Visual Culture

The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann once stated that ‘[w]hat we know about our society, indeed the world we live in, we know through mass media’. This diagnosis of the interrelation between the world of politics and media has never been more compelling than today in an era of global information and social networks such as CNN, YouTube and Twitter. Events in Egypt, China or Japan appear closer to us and information about political, social, cultural and economic transformations in distant regions is almost always available via the Internet, TV, newspapers and the radio. This holds true also for images of disasters, violent conflicts and war, which travel more easily in the digital age than ever before. Disturbing documentary pictures have repeatedly triggered debates on social mobilization and the (mis)usage of images, but also strengthened our sensitivity to the ethical and moral dimension of how media represents politics. The refusal of the US government to circulate a photo of Osama bin Laden’s dead body and the disturbing pictures of torture taken in Abu Ghraib are only the most recent examples of how images of war and violence have become omnipresent.

The influence of images and media on politics is a quite popular theme in the social sciences and is commonly associated with notions such as the ‘CNN-effect’ and the manipulating aims of a global political–military–media network. More recently, scholars in the field of International Relations have addressed the relation between visuality and security in different ways, including political representations and war photography, political cartoons, cartographies, films and popular culture, and, in particular, images of 9/11. How (in)securities are politically recognized increasingly depends on the availability of images and the ways in which we are able to imagine what it means for people to live in war-torn societies. Since the 1980s, a broader definition of security, which directs our attention to the non-military aspects of security as well as to those who are affected by insecurities and risks, has gained increasing support in the political and academic field. Such a broader understanding of security, one could say, brings to the fore how the use of military force is publicly justified by invoking endangered referent objects, in particular women and children. The recent turn to visuality in the field of Critical Security Studies shares a critical intention and shows how myths and justification narratives are visually constructed, presented and reproduced.


Painting is an important form in the visual arts, bringing in elements such as drawing, gesture (as in gestural painting), composition, narration (as in narrative art), or abstraction (as in abstract art). Paintings can be naturalistic and representational (as in a still life or landscape painting), photographic, abstract, narrative, symbolistic (as in Symbolist art), emotive (as in Expressionism), or political in nature (as in Artivism).


Architecture is both the process and the product of planning, designing, and constructing buildings or any other structures. Architectural works, in the material form of buildings, are often perceived as cultural symbols and as works of art. Historical civilizations are often identified with their surviving architectural achievements.


Photography is the art, application and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film. It is employed in many fields of science, manufacturing (e.g., photolithography), and business, as well as its more direct uses for art, film and video production, recreational purposes, hobby, and mass communication.


Sculpture is the branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions. It is one of the plastic arts. Durable sculptural processes originally used carving (the removal of material) and modelling (the addition of material, as clay), in stone, metal, ceramics, wood and other materials but, since Modernism, there has been an almost complete freedom of materials and process.

Graphic Design

Graphic design is the process of visual communication and problem-solving through the use of typography, photography, and illustration. The field is considered a subset of visual communication and communication design, but sometimes the term “graphic design” is used synonymously. Graphic designers create and combine symbols, images and text to form visual representations of ideas and messages. They use typography, visual arts, and page layout techniques to create visual compositions.

On Visual Culture

Selected Literature