Human remains on social media-ethical reflections

A while ago, Alison Atkin raised the question of: how we approach the use of social media (and other related arenas, including blogs, online new media, etc) as individuals who work with human remains. This was part of a wider discussion on the Working Group for Best Practice in Digital Osteology and came across as a relevant topic in the face of the current role played by the digital for academia. Those curious can also read the first (to my knowledge) study on the particular theme of digital osteology, by Williams and Atkin 2015, Virtually Dead: Digital Public Mortuary Archaeology, Internet Archaeology 40.

What follows is my own reply to her question, a personal opinion, still in progress:

The question came at the right time, when I was faced with an ethical dilemma: I have just finished a volume gathering articles on the anthropology/history of body research, and a consistent part of the volume was a visual dossier comprising images from the Francisc I.Rainer anthropological archive. Some depict living human subjects, but some are skull photographs (unkown or famous criminals from interwar Romania). As we were putting together the book launch, the main promotion medium was Facebook and the internet in general- the easiest way to spread the word to young academics (and not just); the promotion team wanted to use some of the images as means of drawing atention to the volume.

Thus, I asked myself: is this ok, or not? Should we share already published images online? On the other hand, these were photographs of heads who were stored in a museum, taken in the early decades of 20th century- so it was not like we were taking fresh photos. But does this make any difference in the process of objectifying and enforcing the view of bodies as specimens under scientists’ control? My first thought was of unease, not necessarily opposed, but the thing which tipped the balance off was a caption someone chose for one of these criminal’s skulls photos: “I’ve found this guy cute from the start”. Regardless of the questionable taste of the comment, it determined us to put a stop to posting such images for a reason which goes beyond this case study: using ‘grotesque’ images (of skulls , traumas, criminals etc) to catch attention turns human remains into a spectacle, a freak show. I’ve noticed this in a number of contexts, where mutilated/criminal/extraordinary bodies etc are shared in a quest for sensationalism.

Therefore, going back to Alison’s question, I don’t think there is necessarily a case for dissmissing posting human remains images per se, but it all comes down to the purpose and context: one thing is to use the image in order to illustrate a bigger story, one in which that person is an actor (the actor of their own story- if that is even possible), and another to use the images for catching the eye/engaging potential audiences (to self-promote).

Of course one may say that the wider public has limited access to academic texts  (even when they are open access, as our volume was) and that circulating such images can reach the public more easily; but I wonder what exactly reaches them if they are shown a plain skull, as extraordinary as that may be? This is how I understand our ethical responsability, a responsability to the stories we tell through our posts.
Of course there is the point of OA- avoiding patronising, colonialist, etc etc actions (all those that the post-modern literature critiques). Do images of human remains fall in the same category as other materials? Should we curate them differently (on/off-line)? Is there a difference if the images are online?
I would say that human remains are different, for at least two reasons:
1. If we had not engaged in an archaeological excavation, these individuals would still be safely and quietly sleeping in their graves. Thus, our responsability/ethical consideration starts way before disseminating images- we need to question if excavating them is ok in the first place.

2. Some of these images are already out there in the world, as the photographic archive I am talking about. I agree that scientists should not monopolise the images, as in circulating them only between themselves. But most of these images were produced exactly in a time when human remains were seen as a means of charting human variability/criminality etc. and simply releasing them as they are, with no context attached to them, either perpetuates those old messages or, worse, lets loose some skulls/bodies with no story. If for other archaeological materials non-professional audiences have the possibility of coming up with a story (as one can infer certain things from the colour/type of pot etc), a skull looks more or less exactly like other skulls regardless of the time period/cultural context; not to mention that in the popular culture there is already a fascination with the dead as a spectacle, ‘oh, look, a skull, how cool!’ (or for an Orthodox country “oh, a skull…death”). Thus, we can be pretty sure what will happen once we release some images which are either part of some collections we curate/fresh images taken of skeletons which should not have even been in the laboratory in the first place.


Of course this doesn’t mean no images policy. The only thing I am trying to point out is that in the case of human remains the responsibility is greater because we are not that sure we have the right/what is the right way of talking in an ethical manner about human remains to start with.

There is also another issue here. The images we are talking about are taken/used as aids to our texts, mostly as scientific proofs for the facts we want to illustrate (pathology etc.)- part of the paradigm that understands objectivity as including the possibility of reproducing results. In other cases, these bodies’ images function exactly like the old craniological collections, visual archives of certain pathological etc aspects – e.g. a skull’s image is created because it illustrates point x/y/z. In a way, viewing human remains through the camera, in this way, is limited/reflects the scientists’ power on the material (there is an extensive literature criticising/capturing the process through which human remains are turned into objects and viewed simply as clumps of matter through scientific images- or better said the construction of the scientific body through images).

In essence, I would say that we, as scientists handling human remains and creating images of such remains, have a responsability, not in ‘telling the public what they should think’ of course, but in making public the bigger picture.   As someone pointed out to me, why should we even bother, as when one is dead they might not care. This might be true, but can we be sure of that? 🙂 Of course the issue is broader and deeper than this, and it is a topic for another post- why should archaeologists/anthropologists even care about ethics when dealing with human remains, but the question regarding the digital domain is still out there.

I would be looking forward to hearing any thoughts on these matters.

One thought on “Human remains on social media-ethical reflections

  1. It can be difficult as you want to tell the story but, for example you never know if *this* skull picture will be someone’s first fiftieth. You don’t know what interest and context and background the audience is bringing. So do you need to explain this skull’s history? Or why it is on display? Or the cultural background of human remains on display? All you can hope is to put across the feeling of respect and appreciation of what that skull can mean.

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