This dissertation analyses photography within a human rights discourse in Thailand starting in the 1970s emancipatory, anti-militarist, anti-imperialist and solidarity movement. Drawing on studies of visual power and atrocity photography, a critical approach to the usages of photography within human rights activism and human rights studies is developed. By conceptualizing human rights as dissensus politics, the dissertation takes issue with theories of power that depoliticize the possible subjects of human rights. The question is what the potential is for photographic engagements in framing the subject of human rights, as well as human rights as a political force. The dissertation provides a method for how to study photography in relation to history and memory. It is a contribution to both human rights studies and Thai studies.
The source materials are printed publications as well as exhibitions, monuments, and museums. Piecing together information from various repositories inside and outside of Thailand has been a research task in itself. Conditions for preservation and archiving in Thailand limit the possibility of producing memories and accounts of histories that contradicts the dominant nationalist narrative. The photographic analysis is based on the ontological position that photography is an event that begins before the photograph is taken and involves everyone who encounters the photograph and gives meaning to it. This position invites the human rights researcher to understand the regimes of violence in which the photographs of individual violations are embedded. A central argument is that the power of photography lies exactly in these engagements with photography that renegotiate the meaning of the photographed event.
The thesis comprises four original articles. Article I investigates the general usages of photography among social and political movements in Thailand to further human rights causes. It shows how activist use of photography contributes to historical consciousness and the construction of collective memory. Article II provides a historical and political context for construing a subject of human rights within the Thai state. Article III presents an analysis of visualization of historical and continuous state violence and impunity in Thailand. It investigates the role of photography in place of visual evidence of violence, in relation to both global and Thai photographic practices and activist uses of photography. It shows how staged photography produced after an event of violence can function as historical records and serve as material basis for collective and individual memory. Article IV is primarily concerned with the reproductions of photographs from the 14 October 1973 uprising and the 6 October 1976 massacre in Bangkok. By comparing publications over four decades, it is clear how photography gives meaning to and reframes the events. 14 October 1973 appears in the photographic reproduction as a just struggle within a nationalist discourse that at the same time obscures the state violence. Photographs from 6 October 1976 were not publicly available for the first two decades following the event, but they have become a repository for human rights activism in Thailand mainly concerned with individual redress.