she says and continues:

»If an image is particularly uncomfortable, you can frame it with an orange border. This automatically has the gaze drifting away from the image and towards the edge, and the students have to therefore actively choose to look at it.«

Instead of showing the pictures in the actual teaching, Nina Grønlykke Mollerup sometimes uploads them onto the online teaching platform Absalon instead. In this way, students can decide whether they want to see the pictures at all, when, and for how long they will view them.

»It also makes a difference whether you see pictures on a large or a small screen. If the students have to open the images on their own computer, they appear smaller and in this way they feel less invasive and traumatizing,« says the associate professor.

Black and white and no sound

As teaching staff, you can also consider displaying violent images in black and white rather than colour – this will make the images be experienced as less violent, says the associate professor. In the case of video, turning off the sound can also make the images less overwhelming.

»It is also crucial that you are feeling well when looking at potentially traumatizing images. This is, of course, difficult to control on behalf of the students. But I urge everyone who works with violent images to make sure that students are physically comfortable before you start,« says Nina Grønlykke Mollerup.

No matter what the situation is in general, there are images you should never show in a classroom, no matter how many precautions you take:

»I often see horrible pictures myself that I would never show in a teaching context. But I can’t give specific guidelines on what images they are. There are a lot of things that come into play, so it must be based on an individual assessment,« says Nina Grønlykke Mollerup and adds:

»A good rule of thumb however, is that you should never see or show unpleasant or potentially traumatizing images, unless there is a very good reason to. And when we do, we have to take care that we bring them into the teaching space in a way that’s as responsible as possible.«

This also means that teachers should consider how many images they show, and how long they choose to dwell on each image.

»Instead of showing a series of terrible images, one after another, you can, for example, choose to collect them on one slide. If you spend a long time going through a series of unpleasant large-format images one after the other, it will seem more violent than if you saw them at once and for a shorter period of time.«