Towards Citizen Spectatorship: Visual Culture and Shifting Perceptions of Documentary Media since the Arab Uprisings

Lead Research Organisation: Birmingham City University
Department Name: ADM Birmingham School of Art


Never has protest been documented more vigorously than during the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. This political struggle sparked an unrivalled rise of citizen journalism that shifted the perception of documentary media substantially. Almost a decade after the so-called Arab Spring and in light of resurging protests across the region (in Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt), it is critical that a body of research is produced that examines how our understanding of 'citizen journalism' has developed and how we can configure a notion of 'citizen spectatorship'.

While citizen journalism initially defined a mode of image production, media market demands tend to frame it as an aesthetic of 'poor images' that ultimately feeds into recurring neo-colonial tropes for understanding the region. To question such easy appropriations, citizen journalists have turned to formal practices within visual culture and its networks of dissemination to articulate their claims through documentary means. By examining spectatorship as a civic skill, my research will utilise a number of interrelated methodologies-including first-hand interviews with visual artists, media and cultural activists, and journalists, alongside investigation into digital archives-to trace the correlations between image producers and consumers and how they have realigned our understanding of images of protest and conflict.

This PhD project significantly extends my Masters dissertation (distinction) as well as several papers delivered at international academic conferences on the subject of how citizenship is claimed and contested visually in the Syrian civil war. I have acquired significant insights during my professional work at the non-profit art organisation Ashkal Alwan in Beirut and through lecturing at Arsenal-the Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin-which allowed me to substantially build on my expanding research network. My understanding of digital image production and reception has been also substantively informed by my journalistic training and through my curatorial research and professional career at HKW, Gropius-Bau, and the Goethe-Institut.

Interdisciplinary in scope, my dissertation is further founded on image and data analyses underpinned by an evaluation of news coverage and art historical discourses. In order to map a digital cartography of the visible, Professor Downey's critical investigation into the networked image will prove essential for his lead supervision and is complemented by Dima Saber's practical engagement with citizen journalist activism. This supervisory team stands out due to its dedication to promote visual literacy and its strong research networks within the region.


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