Absence in technicolour: protesting enforced disappearances in northern Sri Lanka

Vindhya Buthpitiya*

*Corresponding author for this work

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This essay examines the political uses of photography in the protests of the Tamil families of the disappeared in northern Sri Lanka. Enforced disappearances have long featured as an instrument of state terror. Their lingering effects have been noted as a significant challenge to transitional justice processes in the aftermath of the island’s civil war. By examining how protesters make their political demands and grievances known through photography, I explore the tensions between visibility and surveillance. The competing photographies of the protests subvert conceptual understandings of the medium as an ideological tool, but also vex claims of its capacities for enabling emancipation. Against a backdrop of ethno-nationalist conflict, this mobilization of and through photography serves as a defiant articulation of post-war ‘irreconciliation’. It is further tethered to a global visual vernacular of civilian resistance challenging state atrocity, as well as irreconcilable assertions of nation and state.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)118-134
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Issue numberS1
Early online date2 May 2022
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jun 2022


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