[wd_asp id=1]

Prisons and Public Memory: the Ethics of Oral Histories, Human Rights, and the Archive


Feb 10 2022


12:00 pm - 1:00 pm


Virtual Only

Prisons and Public Memory: the Ethics of Oral Histories, Human Rights, and the Archive

A conversation between Peter Jan Honigsberg and Cahal McLaughlin, guided by Leela Prasad

Join us on Thursday, February 10, at noon for an online conversation exploring the practice of documenting and archiving human rights abuses through oral history and documentary film, the creation of memory and collective memory, and the ethical issues implicated in providing access to personal stories of trauma, loss, and torture.

Duke University professor Leela Prasad will guide this conversation with special guests Peter Jan Honigsberg (University of San Francisco School of Law, founder of "Witness to Guantanamo") and Cahal McLaughlin (Queen's University Belfast, director of The Prisons Memory Archive). Drawing on the panelists' experiences conducting oral history and documentary projects with survivors of human rights abuses, the discussion will examine such questions as:

  • How do we make decisions about whose story to record and share?
  • What are special ethical concerns when working with stories of traumatized and vulnerable former prisoners and other survivors of human rights abuses?
  • What conditions need to be placed on access to and use of the archival records?
  • In what ways do we need to think about video materials differently from written transcripts?

This event is part of a series of events related to the exhibition, "Witness to Guantanamo," on view at the Power Plant Gallery through February 27, 2022.

Free and open to the public. Advance registration required.

Sponsored by the Power Plant Gallery, the Human Rights Archive at the Rubenstein Library, the Forum for Scholars and Publics, and The Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation Endowment, with additional support from the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, the Vice Provost for the Arts, and the MFA|EDA Program at Duke University.

Update March 22, 2022:  You may now view a recording of the conversation online.


Read excerpts from the transcript:

Moderator Leela Prasad:

I'd like to encourage you very much to visit the websites for "Witness to Guantanamo" and the "Prisons Memory Archive." The two projects are of course vastly different. But, they both ask deeply disturbing questions about the carceral state, about the scale and kind of violence that we encounter in prison settings and the aftershocks of these things on people's lives.

Cahal McLaughlin on the methods and ethics of the Prisons Memory Archive, and their impact on the recordings:

We left it up to the participant to decide what to talk about and what not to talk about as they walked and talked their way around the prison site. And so, for us, in a sense, what was, I suppose, particularly insightful, what we gained most from this: one was we built up trust and people came and took part in it, but also people perform their memory back at the site of the experience. And this has a number of kind of connotations, in the sense for interpretation.

One is that people remember not so much chronologically, but to do with the actual sites, encounter. And so they'll turn a corner and they'll change the subject from what they were talking about to something else. They will also perform their memory: they will be walking down a corridor and they will notice something; they will open a door, they will go in, they'll come back out. They'll say nothing, will move to another room, they will lift up something, they will look under something - so there's a performance going on that wouldn't happen if we interviewed people back in a sitting down position at home or in their office.

And then thirdly, I think, it's what they remember. And one of the first people we brought back, he said, "It's amazing what you remember when you come back to the site,” in a way, that he thought he had forgotten. So for us, those outcomes are absolutely critical.

Peter Jan Honigsberg on conducting the interviews for Witness to Guantanamo:

But what is surprising to me, I would say, many, maybe two thirds of the detainees, maybe more, thanked us at the end of the interview and told us that it was very therapeutic, and they were so grateful that they had the opportunity to just tell their whole story as they wanted to tell it.

And they also said to me something surprising, but maybe not to listeners, viewers: That this is the first time they ever told their full story the way they wanted to, and in fact, when lawyers would interview them, lawyers, of course, would have an agenda. And reporters, of course, would have an agenda. And here they could just tell their story.

And they felt it was therapeutic. And in fact, a couple of the men brought their wives with them. And they wanted their wives to hear their story. And what I learned subsequently was that many of the men did not want to tell their stories to their families, it was too painful for the families and too painful for them to tell it to their families, but some did want their families to still hear it, and they brought them with them.

But they were very grateful to us, and I have to say that surprised me, but it certainly reaffirmed that what we were doing was as important to them as it was to us.


Watch the video from this event on YouTube.


Peter Jan Honigsberg

University of San Francisco School of Law

Professor Peter Jan Honigsberg's current research focuses on the rule of law and human rights violations that occurred in the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and on the study of terrorism and other post-9/11 issues. Honigsberg is the founder and director of Witness to Guantanamo, which began in fall…...

Read More
Cahal McLaughlin

Queen's University Belfast

Cahal McLaughlin is Chair of Film Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, Director of the Prisons Memory Archive and director of the Centre for Documentary Research at QUB. As a documentary filmmaker, he has engaged with methods of how we might address the legacy of conflicted pasts in ways that acknowledge…...

Read More
Leela Prasad

Duke University

Leela Prasad is an anthropologist in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. Her interests are in everyday ethics, Gandhi, gender, prison and post-prison life, decoloniality, and narrative art and culture. Her first book, Poetics of…...

Read More

Related Media

Comments are closed.