One dark morning, I was standing on a hill in a howling gale in the Outer Hebrides, when I was surprised to see a police car in the distance. What did a police officer do in small, remote islands? What does policing look like when communities are small, scattered and separated by sea? Would police work be affected by the wind and rain that were then battering me? And why, after many years thinking about police work, didn’t I know?
This moment set in train an extended ethnography of policing in Shetland, the most peripheral archipelago in the UK. I wanted to explore how the historical preoccupation of criminology with the city had limited our imagination. If our foundational research on policing had been conducted in remote islands rather than cities, what would we think was important in thinking about crime and its control? What would we notice that we currently do not see?
I soon discovered that one of the phenomena remote islands make inescapable is the dark: the visceral, overwhelming, sensory experience of immersion in darkness, and its effects on the exercise of state power.
Shetland is located over 200 miles north of the Scottish mainland in the centre of a ‘crossroads’ between Iceland, the Faroes, Scotland and Norway. Its main connection with the UK mainland is by a 12 hour ferry from the Northeast of Scotland, though notoriously rough seas mean the journey can often take twice that. It can also be reached by propeller planes from Scottish airports, though the storms, 70mph winds and thick fog that batter the islands make this an unpredictable form of transport: Flybe, the airline which served Shetland during my research, was known locally as ‘Fly Maybe’.
So, in mid-December, armed with a suitcase full of seasickness tablets and some sturdy boots, I joined the young oil workers eating enormous plates of chips on the boat heading for Lerwick. Twelve hours later, I stepped out onto the deck in roaring winds, beside myself with excitement at my first glimpse of Shetland.
I saw nothing.
Instead, I found myself enveloped in darkness, the quality of which I had never experienced before. It was impossible to tell where the land, sea and sky began or ended: the occasional tiny pinpricks of light which fleetingly appeared could have been from boats, houses or stars. This was my first experience of what islanders called ‘black dark’: an absence of light so profound that, as a police officer said, ‘you can’t let your dog off the lead as you’ll never find her again’. Or as a former mainland officer put it, ‘you don’t know darkness until you’ve lived here. Here, there is nothing’.
Yet while darkness may have been described in its absence – as ‘nothing’ – this was not how it was experienced. Instead, as I discovered, darkness is an acutely sensory experience. It is active, physical and alarming.
Light and darkness are central to the experience of life in remote Northern islands. Shetland experiences dramatic changes of light with continual light in midsummer (the Shetland phrase ‘simmer dim’ describes the brief dip in the light at the summer solstice) and in mid-winter, the time of my first arrival, only a few hours of watery grey daylight. Nights were not always dark: without clouds, auroras, stars and full moons lit up the sky making it possible to drive without headlights. The extraordinary experience of night illumination was so disorienting that one island police station had a list of full moon dates pinned to their front office to predict when people would ‘go crazy’.
However, more frequently, winter storms blacked out the moon and stars bringing immersion in darkness. Staying in a little house at the end of a dark track next to a bay, I found myself overwhelmed by darkness. My fieldnotes describe tiredness, disorientation, and insomnia; feeling unable to leave my house, ‘hemmed in’ by a darkness that was ‘oppressive and total’. To my astonishment, being submerged in darkness also brought with it a sense of creeping fear that was both existential and visceral. For the first time since a small child, I was afraid of the dark.
I soon realised these experiences were shared by the police officers navigating dark islands. All officers talked about darkness. They described how it interfered with their work: feeling exhausted and disoriented, getting lost, and not knowing in which direction they were driving. One officer came back from an unsuccessful house inquiry explaining: ‘There are no streetlights. It’s pitch black. It’s the darkest place I’ve ever been. I couldn’t find the bastard house.’
Yet darkness also affected officers more profoundly. It shaped the way they perceived the islands, and how they felt and moved within them.
In the light islands were playgrounds for exploration. The starkness of the Shetland landscape became exciting: we drove to remote cliffs to spot seals, orcas and otters on clear days, or to see shooting stars, red moons and auroras on clear nights. Officers described the colours of the land and sea, the sunsets they had seen, the wildlife and boats that passed.
In the dark, however, islands became places of vulnerability. Officers described them as empty, lonely, barren places: ‘bleak’, ‘desolate’, depressing’, ‘shit’, ‘grey’. Yet darkness wasn’t simply experienced as absence – of light, colour or pleasure. Instead, it was active, oppressive and visceral. Dark islands were hostile places. Just as I felt ‘hemmed in’ in my house, officers described being crushed or consumed by darkness. It was penetrating, ‘claustrophobic’, ‘oppressive’; they described ‘sinking’ into the landscape.
Phenomenological research helps illuminate why darkness seems to generate this bodily sense of vulnerability. Shaw (2015, p586) argues that in light, vision holds objects at a distance, becoming a ‘protective field’ which delineates the self from the world. In darkness, the boundaries between the body and environment are eroded (also Edensor 2013, Merleau-Ponty 1962, Morris 2011). Bodies become porous, leaving us open and vulnerable to the world outside. Or, as one officer described it, in darkness ‘I felt I was being swallowed by the island’.
For island officers, immersion in darkness was profoundly unsettling. As a result, officers drove quickly through dark places or avoided them entirely. Instead they headed to the comfort of the police station, or circulated around populated places with the safety of illuminated light. As one officer put it, when cloud cover at night meant there was no light at all, ‘that’s when you return to the station’. Islands became mapped through the light and the dark, structuring where officers went and what they did.
Where the police go, where they focus their attention, directly affects the use of state power. Research in dark islands suggest that their sensory experience of the environment, and the darkness and light in which they are submerged, is crucial to how police officers think, feel and move through the areas they police, and consequently what they do and who they encounter. So why have these phenomena been overlooked in police scholarship? As I have argued elsewhere (Souhami 2023), the consistency of the urban context of police research seems to have led us to overlook the physical environment of police work altogether. Remote Northern islands reveal that there is more to criminology than our preoccupations suggest. We should not be afraid of the dark.
For more on this research, see:
Souhami, A (2023): “Weather, Light and Darkness in Remote Island Policing: Expanding the Horizons of the Criminological Imagination”. The British Journal of Criminology. 63 (3) pp 634–650, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/azac052
I recently found a blue plastic prison issue mug in a brown cardboard box at home, sitting on top of a collection of classroom notes from a class I taught in prison. I was in the process of writing an article (Little and Warr, 2022) and thought I’d try to recall something of the sensory feel of that space. Instead, I was reminded that my handwriting is not always as clear as I had assumed it was. The ink had faded a little and the paper curled inwards at the edges, but otherwise was in good condition. However, it was the discovery of the mug that really transported me back to this former pedagogical space, one in which I co-facilitated an eight-week educational course. The course included students from De Montfort University and men serving long sentences at ‘HMP Lifer’. The mug might seem like an unlikely vehicle for such an evocative transportation, and yet to me it screams its institutional association.
To me, the mug is unmistakeably a prison mug. Its insipid light blue colour is distinctive. It might well be the sort of mug used in other institutional settings, but this is symbolically imbued with the essence of punishment. Its colour matches closely the faded light blue prison issue t-shirts worn by many of the men on the wings. It has a very plastic feel to it and is surprisingly lightweight, without substance, in contrast with the depth and weight of the sentences hanging over the prison learners in the classroom. It smells of plastic too, infused with a slight whiff of instant coffee, perhaps because it hasn’t had a very good wash yet, even after several years. Its authenticity has been preserved, like a relic from a bygone era found intact. The tasting notes of the coffee it contained promise that it “…makes a solidmorning cup. It’s rich, bold, and robust…”. Just like me, I chortle inaccurately to myself.
I feel the need to clarify fairly early on that the mug was taken from one of our weekly sessions, hastily gathered up as we sought to depart the prison on time. The mug was taken accidentally, packed up in a box containing papers and stickers, photocopied readings and feedback sheets. This defence may not hold up in a court of law, but I know you trust my account.
The prison is not that far away, geographically speaking, from where I’m writing this now, at home. In other ways, however, it’s another world: where I am now there is the freedom to descend to the kitchen, fill up on coffee or snack on toast. I can choose something fresh and zesty or something warm and comforting, a new combination or something familiar. These are items that I’ve chosen, that create some sense of familiarity, curated for the moment. If the space has a smell, it is one that has been cultivated over time by its inhabitants, my family. It does not have that distinctive institutional smell of disinfectant mixed with blood, sweat and fear that a prison has. Or at least visitors have been too polite to mention it.
At the time of writing, I haven’t been back into the prison for a while, a period elongated by the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns. It feels like a long time since I was in the prison, and I miss the classroom space. It wasn’t an easy experience, because planning and organizing it from beyond the prison boundary can be stressful and tiring. As can the facilitation itself. Going through notes and interviews with participants helped transport me back to moments and sensations experienced in the prison classroom. The classroom itself generally felt like a convivial space, a chatty place where people engaged in conversation easily despite the constrained circumstances. This was a zone where people were able to express something of their real selves, exhibit different thoughts and feelings to the ones they typically felt able to show openly in their institution they ‘belonged’ to. It felt like an honest space, a space rendered sufficiently trustworthy for the people there to engage in conversation despite their deeply contrasting experiences of day-to-day life.
University students spoke about seeing the men as humans, as individuals they could relate to; with perspectives and experiences they could learn from. I remember clearly a university student explaining to me about how this experience had also helped to humanize myself and my colleague, university lecturers. Compared with a lecture theatre environment, she was more able to see us as individual people with real thoughts, views, emotions, a sense of humour and a life beyond university. I was slightly surprised, but it made sense, and I was pleased she felt able to say this. Some months later, I was lecturing during the pandemic lockdown and I was confronted with the realization that the experience of prattling away to my laptop alone in a room at home was likely further reducing my pedagogical humanity in the eyes of students.
Back in the prison classroom, and some of the thoughts, feelings and life experiences expressed weighed heavily on me and I took some of this away with me, without even realizing it at first. Finding the mug took me back to the session it came from, and then a previous session when we were taking a break.
At break-time, everyone mingled as a group. The second week was the first time during the course we were able to take in refreshments for the group. The prison had agreed to this and to provide the hot water in flasks, but nothing more. This contrasts with the experience of the very first course, in 2016, when we were eventually able to have lunch together from the restaurant. The food had been provided by the on-site restaurant and one of the prison students proudly showed off his baking skills. Now, the prison would not, or could not, provide refreshments because the restaurant had long since ‘temporarily’ closed, and has been ever since. We were now allowed to take certain – limited – items in. We took in some biscuits, fruit, juice, teas and coffee. I was pleased with this, as I recognized from a previous course that break time is important in setting some sort of tone, in communicating something of the course essence. Commensality tends to be more limited in our society these days, especially in prisoner society. It can helpfully echo the social nature of learning and helps humanize the space. It helps put people more at ease and communicates something of the pedagogical equity we’re aiming for during the sessions. Of course, there were considerable differences between the living circumstances of the people in the room. However, for these moments, social interaction was enabled and normalized, and subsequent conversations suggested it was a very welcome part of the overall setting. Just being able to converse with ‘normal’ people from beyond the prison boundary, who had no power or interest in impeding their paths to official rehabilitation, was experienced as worthwhile and valuable. Paired with new, fresh, products from the outside world, the effect was a sensory delight.
So, for me the mug is associated with a break, and yet a continuation of the values in the space, with informal dialogue privileged to facilitate interaction and the exchange of information, ideas and stories. The mug provided people with a vehicle for activity, or inactivity: something to do (make a drink), a catalyst for conversation, or a way to remove oneself from interaction for a short while. But the mug was never the main event, nor could it be, especially when drinks would have tasted so much better from something designed with a little more sensory pleasure in mind. The main event for me was the biscuits and these are good for generating abstract conversation (Little and Warr, 2022). There were some plainer classics (your ‘Nice’ biscuits – how do you pronounce that word?), some popular favourites (Jaffa Cakes are not cakes), through to some more luxurious chocolate coated options. These offerings were popular amongst some but the group was careful not to demolish them too quickly. There was no stashing of the goodies in socks, trackies and sleeves I had witnessed when running a similar (shorter) course in a local ‘resettlement’ prison. The most noteworthy observation, in fact, was a palpable initial reticence amongst the prison students to touch or consume the biscuits. ‘Are you sure we’re allowed these?’ I was asked by more than one prison learner. It took what felt like quite a while for one of the students to take a biscuit, despite there being some interest. It’s unusual for a group to resist the allure of such sugary treats. It’s also impossible to eat only one; fact. Based on my autoethnographic research replicated over many years.
Being genuinely asked by a grown man if they could eat a biscuit that had clearly been brought in partly for their benefit came as something of a shock to me. The reason became clear shortly afterwards when one of the prisoners explained that they had recently been explicitly told they should not eat the biscuits. It may even have been included in the prison’s pre-course information briefing session. They were led to believe from prior experience that indulging in biscuits could lead to a ‘nicking’ and they did not want to risk unnecessary aggro for the sake of a custard cream. Whatever the precise reason, it was clearly a shared understanding amongst the group and it took a surprisingly long time to encourage them that it would be ok, and without disciplinary consequence. It was in this moment I belatedly realized that at least some people in the room sensed that I had some power in proceedings, or responsibility, or both. I had been relatively oblivious to this until that point, and now it was being made explicit. Whilst this was ‘only’ about biscuits, the biscuits had become symbolic of these other currents related to power and permission. By the end of the session we were informed clearly not to bring in any shit biscuits again. By which was meant, none from a ‘basics’ range or that might be confused with something that might be easily available institutionally.
Whilst the biscuits, and the responses to them, were significant, they were not quite as big a hit as expected. They were definitely appreciated, but there were quite a few left. By the end of the break, this seemed less about perceptions of permission, and more about personal choice. For even more popular than the biscuits was the fruit that had been brought in; there were grapes and kiwis. I recall thinking that our inclusion of kiwis was a bit of a random touch. This was not the view of one of the prisoners. The unfamiliar fresh citrussy smells cut through the heavy, warm air like nothing else. The bright, natural fruity colours hypnotised their consumers for a few moments: ‘Woah, a kiwi; I haven’t had one of them in eight years’. Cue a conversation about the last time he had a kiwi and how the quality and quantity of fruit generally available in the prison was so limited, and poor. Likewise, the (decent, not from concentrate) fruit juice went down a storm. It reminded me of how important fresh fruit and vegetables are, especially in (island) communities when access is so restricted. It also reminded me that perceptions of what is valuable, are also highly contingent upon personal circumstances.
So, the tea, biscuits and fruit were popular, appreciated and came to symbolise break time. They were a good way of bringing people together for a chat, enhancing the comfort in the classroom space and helped people feel more at ease with each other. A sign that break times were ‘working’ well further occurred when men ‘doing time’ brought in their own tea to share with the group. This human desire to engage in exchange provided a nice touch and validated our sense that this had become a convivial space in which to teach and to learn. We had several more breaktimes like this over the following weeks. And then they changed.
During a later session, perhaps the fifth, the biscuits were stopped. Whilst exiting the prison the previous week we were told not to bring in any more fruit or biscuits for the sessions. This was disappointing but we complied with the request, which was made by a member of the education department staff. Curious to know the reason, the only explanation we received was a concern about ‘conditioning’. Conditioning seemed to be a new buzzword that was being lobbed around by certain staff to explain or justify any new restriction or cutback that further impoverished the regime. This is not to deny the existence of manipulation between people in prison and people employed to hold them there. Indeed, in recent years, there has been an increase in instances of drugs, mobile phones and sim cards being found in prisons. In the year prior to our course, it was reported in the national press that a lack of experienced prison officers had been blamed, in part, for these challenges (The Guardian, 2018). This played a part in the sensitivity towards some items being brought into the prison, such as grapes, kiwis and custard creams. Meanwhile, a prison mug escaped undetected.
Surveillance is most commonly conceived of as something electronic or machinic. Something that is primarily a ruling body or state’s power, but also increasingly a part of the everyday life we are accustomed to in the West: CCTV cameras, passports, and security, yes, now also credit cards, phones, social media, online shopping. The idea of surveillance creeping into everyday life is not new (Marx, 1988). In these everyday imaginings, “surveillance” signifies events happening all around us, somethingthat we step into, hold, tap, log onto; something done onto our bodies that we experience, might benefit or get pleasure from, that might trap us, help to kill us, or something that we resist.
It is a similar story in most academic literature: “surveillance” is defined as an act done by a state or powerful institution onto a subject and/or population involving machine technology (Monahan, 2006). It’s fair to say that surveillance studies is dominated by a desire to analyse and interrogate this rapid advent of new technologies that expand and proliferate surveillance systems both in-line with and away from state power (Finn, 2011: 415). Undoubtedly, examining technology-mediated surveillance is important. But this focus on new developments conceals how surveillance has long been a tool of colonial practices that continues to disproportionately impact the lifeworlds of colonised subjects, whilst sustaining the global violence of lingering empire (Browne, 2015; Ogasawara, 2019). Moreover, as Dubrofsky and Magnet (2015: 3) note in their influential text Feminist Surveillance Studies, focusing on machines distracts from the fact that in ‘its most basic structure, the act of surveillance has always existed in some form as the action of observing or the condition of being observed’. A particularly sensory – and human – observation.
The broader conception of surveillance as human has produced some fascinating explorations into visual surveillance. In Surveillance & Society’sspecial edition entitled ‘People Watching People’, Andrejevic (2004: 481) describes ‘lateral surveillance’: ‘not the top-down monitoring of employees by employers, citizens by the state, but rather the peer-to-peer surveillance of spouses, friends, and relatives’. In the same edition, Zurawski (2004: 499) examines the Northern Irish ‘“culture of watching”’ between people that is contextually specific to a landscape of conflict. Social media is, of course, a powerful tool of human visual surveillance par excellence, as humans connect, watch, and evaluate each other across the globe (Trottier, 2016). Steve Mann’s (2002) concept of “sousveillance” reveals a space within surveillance whereby humans can utilise their own personal technologies to look backat those in power, indicating possibilities of agency and resistance. Away from machines entirely, in Dark MattersBrowne (2015) examines surveillance’s colonial roots and coins “dark sousveillance”: a human countermodel to oppressive surveillance that emerges from sites of oppressed Blackness, offering hope for other ways of being. Similarly, Finn (2011) examines how “staring” and “being stared at” does a racialised visual surveillance to assign “belonging” and “unbelonging” along gendered lines within social spaces.
Being watched, watching others, watching ourselves. Familiar enough ideas – but what about the rest of the senses?
Within criminology there have been stimulating explorations into the importance of taking into account the total sensory mode: seeing and hearing, smelling, touching, tasting. The emergent field of “sensory criminology” highlighted in this blog shows how interrogating the affective phenomenological experience of being human enlivens studies of deviance, otherness, and criminality. In my own PhD thesis, I argue that essential to understanding the topic of surveillance is an examination of the full range of the senses and their individual and combined roles in practices of surveillance. With this expansive, affective view of sensation-as-surveillance, I study how surveillance is done by humans in everyday spaces and in everyday ways: put simply, I seek to sense surveillance.
One such everyday space is the gender-segregated public bathroom, a site of contested identity that, more so than any other social place, sustains rules about gender in ‘a quite literal way … mark[ing] people out as “normal” or deviant, law-abiding or criminal, safe or threatening’ (Barcan, 2005: 10-11). To enter, we must agree to the vulnerability of mixing with strangers at the same as revealing and opening our bodies. The public bathroom is also a site of significant sensory intensity saturated with sensory information: labels and signs, flickering lights, warm seats and door handles, banging doors, running liquids, flatulence, the stench of shit, piss, and bleach, coughing, mechanised gusts of hot air, shuffling feet. This sensory and affective intensity makes it an ideal site from which to explore how humans undertake a sensory surveillance of themselves and others around them in everyday spaces. And, in particular, in a space that increasingly features in the UK as a central arena for hostile attacks on trans people’s bathroom access (Jones and Slater, 2020). In the absence of formal gatekeepers comparing identity documents to bodies, such as the type you would find at an airport, the public bathroom is a site of concentrated informal governance. Individuals are empowered to informally police the space themselves in the pursuit of “safety” and “privacy”, in turn upholding particularly binary ‘gender laws’ (Barcan, 2005: 10-11). This pursuit manifests, in part, as sensory engagements with a latticework of spatial and bodily clues and cues that are used to “tell” who “belongs” where.
These clues and cues work simultaneously at the levels of architecture and the body, following deeply problematic binaries that make assumptions about bodily configuration. When we approach the public bathroom door – an architectural block cloaked as a common-sense object – and if we are able to enter, we undertake a series of complex, relational, and situational decisions that are part of our own self-regulation: What are we wearing? How are our bodies arranged? Do we match the space? What sensory signals are we giving off? Are we chatting in the ladies? Are we not-speaking in the men’s? Are we making sure to cover the sounds of piss, or openly farting? Are we in and out, or stuck in a queue complaining? All of this happens at a sensory level: we look at, we listen out for, we sniff, we touch. We feel our way in.
At the same time, we undertake a sensory assessment of those around us. For example, in my PhD I examine how assuming someone’s gender based on the length or their hair and their clothing style is visual surveillance; the assessment of someone’s vocal pitch as to whether they are a man or woman is aural; the smell of a place (so often used to describe the men’s) is olfactory. These sensory processes are not neutral: sensory attributes have long been assigned to some population groups in stereotypical and violent ways as part of the maintenance of homogenous power and normative borders. The ongoing patrolling of trans, queer, and non-normative bodies that in part occurs at the sensory level is connected to this history and demonstrates how the use of sensory evaluations is part of the ongoing construction of social power flows, as well as the surveillance and policing of gender. It is also leading to the increased verbal and physical harassment of different types of bodies in public bathrooms – because this assessment is not just about who “belongs” in what bathroom, but also about casting doubt onto some bodies who do not “seem right”, who are organised along a spectrum of “safe” to “dangerous” when being made “dangerous” can trigger a violent formal police response in worlds already hyperviolent for racialised queer and trans bodies.
In my thesis, I seek to explore the ways in which surveillance exists outside of and away from machines, and how it is so much more than watching others and being watched. Taking the public bathroom as an intense social site saturated with sensory surveillance I hope to add to, to complement, to provide another surveillant framework that attends to the complexity of human governance alive in everyday spaces. Sensing surveillance helps us to study the sensorium of everyday lifeworlds that construct and direct our experiences of ourselves and others, as well as account for the various sensory economies that are always at play, policing, informing, regulating. It helps us to see that surveillance does not just happen “over there” and is not something new – it is perpetual, endless.
Andrejevic M (2004) The work of watching one another: Lateral surveillance, risk, and governance. Surveillance & Society 2(4).
Barcan R (2005) Dirty spaces: Communication and contamination in men’s public toilets. Journal of International Women’s Studies 6(2): 7-23.
Browne S (2015) Dark matters. Duke University Press.
Dubrofsky RE and Magnet S (2015) Feminist surveillance studies. Duke University Press Durham, NC.
Finn RL (2011) Surveillant staring: Race and the everyday surveillance of South Asian women after 9/11. Surveillance & Society 8(4): 413-426.
Jones C and Slater J (2020) The toilet debate: Stalling trans possibilities and defending ‘women’s protected spaces’. The Sociological Review 68(4): 834-851.
Marx GT (1988) Undercover: police surveillance in America. Univ of California Press.
Monahan T (2006) Surveillance and security: Technological politics and power in everyday life. Taylor & Francis.
Ogasawara M (2019) Mainstreaming colonial experiences in surveillance studies. Surveillance & Society 17(5): 726-729.
Trottier D (2016) Social media as surveillance: Rethinking visibility in a converging world. Routledge.
Zurawski N (2004) ” I Know Where You Live!”–Aspects of Watching, Surveillance and Social Control in a Conflict Zone (Northern Ireland). Surveillance & Society 2(4).
“I’m very glad you asked me that, Mrs Rawlinson. The term `holistic’ refers to my conviction that what we are concerned with here is the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. I do not concern myself with such petty things as fingerprint powder, telltale pieces of pocket fluff and inane footprints. I see the solution to each problem as being detectable in the pattern and web of the whole. The connections between causes and effects are often much more subtle and complex than we with our rough and ready understanding of the physical world might naturally suppose, Mrs Rawlinson” —– Douglas Adams Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
I’m an academic, a criminologist focusing on prisons research. I’m also dyspraxic. This means I tend to experience the world as a maelstrom of sounds, colours, and textures. This sensory information is a challenge to process. Bright lights and sharp sounds heighten my disorientation and difficulty making my way through space. Keeping track of legs and arms while in motion requires consuming levels of concentration. Floundering in real time as I attempt to impose memory to get from here to there – using sound for primitive echolocation in a clumsy attempt to forecast coming obstacles. This outward chaos echoes the indistinct, interconnected blurring mass of ideas, sensations, feelings. Sitting down to work, to make sense of this overwhelming sensorium, means gearing up to wrestle a many-tendrilled beast of distractions. I cast blindly for the words to explicate this confusion of sensorial input, to impose some form and order.
In new and hectic environments, I experience this sensory overload as physical discomfort. Loud, sudden sound stings my ears, freezing my thoughts. I recoil from bright light which dazzles and discombobulates. I avoid touching and being touched in unfamiliar surrounds lest its novelty proves too intense and jars with my attempts to navigate space. I constantly try to maintain a smooth projection of normality, as I balance unruly limbs and focus thoughts all the while under the threat of halting disruption by the addition of one curve ball, some new and unanticipated thing; an innocuous instruction or request.
Visiting prison for the first time as a library assistant, the sensory experience of this alien space lodged deep in my memory. Over ten years on (and having returned to this particular prison on a couple of subsequent occasions) I revisit that same sensation by degree entering this closed and secret place as a researcher. The sounds, smells, and institutional hues intensify with each new creaking and clanging of an unlocked gate. Within the prison’s central control point, dizzying spurs (landings) stretch upwards and around in a sharp symphony of disorientating shouts, cries, bangs and jangles…Overwhelmed by this swirling soundscape, I lose all concentration.
What can this auditory deluge tell us about what it means to exist in prisons? How does it affect people and shape relationships within these most peculiar spaces? I feel through the inarticulable sensory fog, this thick plate glass, this just-too-much for words to convey sensory experience of this social world and fight to impose some sequence on this blurry collection of stuff. By focusing less on these distant, blunt-wordy tools, and more on the feelings, sounds and senses they can capture, the chaos calms. The sensory overload is partially abated and I can begin to discern a story through the “fundamental interconnectedness” of all these things:
Infliction of physical pain, non-consensual touch, slopping out, subjection to loud noise, social isolation – these are all experiences within penal settings of subjection to, or deprivation of, certain sensations, smells and sounds which are deeply relevant for understanding the nature of dignity violations. From our perspective as researchers analysing the interpretation of the right not to be subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, in particular in European human rights law, we reflect on how a human rights lens has potential to illuminate why those involved in the governance and/or oversight of penal institutions should be concerned with the sensory. At the same time, we reflect on what those of us engaged in illuminating and concretising human rights can learn from bringing the sensory into focus; on how it can deepen our understanding of what is actually going on at the level of individual experience, and in turn shape our understanding of what falls within the purview of a legal norm such as the right not to be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
The way that individuals experience dignity respect or disrespect is a core concern in the penal context. In human rights doctrine, dignity language is particularly prominent in relation to the experience of prisoners and other detainees, including in immigration detention. The , dealing with the treatment of prisoners, state in the very first sentence of the very first rule that “all prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.”
This is a powerful, if uncertain, red line. A challenge for working with the dignity idea is that it doesn’t possess a neatly labelled, off-the-shelf meaning in human rights discourse (or any other discourse). International agreements and human rights treaties are not philosophical works; they only try to capture and convey a sense of shared, social values. To understand the substance of dignity from a human rights perspective then, we have to piece together fragments of these shared understandings with the texts, with the pronouncements of monitoring bodies about the circumstances before them, and with theoretical accounts of dignity’s meaning. When we do so, we see patterns and gain insight into connections between sensory experience and dignity, respect and disrespect, as we outline below.
While the idea of dignity may be associated with metaphysical properties, it is a multi-faceted notion and contemporary accounts embrace its richness. It is widely recognised that human dignity is bound up with embodiment, and that dignity violations are socially-embedded experiences. Besides the ways the sensory can play a key role in the distress and harm that certain circumstances can occasion, sensory experience can also form part of actual and symbolic communication of a person’s perceived exclusion from the human community.
The sensory dimensions of physical torture in detention, perhaps the prototypical violation of human dignity, are well documented in testimony and scholarship. One example is Elaine Scarry’s landmark study in the 1980s, The Body in Pain, which connected the wrongness of torture, not only to physical sensation but also to loss of voice; a perverse substitution of ‘voice’ with ‘sound’ (chapter 1). Scarry explains how this perversion becomes a key dimension of the experience, devised to impact not only the person subjected to torture but also those subjected to hearing it.
Eventually the pain so deepens that the coherence of complaint is displaced by the sounds anterior to learned language. The tendency of pain not simply to resist expression but to destroy the capacity for speech is in torture renanacted in overt, exaggerated form. Even where torturers do not permanently eliminate the voice through mutilation or murder, they mime the work of pain by temporarily breaking off the voice, making it their own, making it speak their words, making it cry out when they want it to cry, be silent when they want it’s silence, turning it on and off, using its sound to abuse the one whose voice it is as well as other prisoners (p. 54).
As Oliver describes it in discussing Scarry’s account alongside survivor testimony, enforced “linguistic paralysis” becomes an act of exclusion (Oliver 2011, p. 92).
The connection between sensory experience and inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment is not as well documented. This is partly because these wrongs have been subject to less attention than the prototypical experience of torture; they are often seen as less ‘severe’ and thereby less concerning. These forms of treatment, however, should not be seen as being of lesser importance or impact on those who are subjected to them, and sensory experience can be integral to what makes treatment or punishment inhuman or degrading in character.
In the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECtHR) case law we find inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment often characterised by subjection to humiliation and/or suffering through manipulation of, or insensitivity towards, sensory experiences. We see this in noise subjection or sensory destabalisation through hooding as part of interrogation practices, such as the ‘five techniques’ of interrogation (hooding, noise subjection, stress positions, deprivation of sleep and deprivation of food and drink) that were the subject of a finding of inhuman and degrading treatment in Ireland v. United Kingdom (Ireland v. United Kingdom, 5310/71, 18 January 1978). Concretely, the continuous use of a dark hood as part of the “five techniques” served to cause not only substantial discomfort and disorientation, but also profound distress; Survivors of these ‘five techniques’, who are often referred to as the ‘Hooded Men’ have recounted having a a hood placed over their heads and being thrown off flying helicopters, not knowing that the helicopters were flying only a short distance from the ground. The debilitating implications of such ‘techniques’ have more recently been recognised in findings of torture in the context of CIA rendition and co-called ‘standard interrogation’ and ‘enhanced interrogation’ practices (e.g. Al Nashiri v. Poland, 28761/11, 24 July 2014) and the enduring image of the Hooded Man in Abu Ghraib. We also see a recognition of the significance of sensory experience in the ECtHR’s attention to such things as the cumulative effects of airplane noise and constant loudspeaker announcements on a child in immigration detention (see A.B. and others v France, 11593/12, 12 July 2016), or carelessness regarding the impact of not being able to hear or to see as a result of impairment (Ābele v Latvia, 60429/12, 5 October 2017; Slyusarev v Russia, 60333/00, 20 April 2010). Moreover, non-consensual physical impingement on one’s body is a recurring concern in case-law, from a slap on the face (Bouyid v Belgium, 233380/09, 28 September 2015) to the performance of full body searches (Valašinas v Lithuania, 44558/98, 24 July 2001). Further, the ECtHR has repeatedly underlined, in the context of the imposition of segregation in penal settings, that “complete sensory isolation, coupled with total social isolation can destroy the personality and constitutes a form of inhuman treatment” (Onoufriou v Cyprus, 24407/04 10 December 2009, para. 69). Sensory experience does not constitute the full picture of dignity violations, but it can be a key aspect of treatment that reflects or communicates dignity and disrespect.
Recognising this is beneficial for furthering our understanding of dignity and its concretisation from within a human rights law perspective. In the context of human rights law – both legal instruments and case law – individual and communal experiences are filtered into the legal form, of proscriptive abstract statements and narratives retold for the purpose of judicial decision-making. As such, the totality of particular experiences is not – and cannot be – conveyed or appreciated in this forum. For this reason, we’ve found it interesting to reflect on how attention to sensory experience can help shape the delineation of dignity-respecting treatment beyond its partial rendering in legal texts, through a richer understanding of what is really going on at the level of an individual’s experiences of violations of the prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Notably, there is substantial scope within the ECtHR’s case law on inhuman and degrading treatment for the recognition of the way in which (cumulative) sensory experiences, or lack thereof, may communicate, often in diffuse fashion, distinct from the “fanfare” (Luban 2014, p. 129) of torture, a denial of equal humanity; and how they may serve, intentionally or not, to wear someone down, or even break their spirit. Often this recognition is present, but goes unspoken – the sensory dimensions of one’s subjection to profound powerlessness, severe distress, or loss of hope, are often to be found between the lines of the Court’s reasoning – for example, when the Court sets out an acceptable square metres per person to avoid overcrowding (e.g. Muršić v. Croatia, 7334/13, 20 October 2016), or when it deems detention conditions to be ‘insanitary’ (e.g. Kalashnikov v. Russia, 47095/99, 15 July 2002), or describes prolonged solitary confinement as “one of the most serious measures which can be imposed within a prison” (e.g. A.B. v. Russia, 1439/06, 14 October 2010), para. 104, 112).
In a sphere of judicial decision-making where empathy can play a significant role (Heri 2021, chapter 7), it is worth asking: what would be the impact if human rights doctrine were to accommodate a more immersive sensory experience of the places and circumstances faced by individuals? How might such an approach inform judicial responses to carceral settings in particular? The “vividness of imagined experiences” (Webster 2018, p. 71) within judicial reasoning might be enhanced by a greater appreciation of sensory dimensions. While there seems to be something particularly relevant from a dignity perspective about the social gaze, the way that individuals see themselves, and the presence of onlookers in judgments surrounding torture, inhuman and/or degrading treatment or punishment, the significance of seeing need not negate the significance of sensing more broadly. There is space for these broader perspectives to enrich context-sensitive assessments (see discussion in Mavronicola 2021, p. 93-105) of when particular experiences fall within the scope of the prohibition of torture, inhuman and/or degrading treatment or punishment.
Foregrounding the sensory within human rights law perspectives could constitute a valuable resource, just as connecting the sensory to the language of dignity within criminological perspectives could constitute a valuable resource. And it goes without saying that, in scrutinising the experience of persons in detention, there is a continued need to engage creatively with all the resources we have available.
Recently, whilst designing a research project, I decided to look back on and examine my own experiences of participating in criminological research. I wanted to reflect on how we design and conduct research, bringing in knowledge of how it feels to be on the other side of the screen. I am a victim-survivor of abuse and have taken part in a small number of academic projects relating to this over the years. As I have only taken part in online interviews, and with an awareness many victim-survivors will experience the process differently to the way I do, I decided to investigate, and this is where I discovered a gaping hole in our conversations. There is plenty written about ‘ethical’ practice with victims of crime (Newman et al, 2006; Burgess-Proctor, 2014), how academics experience conducting their own research (Rice, 2009; Ross, 2017), and how methods may be experienced by participants (see Hlavka et al, 2007 and Campbell et al, 2009). But notably, almost all of this is written by and filtered through researchers, usually based on post-interview questions about the participant’s experience of the process. I question the effectiveness of this. How freely can those who have just sat in their vulnerability critique those imbued with more power? Participants do not have the same space to communicate for themselves about their experiences of taking part, and it seems that this has resulted in the loss of some of the nuance of emotions and sensations that taking part in research as a victim of crime can elicit.
Your research projects come into our lives suddenly and unexpectedly. Most often this is via a social media post, perhaps seen on a Saturday afternoon whilst I am sat with my family. There is a juxtaposition in this, the softness and warmth of my home against the harsh reminder of the world that exists outside of and prior to this new reality I have created. The pain which permanently exists under the surface is brought to the fore. But something about the research draws my interest and makes me stop, or go back to it. Curiosity perhaps. Most people don’t want to hear about my past, my existence is too uncomfortable for them to acknowledge and so they strip it from me on my behalf. We don’t have to talk about that. But I want to talk about it, and suddenly my head is bursting with things I didn’t know I wanted to say.
The words are almost tumbling out as I type a controlled message offering my time. Tap, tap, tap. My finger hesitates over the little arrow before I hit send. An odd thing about participating in research as a victim of abuse is that alongside the desire to be heard, worry and shame creep in at this point. Worry because I now have all these things I want to say, and if they say no I will have nowhere to put them. I will be left scrabbling to contain them again. I know I will be disappointed because the child within who couldn’t speak now desperately wants to be heard. The shame sits in my having contacted this ever-so-important person at all. Abuse lies, tells you that you have nothing of value to offer. Shame is the feeling of taking up too much space, and of needing to squash yourself into the smallest possible version so as not to trouble anyone. I am probably wasting their time.
Something that often goes unconsidered when designing time or resource pressured research is how we will communicate with people if they do not fit our study, or if we have finished data collection. Sometimes these limits are framed as ensuring researchers are not ‘over collecting’ data so as not to upset people unnecessarily, which while intended to be ethical, is actually cruel in its denial. What may seem like an innocuous email to say no thank you, might be experienced as deeply painful to someone who has already given something of themselves. If it has to be, effectively communicating why the decision has been made alongside a sincere acknowledgement that you appreciate them taking the time to get in touch can make all the difference to someone who has been repeatedly told they are not enough.
But in this case they say yes, and the interview is arranged. The screen flicks on, and the things most immediately apparent to me are that I am not in control, and the attention is entirely on me. In a way which is hard to put my finger on this feels reminiscent of the crimes I experienced. The distance through the screen mimics the disconnect I once felt with the world around me. The invisible bubble. The Untouchable. Suddenly I am acutely aware of the chair digging into my back, of not knowing where to put my arms and legs. Everything feels wrong. I feel myself shift uncomfortably whilst I try to project the image that everything is okay. Smile. That’s what ‘in control’ looks like, right? Is it? I can’t quite remember. Adrenaline floods my body; I can hear my heartbeat and I can feel that I am shaking slightly. Thump-thump, thump-thump. I clench my muscles in an attempt to regain some control. All of my senses tunnel in on this interaction, and everything else around me almost ceases to exist. There is an eerie stillness in being hyperaware of your breathing, of the tenseness in your body, in perceiving the other person, offset by the relative silence around me as my brain mutes out background information. But I want to do this. I focus on the questions, and on saying what I want to convey. Time and space begin to contort as I narrate both in the then and the now.
I wonder what the researcher sees in this moment. I suspect not much. Many victim-survivors, especially adult survivors of childhood trauma, are experts at masking pain. We often hide our experiences for many years, learning as children to live in disguise. Online research makes it easier for me to mask my distress. I can position my screen so that all you see is my face. So that you don’t witness the shaking, the shifting, the fiddling with a piece of Blu Tack. Abuse taught me how to disassociate my mind from my body, and I subconsciously do that now. I have learnt to mute myself, to deny my own physicality. I have learnt to silence myself before I am silenced, as a form of control. To exist in a half form so that I might be palatable.
Researchers may develop a strategy for managing participants distress, but in order to implement this we need to have perceived it. This can be difficult if someone is not visibly upset. Using Fricker’s concept of ‘hermeneutical injustice’ (2007), it is hard for me to communicate my experiences in a way which others will understand without showing them the physical effect on me. Abuse is inherently sensory, I can explain it only in how it felt, in sounds, and smells. Without this framework it is hard for others to comprehend, but this level of detail can be hard for researchers to hear, and so many reject it. ‘I don’t want you to get upset, shall we stop’, centres the researcher and inadvertently communicates that this may be becoming too much for you. That you want to stop. For me, my becoming upset isn’t necessarily a negative thing. In fact this may be one of very few spaces I can express myself in an authentic way. ‘Remember that this is your space, we can do whatever you need ’ communicates that the participant is in control, and gives someone whose “no” has previously been ignored permission to advocate for themselves. To be present in their whole form. To exist.
Afterwards the adrenaline floods out of my body, like a tidal wave has crashed and dissipated, leaving me tired and drained. But this experience has also felt freeing; I have put down some of the heavy stones which I carry. Brené Brown once said that “shame thrives on secrecy, silence and judgement. Shame cannot survive being spoken” (2012). In the very act of speaking, in a scenario where I have the safety of remaining anonymous, some of the shame I feel has been drawn out and leached. I have released it, and it less so belongs to me. Each time I speak, my body feels a little lighter to inhabit. I feel proud, and the warm swell that starts in my chest grows and spreads down each arm and into my fingertips. I feel bigger somehow, like an unfurling, and it is one of those rare occasions where it feels good to take up space. To have grasped at power in the choice of speaking. Of, in some small way, helping those who will come after me. In this moment I feel strong, and defiant.
Something that has come to interest me is the question of whether there is a risk that participants may feel emotions ‘outside of normal experience’, and I wonder who’s experiences we are using to define ‘normal’? To those who have not experienced trauma, what I have described would seem to be ‘outside of normal experience’. But I exist within and navigate this space every day. When I watch a film or go online, I do so knowing that I could be confronted with abuse at any time. I go out in public knowing that men will sometimes stand a little too close behind me. I have learnt to navigate and manage these things because abuse is a life sentence. I will never cease to be a victim-survivor. There is an arrogance in the assumption that I do not live with my experiences outside of academia’s research interests.
My identity has been forcibly and irrevocably changed, but that does not mean that I will never be in a position to talk about my experiences. Yes, talking about it is painful, but the silencing hurts more. Returning to Fricker’s work (2007), there is violence in the testimonial injustice inflicted on those who have experienced abuse, in the academy’s refusal to accept our right to frame our own narrative and make our own decisions about our ability to participate safely. The chokehold of his hand and of his threats now manifests in the chokehold of others’ discomfort, and in my fear of being cast out. The body has an horrendous ability to remember and replicate the bodily sensations of being silenced. And so important things remain unspoken, and I remain unseen. Being told my truth cannot exist in the world because of someone else’s perception of what is an ‘acceptable’ level of emotion is akin to having my voice removed once more. It is the imposition of power, of being spoken for, in others attempts to manage ‘risk’.
As soon as I was made a victim of abuse my entire existence became defined by risk. My risk of poor mental health. Of relationship breakdowns. Of chronic illness. Nothing is ever defined in relation to my strength. My power. My capacity to create change. I am an adult with the rights to make my own decisions, and I can assure you that victim-survivors do not speak without careful consideration and assessment first. Finding the balance is tricky, but in our desire to protect our participants we must also take care not to stifle those who want to speak, because of our failure to confront our own discomfort and fear. If you are not prepared to hear then do not do research with victims of crime, or you will compound and become complicit in the violence of our forced dissonance from the self.
Going back to rupi kaur’s poem, every day I become less afraid of my own voice. But in it’s assertions that it is acting in my best interests, I feel deeply the silencing and rejection from an academy which is afraid of hearing me.
Burgess-Proctor, A. (2014) Methodological and ethical issues in feminist research with abused women: Reflections on participants’’ vulnerability and empowerment. Women’s Studies International Forum, 48.
Campbell, R., Adams, A., Wasco, S., Ahrens, C. and Sefl, T. (2009) Training Interviewers for Research on Sexual Violence: A Qualitative Study of Rape Survivors’ Recommendations for Interview Practice. Violence Against Women, 15(5).
Fricker, M. (2007) Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hlavka, H. Kruttschnitt, C. and Carbone-López, K. (2007) Revictimizing the victims? Interviewing women about interpersonal violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 22(7).
Kaur, R. (2015) Milk and Honey. Missouri: Andrews McMeel Publishing.
Newman, E., Risch, E. and Kassam-Adams, N. (2006) Ethical Issues in Trauma-Related Research: A Review. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 1(3).
Rice, C. (2009) Imagining the other? Ethical challenges of researching and writing women’s embodied lives. Feminism and psychology, 19(2).
Ross, L. (2017) An Account from the Inside: Examining the Emotional Impact of Qualitative Research Through the Lens of “Insider Research”. Qualitative Psychology, 4(3).
Sensory criminology stresses the utility of broader, sensory experience for understanding processes of criminal justice. In doing so, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of over-emphasising the novelty of such approaches, but this would be to overlook the ways in which the sensory is deeply embedded in criminal justice practices. There are a host of exciting and innovative projects and people in a number of fields, doing vital work such as Forensic architecture, a research agency investigating an array of human and nature rights abuses, based at Goldsmiths using all manner of innovative approaches both applied and theoretical. Their Saydnaya project with Amnesty international is a persuasive demonstration of how the sensory can be combined with other techniques to powerful effect. They met with survivors and used their testimony to create an account of what went on behind the prison walls, using architectural and acoustic modelling. Kate McClean’s work in Sensory maps is another example of the ways foregrounding the sensory provide a means of deepening and broadening our understanding. The Odeuropanetwork, and their site host a number of innovative cross-disciplinary initiatives. It is not new developments I wish to focus on here, but the contention that the value of attending to the sensory is evident in established criminal justice practices – specifically in the form of cognitive interviewing – and that acknowledging this raises interesting and important questions for criminology.
Cognitive interviewing (CI) demarcates emotions and the senses, usefully distinguishing between these separate realms of experience. CI and the ideas that underpin it, provide an example of how sensory sources of knowledge are embedded in forms of criminal justice. Exploring these methods further reveals how an absence of dialogue between practice and theory has – in the case of the sensory – left theory lagging behind. Attending to the broader uses of sensory experience provides powerful instruction for research practice, and a means of deepening our understanding of violence and its impact.
Cognitive interviewing is a technique used for accurate information retrieval and/or “research synthesis” in social science, forensic and health settings (e.g. Miller et al. 2014; Beatty and Willis 2007). CI is a means of improving the quality of questionnaire data as well as a host of other applications for gathering information, but has gained greatest traction as a technique for interviewing victims and witnesses following a crime – most usually of a more serious, violent nature. In England and Wales CI was nationally wheeled out in 1993 (Shepherd et al. 1999). Its implementation across Australian, American and Canadian police services has been somewhat piecemeal though encouraging witnesses to “rely on their senses” in the process of interview retrieval has a long history, if often focused on speedily concluding investigation and suspects’ testimony (Alpert et al 2012). It has been demonstrated to be more effective than either standard interviewing or hypnosis (Geiselmen et al 1985). Its precision has been built upon in subsequent refinements in both practice and theory, while retaining its two core objectives: retrieving as much accurate information as possible, while safeguarding the wellbeing of the interviewee.
How does it work?
CI works to increase the amount and accuracy of memory retrieval, by circumventing the trauma, arousal and/or anxiety induced by witnessing or being involved in a violent event and minimising the conflabulations (the filling of gaps in memory with believed but false recollection) and inaccuracies that can result. CI places the health and wellbeing of the interviewee at the centre of the process by increasing their agency and control over the course of the interview. This is underscored by the crossover in use of these techniques in therapeutic and forensic settings. While cognitive interviewing has been enhanced and further developed, the basic cognitive theory and principles of memory its retrieval remain; i)in times of stress and trauma memory is better elicited when the broad conditions of the event are recreated, ii)when the subject is encouraged to think about all manner of detail, and iii)when they are encouraged to revisit the event from different points and iv)different perspectives.
These four points of memory retrieval strongly insinuate the sensory. They encourage the foregrounding of detail and perspective which might otherwise be regarded as peripheral, thereby utilising the weaknesses and quirks of memory while under duress; e.g. the trauma and/or distress of being caught up in a violent event. Lieutenant Jason Potts illustrates this point when he quotes Lisak (2002): “Victims are often able to recall the texture of a rapist’s shirt before being able to remember if the suspect was wearing a hat”. Reliving rich and vivid sensory experience, or “flashbacks”, characterise intrusive recollections; a “hallmark” of post-traumatic stress disorder (Clancy et al. 2020). Lee Broadbent’s tweet powerfully illustrates the debilitating effects of these intrusive, traumatic revisitations for witnesses, victims and those caught up in the aftermath of violent events. Effects cognitive interviewing can work to manage.
It is increasingly acknowledged that these techniques are useful when interviewing suspects too. This more accurately reflects the significant number of perpetrators of violent offences who are identified as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and associated symptomscknowled. Acknowledging the complicated relationships between victim, perpetrator, violence and trauma also works to disrupt the simplistic binaries we tend to ascribe these categories (e.g. Ternes et al. 2019).
Why this matters
Cognitive interviewing has the subject/participants wellbeing at its core, providing a means of extending greater agency and control over the narrative course. This allows those being interviewed to reflect on their responses in was which extricate their emotional response from their recollections. In this way, sensory memories form part of a broader repertoire of coping strategies, lending greater power to the interviewee in ways which safeguard their wellbeing and protect them against additional trauma. This distinction between feeling and feelings, provides a useful means of distinguishing the sensory from the realm of emotions for which it often provides a powerful conduit. While memory of our senses can offer a compelling means of evoking emotion, they are entirely separate facets of human experience. The senses are not emotions and collapsing them risks obfuscating both our recognition of the epistemological and methodological potential of the sensory and our understanding of how we make sense of our world.
Potts persuasively argues that cognitive interviewing can enhance police legitimacy when dealing sensitively with victims and witnesses of crime. He demonstrates the value of considering how these long-established knowledges can be better and more consistently incorporated into practice. In the social sciences, these approaches to working with people who may be vulnerable and/or have suffered traumatic experiences, offers instruction for how we may proceed more ethically in the field. Attending to the sensory highlighted this in my own practice, providing me with a means of working carefully when researching sound in the prison environment. Considering the utlity of cognitive interviewing also serves to validate the role of the sensory in understanding matters criminological. In this aspect of criminology, theory is substantially behind practice. We speak about the iterative process between research and theory but attending more closely (and carefully) to the sensory reveals a chasm in communication between those of us who talk and teach and those of us who do and practice. The deeply embedded practices and wisdom of CI illustrate how impoverished our thinking can be in the absence of these conversations.
Being more sensitised to the sensory onslaught which characterises the aftermath of trauma allows us to better comprehend the profound toll of those working with violence and its aftermath. Accounting for how the sensory can be a source of intrusive recollection and distress allows for a more sensitive response to victims of violent crime, as Potts persuasively argued. More controversially, perhaps, this also carves out space for considering the impact of violence – as well as the often complicated and pre-existing relationship with it – for those who engagined in it. It is not so much the extension of these techniques in the field of interrogating suspects I argue for here, but rather what this affords us in greater and deeper understanding of a complex criminological phenomenon. Often, representations of violence become couched in those tensions between moral and legal discourse, to the detriment of disinterested inquiry. We cannot see, hear, smell, feel for the emotions that so frequently characterise responses to criminal justice (Karstedt et al 2011).
CI is an example of the ways in which the sensory informs practice and understanding in the realm of crime investigation. It also demonstrates the value of honouring the iterative process between practice and theory as it extends beyond our academic realm. Here is a means of clearly distinguishing between our sensory and emotional worlds, and an opportunity to reassess our understanding of violence and trauma. Far from being a frivolous novelty, or an academic indulgence, exploring the ideas underpinning the development and deep-rootedness of CI illustrates the profound source of understanding offered by our senses.
For more on this, and the potentials of sensory methods for understanding criminological practices and processes, please see our forthcoming chapter: Herrity, K., Schmidt, B., Warr, J.J. “Sensory “Heteroglossia” and Social Control: Sensory Methodology and Method“ in Dodge, M., Faria, R. (eds) Qualitative Research in Criminology: Cutting Edge Methods. Springer
Alpert, G.P., Rojek, J. and Noble, J. (2012) ‘The cognitive interview in policing: negotiating control’, Australian Research Council, Centre for Excellence in Policing briefing paper, issue 13. Available online: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/30678703.pdf
Beatty, J.C., Willis, G.B. (2007) “Research synthesis: the practice of cognitive interviewing”, Public Opinion Quarterly 71(2): 287-311.
Shepherd, E., Mortimer, A., Turner, V. and Watson, J. (1999) ‘Spaced cognitive interviewing: facilitating therapeutic and forensic narration of traumatic memories’, Psychology, Crime and Law 5(1-2): 117-143.
Ternes, M., Cooper, B.S., Griesel, D. (2019) “The perpetration of violence and the experience of trauma: exploring predictors of PTSD symptoms in male violent offenders” International Journal of Forensic Health Vol.19, No.1
The theatre of law, the performance of accountability, justice and peace. The aesthetic grandeur of shiny courtroom glass, the scent of polished wooden fixings and fittings, the nostalgia of legal dress: dark shades of silk, the gleaming white centrepiece of robes, and the noticeable absence of clustered horsehair. The glare of the world through high-end Sony lenses, strategically placed to capture the actors in this performance of law. Their moments of triumph, despair, authority, indifference. The abrupt but comforting material banality of security x-ray machines, the fire evacuation diagram fastened to a wall, the heavily branded hot drinks machine, which accompanies, bears witness to these seismic life events.
Parallel to the public spectacle of international criminal justice, are the behind-the-scenes activities, back passages and corridors that is the legal archive documenting, recording, categorising, constructing, producing stories of past events, actions, actors, and experiences.
The archive, the material – who is it for? Me the researcher, me the teacher, me the curious member of the public? The legal people: lawyers, clerks, the investigators, the victims’ advisers? Them, over there, the individual, community, society, the bearers of trauma, the nameless who international justice purports to put centre stage, but all too often remain distant, absent, at the margins, a hollowed out rhetorical vessel of hope?
Space, place, and material stimulate the senses and memories. The distant memory of a particular smell. A trivial touch that thrusts us back to a moment of lived potency. The low toned circular sound of machinery providing momentary soothing respite. These stimulations are particularly evident at sites such as legal archives documenting traumatic pasts.
Archives are not neutral depositories of history.1 They are interplays of social, legal, cultural, and political constructs.2 Archives are also not neutral in the way they stimulate memories and the senses, which directly interacts and shapes our experience both of them and the stories within.
A legal archive: outside
The manmade and natural environment neighbouring an archive building can act as sources of sensory and memory stimulation before one enters, but which may journey with us inside. A soft warm breeze gently resting on our skin, meandering through our nasal cavities tickles a fond memory of a day in the countryside. Ascending the few steps leading to the building’s entrance a slightly out-of-place and elevated concrete slab engages at speed with the toes of our left foot. A first jolt forward head overtakes the knees, the right foot steadies the body, a quick glance around to see if anyone has witnessed this embarrassment, followed by an attempt at normalcy. A memory of vulnerability presents itself, not a specific memory but a feeling which like the blown seeds of a dandelion, scatter and linger in the mind. We open the door and enter.
A legal archive: inside
The bright and artificial harsh lighting makes it clear we have entered the institution. The small circular green and amber lights rhythmically flash as we pass through the metal detector. The sights and sounds of the archive reception room bring a sense of excitement and anticipation for the explorations to come. At the same time, the mood board of memory and sensory stimulation gathered during our morning remains close. The catalogue, a formidable gatekeep of the archive. It simultaneously brings a sense of order whilst being an unrelenting and impenetrable mass – numbers, labels, titles, dates. The rhythmic and authoritative ascending numbers and letters of archival coding, only partially quenches the sensory overload.
The material and post-conflict communities
Testimonies of action, the premeditated and spontaneous, the mundane. Spoken by witnesses, victims, perpetrators, foreigners. The objective storytelling of forensic reports, the matter-of-fact experience of death and suffering, the clinical imagery of x-rays showing a single neat bullet hole in the cranium of a nameless victim: ‘female, age 13-17’, a statistical accolade marking the failings of humanity. The letters and diary entries of perpetrators detailing, a ruthless plan, the functionary itinerary of a top-brass meeting, self-reflections on loneliness and fear. Imagery, the theatre of the trial, visual representations of atrocity, but also the everyday lived realities of its aftermath, and the intimate portraits of family celebrations before the violence.
These materials are memories, fragments of memories, which unlike the theatre of law whose story is singular and rigid, are plural, fluid and dynamic. These somewhat side-lined fragments can stimulate the senses, memory and dialogue, and between individuals and within communities. Words can be hard to find, particularly those that seek to describe traumatic and complex social events and relationships. The material fragments of memory through its sensory stimulation can be a gateway to articulating plural experiences of shared traumatic pasts, and connections to the present and future. The material fragments of memory in atrocity legal archives can open up understanding about how justice, peace, and social repair might look, sound and feel like to those who have experienced horrendous suffering.
Sight: the Rockstar of the senses
Sight as a tool to explore crime, law and justice, especially the ‘serious’ international versions has elevated this sense into somewhat of a socialite of the senses: wherever there is a sensory ‘gig’ sight is there at the top table of the VIP room. Before the tumbleweed crossing this blog occurs following the exiting of offended visually-orientated readers, the ocular has a lot to offer archival fragments of memory. A photograph of the post-conflict period depicting an image of a church could stimulate plural dialogue. Photographs are sites not when meaning is given but where meaning is negotiated and searched for. But, to fully seek the potential of archival fragments of memories for local communities we must consider not only the ‘look at me, look at me’ socialite of the senses but embrace the opportunities of the wider sensory field.
The sensory entourage
The sounds of atrocity, justice and attempts to navigate life in the aftermath of violence, are sources of stimulation. A stimulation of memories about difficult past events: both the internal memories of lived experiences, and external memories of narratives and trauma connected to lived realities but belonging to other people. The fragments of sound can also stimulate memories that are somewhat detached from the origins of the aural source though can equally stimulate reflection, exploration and dialogue. Touch, taste and smell are also present in archival encounters, sometimes through physical interaction with the material, and sometimes through the visuality which stimulates a past scent, a forgotten touch, a sweet taste. The senses, like memory, do not exist in an enclosed sphere, like an ornamental snow globe that when shaken the snow travels only within the boundaries of the glass wall. Instead, the senses are dynamic and fluid, pivoting from one direction to another sometimes with no warning and dashing in different directions. The lived reality of shared past experiences is plural, and the untethered nature of the senses is arguably a core component of legal archive material as well as post-conflict communities engagement with them.
International criminal justice likes distance, it embraces it, usually insists on it. The justification for this distancing from the sites of atrocity is neutrality and objectivity, to keep it sterile from the events it is judging.3 The archives of international justice are also distant from those these courts claim to put centre stage: none of the archives are located within the territories of the affected communities. Some material of international criminal justice is digitally available. But, the distance of the physical archive undoubtedly impacts on sensory, and likely memory stimulation. Whilst digital archives can engage these, the loss of physical materiality of both the archive and the material for affected communities continues to put up hurdles for the potential of legal archives.
Legal atrocity archives are commonly understood as having utility value as evidence or sources for fact finding endeavours. However, these archives understood instead as sites of research in themselves and interplays of the social, legal, cultural and political, force us to challenge and disrupt our understanding of what a legal archive is, what is its purpose, and who is it for? Crucially it illuminates that these archives in their attempts at institutional sterility and distance act to remove the actors that these materials record. There is an urgent need to relocate atrocity affected communities to the centre of legal records documenting their lived experiences. Ultimately it requires international criminal justice to listen to these communities, and to allow them to be active participants in exploring what justice, peace and social repair looks, sounds and feels like.
Thorne, B., 2020. Remembering atrocities: legal archives and the discursive conditions of witnessing. The International Journal of Human Rights, 25(3), pp.467-490.
Redwood, H.A., 2020. Archiving (In) justice: Building Archives and Imagining Community. Millennium, 48(3), pp.271-296.
Clark, P., 2018. Distant Justice: The Impact of the International Criminal Court on African Politics. Cambridge University Press.
In February 2014, I was carrying out fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro less than two months before the FIFA World Cup commenced. I had been invited to an International Mega Events and Cities Conference to join discussions on human rights, urbanisation, public policy, law, violence and security, accompanied by a tour of the primary site of discussion, the Maracanã Stadium, which was due to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. I still remember the words from the keynote speaker, Carlos Vainer, Professor at the Urban and Regional Planning and Research Institute at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFR): “There are winners and there are losers in life; this is also in the same context as any soccer match. We are yet to determine who will win or lose between the government and the Brazilian people.”
The Brazilian government was involved in greed, corruption and, as you might expect, a lack of consideration for the people of Rio through rapid urban transformations (which the image below vividly depicts). From exploring Rio, I could feel the intensity of the mega-event developments from the explosion of street protests, FIFA-themed resistant art and the noise resulting from helicopters hovering over Rio’s favelas and the stadium construction. The increased occupancy of the UPP stations (“Unidades de Policia Pacificadora”) maximised and militarised security by restoring state control in the favelas and integrating the favelas to address urban violence and disarm drug traffickers. In other words, the government wanted to set the stage for a global audience: a problem-free and glamorous Rio de Janeiro, but with a high price to pay for those not invited to the match.
The Aldeia Maracanã is a sacred, multi-ethnic village and resistance space in Rio de Janeiro that sits next to the Maracanã Stadium. The area has been occupied by indigenous urban people since 2006 and is the site of Brazil’s first indigenous museum, a building abandoned since the 1970s. Between 2006 and 2013, the Maracanã village bloomed into a community that became home to over thirty indigenous people from 17 different ethnic backgrounds. The indigenous people now had a vibrant space for rituals, fairs, cultural classes and bioconstruction to disseminate ancestral knowledge and demystify prejudices that indigenous people “do not belong” in the city. There have been numerous eviction attempts, with many of the community living in constant – and ongoing – threat of violent removals. The village faced brutality in the preparations for the World Cup and Olympics. In 2013, a military operation stormed the indigenous village using tear gas, pepper spray, stun grenades and physical violence. Brazil’s colonial past has created a socio-political disintegrated landscape in which both race and ethnicity remain problematic. Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, and the ILO Convention 169, ratified by the government in 2002, offers protection to indigenous and quilombola groups. However, the reality suggests otherwise. An example of this is the non-existent land rights and a lack of building ownership for the indigenous Indians in Rio de Janeiro. The defence of tribal land rights are under enormous pressure from the current right-wing President Jair Bolsonara as Indigenous leaders have been fighting against Bolsonara’s man-led genocidal policies of environmental destruction of rainforests, including the Amazon.
Participants in the International Mega Events and Cities Conference, including myself, visited the Maracanã site with a local guide who lived close to the stadium. We were also taken to the Aldeia Maracanã.
The above picture shows the front of the indigenous home. On approaching the sacred building, I was met with an eerie sense permeating the space, and of what had been left of the Aldeia Maracanã from state-sanctioned violence, even though this visit occurred a year after the attack. The eeriness increased as I stood in the largely empty space in the aftermath of the tragedy. I began to picture a lively image and spirit of the indigenous community nurturing a home and school of sanctuary; creating art through painting, music and laughter. I also saw a garden in bloom with colourful vegetables and fruit, having the power of spoken words to educate the people of Rio on their traditions, and perhaps, creating common ground in a shared world where violations of residents’ rights led to thousands of Rio’s poorest being evicted for the games.
This was a life lived on guard against the threat of outsider raids – the violence nearing, not waiting or knocking, but forcing through their home. The air was stale and silent, despite being beside the stadium construction, and the windows represented dark, empty eyes on the inside, as if presenting a witness to the disappearance of indigenous life. Once we drew closer to the building, the display of the murals covering the Aldeia created a sense that theindigenous movement would return and that we are to view the murals as a visual message of presence, pain and resistance – “Commissions of Injustice”.
The building, standing like a skeleton, provides the framework for an indigenous man’s head; a gaunt portrait of what has been left in the ruins. The man’s eyes hold no fear as he looks directly at the viewers, who have no choice but to stare back into the windows of a now shattered shell. The portrait, painted on a crumbling plaster façade, is like a Giotto fresco. The image was not, however, paid for by a rich family like the Medicis. Instead, it came at a higher price, the cost of displaced indigenous families. Ruby war paint, a red cross in battle, covers the indigenous man’s nose, mouth and forehead like markings of blood and violence enveloping his sense of smell, vision and future insight. The arch of his eyebrows and nose opens into wings like the tail of a bird. Unlike a dove of peace, it leads to a pathway cut out by the disfigurement of his ebony raven locks—a shaved centre parting carved across his skull with a phoenix descending into a yellow flame.
On the corner of the Aldeia, the face of an indigenous child is crying heavy tears of blood as if they will drown in them, creating a pool of redness around the edge of the chin that does not leave the child’s face. The red eyes represent what the child may be seeing and experiencing; the battle against their family and community members, suffering, perhaps anger, but most certainly danger, as shown by their small mouth gaping in horror at the display of violence. The child’s hair is missing from the middle, deep enough to have been pulled out by the roots. With more harm inflicted from the missing part of their head, they will not forget this, even if it represents the onset of becoming invisible after the battle. The vulnerability remains beside the boarded fence which prevents the viewer from seeing beneath; a stick of sorts is either diagonally going into the child or being held up in defence. It is difficult to look away from the indigenous child’s trauma.
The perimeter of the Aldeia has the appearance of a prison with high steel fencing, wire and the reflection of the security camera indicating state control and monitoring of the sacred building. The chain padlock on the fencing adds another element to the atmospheric mix of distrust and control. The government is determined to prevent indigenous freedom and does so by keeping away and shutting out culture, diversity and Mother Earth. This is a village and university in survival mode floundering in a sea of tension due to war and encroachment on sacred space by the government. Indigenous people are not “urban rubbish” that can be discarded, and they are not losers in the games played by FIFA. A reinstatement of ancestral territory ownership will be reborn. The collective fight will return.
Alongside studying criminology and finishing my copy of Sensory Penalties, I have attempted to breathe life into my field notes that sat untouched in a drawer; scribbles on how I felt, what I saw and what I imagined by sharing the whole experience when I visited the Aldeia Maracanã. I believe I received a learning gift from indigenous communities in standing up to and epitomising injustice as fully as possible. I have opened the sensory aspects to a space and building where indigenous life had forcefully disappeared – and I was moved by the absence of the community and the after-effects of the military police ‘storm’ tactics of grenade bangs, weapon whacks and shots of pepper spray that left stale air and stone-cold silence. The initial unease of ghostly eeriness on approaching and standing in front of the Aldeia Maracanã acted as a trace to the brutality of 2013 and the outside remains, the murals, allowed me to resist a simplistic interpretation of the Aldeia as a vacant ‘haunted like’ building, but one in which Indigenous preservation and resistance are still present.
Comissões de Injustiça no Rio de Janeiro: indígena preservação e da resistência
“Todos assumem que as favelas são todas inviáveis, mas estão unidas por laços estreitos com a comunidade. [Moradores de favelas] não tiveram outra escolha a não ser tornar a vida o mais viável possível, já que o Estado faz vista grossa… Alguns desses despejos são corruptos, [procurando] ganhar as melhores áreas do Rio de Janeiro.” (James Freeman, professor da Universidade de Concórdia no mega evento estratégico das favelas do Rio de Janeiro.
Em Fevereiro de 2014, eu estava realizando trabalhos de campo no Rio de Janeiro a dois meses antes do início da Copa do Mundo da FIFA, onde fui convidada a participar em uma Conferência Internacional de Mega Eventos e Cidades sobre os direitos humanos, urbanização, políticas públicas, direitos, violência e segurança. Esta Conferência Internacional seria por sua vez, acompanhada de um passeio pelo local principal de discussão, o Estádio do Maracanã, que viria a sediar a Copa do Mundo em 2014 e as Olimpíadas em 2016. Ainda me lembro das palavras do palestrante Carlos Vainer, professor do Instituto de Planejamento e Pesquisa Urbana e Regional da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFR): “Na vida existe vencedores e perdedores ; este contexto também existe em qualquer partida de futebol. Ainda estamos para determinar quem vai ganhar ou perder na partida entre o governo e o povo brasileiro”.
O Governo Brasileiro estava envolvido na ganância, corrupção e, como era de se esperar, existe uma falta de consideração para o povo do Rio através de expontâneas transformações urbanas (que a imagem abaixo retrata vividamente). Ao explorar o Rio de Janeiro, eu pude sentir a intensidade dos desenvolvimentos de protestos de rua, da arte resistente à temática da FIFA e do barulho resultante dos helicópteros sobrevoando a construção do Estádio e as favelas do Rio. O aumento da ocupação de esquadras polícias pela UPP (Unidades de Policia Pacificadora) maximizou e militarizou a segurança, o que possibilitou o restauro do controlo estatal nas favelas, ajudando a integrar as favelas no combate há violência urbana e a desarmar os traficantes de drogas. Em outras palavras, o Governo queria preparar o palco para uma audiência global: um Rio de Janeiro sem problemas e glamouroso, mas com um preço alto a pagar para quem não fosse convidado para a partida.
A Vila Maracanã é uma vila sagrada, multiétnica e centro da resistência no Rio de Janeiro situada ao lado do Estádio do Maracanã. A área é ocupada por povos indígenas desde 2006, e é o local do primeiro museu indígena do Brasil, um prédio que ficou ao abandono desde a década de 1970. Entre 2006 e 2013, a aldeia do Maracanã floresceu em uma comunidade que se tornou o lar de mais de trinta indígenas de 17 diferentes origens étnicas. Os indígenas agora tinham um espaço vibrante para os seus rituais, feiras, aulas culturais e bioconstrução como meio de disseminar o conhecimento ancestral e desmistificar preconceitos que os indígenas “não pertencem” na cidade.A vila enfrentou a brutalidade nos preparativos para a Copa do Mundo e Olimpíadas. Houve inúmeras tentativas de despejo violentas, o que causou uma vida de constante – e contínua ameaça aos moradores da comunidade. Em 2013, uma operação militar invadiu a aldeia indígena usando gás lacrimogêneo, spray pimenta, granadas de choque e violência física. O passado colonial brasileiro criou uma paisagem sociopolítica desintegrada na qual os factores raciais e étnicos permanecem controversos. Em 2002, o Governo Brasileiro retificou a Constituição Brasileira de 1988 e a Convenção 169 da OIT, onde ofereceu proteção a grupos indígenas e quilombolas. No entanto, a realidade sugere o contrário. Um dos exemplos disso são os direitos de terra inexistentes e a falta de propriedades dos índios indígenas no Rio de Janeiro. A defesa dos direitos das terras tribais está sob enorme pressão do atual presidente de direita Jair Bolsonaro, já que líderes indígenas têm vindo a lutar contra as políticas genocidas lideradas pelo homem de Bolsonaro na destruição ambiental das florestas tropicais, tais como a Amazônia.
O prédio permanece abandonado no rescaldo da Vila Maracanã.
No decorrer da Conferência Internacional de Mega Eventos e Cidades, fomos convidados a visitar o Estádio e a Vila Maracanã, na companhia de um guia local e residente da mesma.
A foto acima mostra a frente de uma casa indígena um ano após o ataque. Ao me aproximar do prédio sagrado, contemplei o espaço, e reflecti sobre o que havia sido deixado para atrás, um sentimento de violência sancionada pelo Estado.
Este sentimento de estranheza aumentou enquanto eu contemplava este espaço praticamente vazio repleto de tragédia. Esta estranheza me levou a imaginar de como seria o espírito da comunidade indígena, alimentando uma casa, o ensino dos seus costumes sagrados; na criação de arte através da pintura, música e riso. Também imaginei um jardim em flor com vegetais coloridos e frutas, tendo o poder da voz para educar o povo do Rio sobre as suas tradições, e talvez, criando um terreno e mundo compartilhado, onde as violações dos direitos dos moradores seriam respeitados. Direitos, esses, que foram ignorados, levando ao despejo de milhares de moradores mais podres.
Esta era uma vida vivida de protestos contra a ameaça de ataques de forasteiros – a violência se aproximando, não esperando ou batendo, mas forçando através de sua própria casa. O ar estava obsoleto e silencioso, apesar de estar ao lado da construção do estádio. As janelas no interior representavam os olhos escuros e vazios como se fosse uma das testemunhas do desaparecimento da vida indígena.
Uma vez que nos aproximamos do prédio, a exposição dos murais que cobrem a Aldeia criou uma sensação de que o movimento indígena retornaria, e que, deveriamos ver os murais como uma mensagem visual de presença, dor e resistência – “Comissões de Injustiça”.
O edifício, acima representa um esqueleto, com a estrutura facial de um homem indígena; um retrato magro do que foi deixado nas ruínas. O olhar do homem não demonstra medo, enquanto ele que olha diretamente para os espectadores, que não têm outra escolha a não ser olhar de volta para as janelas de uma concha agora quebrada. O retrato, pintado em uma fachada de gesso em ruínas, como se fosse uma pintura renascentista de Giotto. No realidade, a imagem não foi paga por uma família rica, como os Medicis. Em vez disso, veio oriundo do custo das famílias indígenas relocalizadas. A pintura da guerra do rubi, uma cruz vermelha em batalha, cobre o nariz, a boca e a testa do homem indígena como marcas de sangue e violência envolvendo seu olfato, visão e visão futura. O arco de suas sobrancelhas e nariz se abre como forma de asas e a cauda de pássaro. Ao contrário de uma pomba de paz, esta imagem leva a um caminho cortado pela desfiguração do seu corvo ébano; esculpida no seu crânio acompanhado com uma fênix descendo em uma chama amarela.
Na esquina da Aldeia se encontra uma pintura, representando um rosto de uma criança indígena chorando lágrimas de sangue, como se ela se afogasse nelas, criando uma poça de vermelhidão ao redor da borda do queixo da criança. Os olhos vermelhos representam o que a criança pode estar vendo e experienciando; a batalha contra a sua família e membros da comunidade, o sofrimento, perigos e sentimentos de raiva, o que é demostrado pela pequena boca, surpresa pelo horror e violência. A falta de cabelo no meio da cabeça da criança é profundo o suficiente, como se tivesse sido puxado pelas raízes. A vulnerabilidade permanece ao lado da cerca. Cerca esta que impede o espectador de olhar para baixo; uma imagem de um tipo de varas que estão entrelaçadas ao redor da criança, talvez como meio de defesa, sendo difícil desviar o olhar da criança indígena.
O perímetro da Aldeia é parecido com o de uma prisão, cercas de aço alto, arame e câmeras de segurança indicando o controle estatal e o monitoramento do edifício sagrado. O cadeado de corrente adiciona outro elemento à mistura atmosférica de desconfiança e controle. O governo está determinado a impedir a liberdade indígena e o faz mantendo-se afastado na exclusão da cultura, diversidade e da Terra Mãe.
Esta é uma aldeia vive em um modo de sobrevivência, pois existe um constante mar de tensão devido à guerra e à invasão do governo na profanação do espaço sagrado. Os indígenas não são o nosso “lixo urbano”, nem os perdedores dos jogos disputados pela FIFA, onde podem ser descartados em qualquer oportunidade. Uma reintegração da propriedade do território ancestral renascerá, e a luta coletiva voltará.
Além de estudar criminologia e terminar a minha cópia de Penalidades Sensoriais, tentei dar vida às minhas notas de campo que estavam intocadas em uma gaveta; rabiscos sobre como me senti, o que vi e o que imaginei compartilhando toda a minha experiência quando visitei a Vila Maracanã. Acredito que fui presenteada de uma forma única e preciosa, ao aprender os factos vivenciados pelas comunidades indígenas, no confronto e no sistema simbólico da injustiça.
Esta experiência me fez compreender que o tudo aquilo que havia permanecido da comunidade indígena teria sido forçado a desaparecer. Acabando por ficar comovida pela ausência da comunidade e pelos efeitos posteriores das táticas de “tempestade” da polícia militar, sendo estes, golpes de granada, golpes de armas e tiros de spray de pimenta que deixaram no ar um sentimento envelhecido e silêncioso. O mal-estar inicial da estranheza fantasmagórica ao nos aproximar da Aldeia Maracanã nos serviu como um conta histórias , onde era visível o teor de brutalidade em 2013 e os restos externos, através dos murais, onde havia a representação simplista da Aldeia seria como um prédio vazio”assombrado pelo passado” e um espírito presente da preservação e da resistência indígena.
In mid-2020, my small, city-centre studio apartment became not only my lecture theatre and seminar room, but also the space where I conduct my research. I am, at time of writing, researching the use of video-call technology in prisons in England and Wales, looking specifically at how this is experienced by families of people in prison. This technology – an app called Purple Visits – was designed specifically for prisons with the necessary security features, but at its core it allows people in prison and their families to video-call in a way that has become increasingly familiar to many of us during COVID-19.
In a peculiar twist of fate, I have only been able to conduct interviews using either Zoom or the telephone. The original research design, mapped out prior to the start of the pandemic, would have involved me meeting with research participants face-to-face. So, whereas I would normally spend hours travelling to the interviewees, the research participants and I now enter each others’ homes, albeit virtually.
For those who opt for Zoom with the video on, this is all the more true. They can see my kitchen, the gin bar behind my shoulder, hear my neighbour’s dog (the bane of my current confined existence) barking next door to me. Likewise, I am able to see the research participants’ homes. At times, this helps build rapport – some show me their pets, their living rooms, or other items they are talking about during their interview (for example, one interviewee displayed the artwork she shared with her incarcerated loved one on their video-call and another her home office). Recently, an interviewee showed me the photos of her imprisoned sons. In another interview the interviewee’s teenage child was sat next to her and I could hear the young woman’s voice in the background. This would not have been possible were we sat in a community centre or office, and adds an additional dimension to the interviews.
There is also a sense of ease and comfort to these interviews, which, upon reflection, was unexpected for me as a researcher. In ‘normal’ times, these would be held in a private office, community centre, or a function room of a pub or cafe. We would be surrounded the hubbub and sensory intrusions of everyday life – the smells of coffee, the noises of doors shutting, even interruptions of someone knocking on the door or needing to pick something up from the room we were in. It would also be a neutral space with a sense of “official research interview” to the meeting. I would be dressed in work clothes, for example, and have my hair and makeup done. Online interviews are arranged (when possible) at a time when participants are mostly in a quiet and totally private place so there was very littlebackground noise. Likewise, I live alone, so there is very little interruption (noisy dog notwithstanding).
It is peculiar how the dynamics change when one is sat in their pyjama bottoms, in one’s own living room. Or, if the interview is on the phone, lying on the sofa or bed with my eyes closed, recovering from what is usually an exhausting day of teaching and marking. Even on video-calls, I am usually dressed in lounge or sports clothes rather than business attire. For me, the experience becomes an informal conversation, the sort of chat we have become so accustomed to during COVID-19 lockdowns. I become an over-worked academic in a similar situation to the stressed participants, who are often juggling work and childcare and supporting someone in prison. The researcher-participant hierarchy feels, to some extent, flattened for me – though of course I am aware that this might not be the case for those I interview. For instance, most appear on Zoom video calls dressed in what seem to be “work clothes”, and so might experience the interview as more formal than I do. Nonetheless, there is a sense of togetherness I seek to create via chats about lockdowns and COVID-19 and other topical issues (currently, this is vaccination in prisons!).
The sense of ease and the familiarity of one’s own setting helps most of the interviews to flow easily, with participants sharing their experiences openly and candidly. Those on Zoom are able to illustrate how they would stay still during a prison video-call, or show the backgrounds they use to ensure the call goes smoothly. This is because the technology can glitch or stop the call if portraitss or photographs are visible, or even if the caller’s head moves too much. This enables me to see exactly how the interviewees conduct themselves on a prison video-call – via them briefly reeancting the experience for me on a Zoom call – a fascinating experience which would not be possible offline (because I would not see the backgrounds, the framing of them on the screen, etc.).
Despite the positives, I wonder about the conflation of research and home. It is at times difficult to detach after the interviews, in a way that I might have done taking the train back after meeting with a participant. I would occupy myself with getting home, buying food, settling down for the evening. When one’s trip back is the few steps from the desk to the sofa, the interview lingers. It stays, intangibly, within my tiny studio apartment, the words of the interviewee lingering much longer in my mind as I reflect on what we have discussed. Since lockdown means very little sensory and experiential distraction – no trains to rush to, no adverse weather to be annoyed about – there is more headspace for the interview to occupy my mind after the event.
I am certain that remote interviewing is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future – and it is undoubtedly beneficial for those who have accessibility needs or for whom there are other reasons why a Zoom interview might be easier, practically and/or emotionally. Nonetheless, we need to be careful and consider the ethics of ‘entering’ someone’s home, albeit virtually. I do not know whether I linger with the participants after the interview, but there is no reason to suggest why this would not be the case for participants as well as the researcher.
Interviewing during a pandemic, thus, raises some interesting questions about power its fluidity in research. To some degree, inequalities are flattened because participants can choose what they show me, where they are located (for example, they can choose a white wall rather than a place where I would be able to see much of their room). They can even choose for me to not see them or their home at all if they opt for a phone call. On the other hand, I as a researcher still enter their home environment to some extent, albeit indirectly. Morever, it is possible that my perception of power inequalities flattening is heightened because I am used to conducting research interviews and therefore am comfortable with lying down and conducting a phone interview from my bed! For participants, this may not be the case – this might be the very first time they have taken part in research. Ultimately, the choice should rest with the interviewee.