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Interpreting Video Evidence

Fri, May 26, 15:30 to 16:45, Hilton San Diego Bayfront, Floor: 2, Indigo 202A

Session Submission Type: Panel


Since the arrival of photography in the 19th century, legal doctrines have concurrently contested and legitimized visual evidence. Conceived as both accurate and misleading, irrefutable and manipulative, complete and partial, visuals oscillate between a mere illustration with no legal value in and of itself to a privileged form of truth. Ongoing national debates about videos depicting police shooting that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement are exemplary of this contradiction: the video of Eric Gardner was considered insufficient in proving the illegal chokehold, while police body cameras are presented as a solution to problems of policing. Globally, too, video is framed both as an incomplete record and as powerful evidence that is trusted more than personal testimony, as iterated, for example, by activists of WITNESS and its partner the Papo Repo Collective in Brazil who document instances of police violence. This unfolding turn to video, then, is bringing the law into direct conversation with the wider culture in which images are produced, interpreted, circulated and remembered, demanding a closer scrutiny of the interpretive schemas that render video meaningful in and outside the courtroom.

This panel tackles how videos attain evidentiary meaning by looking at the site of the video itself, the platforms where video materials circulate and the agents who produce, use and frame video as evidence. Grounded in an understanding that images navigate evidentiary and emotional terrains simultaneously, Kelly Gates examines the interplay between technology and agents in the context of police body cameras. She argues that body-cam video works by virtue of its “operative aesthetics” that resembles the broader weaponized screen culture. Christina Spiesel looks at how video’s meaning can change when it circulates across platforms—news media and courts—showing how and why the problems of interpretation should be driving discussions about the evidentiary status of video materials. Mary Angela Bock places the temporal dimension of video at the heart of the discursive strategies in the police accountability debate in the U.S. that seek to qualify video as evidence. In doing so, she argues that these strategies often end up framing visual materials as self-authenticating, prioritizing the narratives of governmental authorities. Sandra Ristovska examines the work of human rights activist groups, illuminating how they are developing tactics both to qualify their videos as evidence in court and to promote visual expertise. Together, the panelists seek to understand the role, shape and consequences of the growing prominence of video evidence today.

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