Meet the Book Author: Law, Visual Culture, and the Show Trial

Agata Fijalkowski, Leeds Beckett University

In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Agata Fijalkowski, whose new book Law, Visual Culture, and the Show Trial was published in July 2023 with Routledge.

What is the book about?

My book uses the relationship between law and visual culture as the frame for its consideration of show trials from a specific period that is broadly referred to as Stalinist justice (1944-1957, going even beyond Stalin’s death in 1953) in three case studies: Albania, East Germany, and Poland. Stalinist justice used the criminal law in a political/instrumental way, making it accessible to legal propaganda. This is well demonstrated in works on trials in Soviet Russia, such as the excellent book Performing Justice (Cornell University Press 2005) by Elizabeth Wood. Law is performative (Austin Sarat, et al., Law and Performance (University of Massachusetts Press 2018) and the enactment of the law speaks volumes about affective justice. The visual turn in law is raised by writers like Linda Mulcahy (‘Eyes of the Law’, (2017) JLS 111). I decided to set out an account by using photographs – they are a valuable data set alongside legal sources. I emphasise the place of law and visual culture within the discipline of Law and contribute to the discourse in visual epistemology in terms of what the image tells us within a legal context. My selection of photographs are of key figures mainly, all of whom lived during this time and who rose above incredibly challenging circumstances arising from the Second World War and then authoritarian rule. These individuals are the Albanian writer and dissident Musine Kokalari (1917-1983) [IMAGE 1], East German judge Hilde Benjamin (1902-1989) [IMAGE 2], and Polish prosecutor and criminal law professor, Mieczysław Siewierski (1900-1981 {IMAGE 3). There is not much about them in the English language. Their legal life stories can inform and enrich our understanding about law and justice during this period in these three examples by showing commonalities but also key discrepancies that point to unfinished legal histories, all via relevant photographs that were part of the legal photography/legal photojournalism of the time.

Image 1. Defendant Musine Kokalari at her 1946 trial in Tirana, Albania. Credit: ATSH, image no. 1551
Image 2. Hilde Benjamin as Chief Prosecutor in Berlin, 1945. Credit: BArch/Berliner Zeitung 
Image 3. Prosecutor Mieczysław Siewierski at the 1946 Arthur Greiser trial in Poznań, Poland. Credit: PAP/J. Zyszkowski/Alamy

Why did I write it?

I decided to write this book when I came across – by accident – black/white photographs during my archival research in Albania. I was curious to know more about my Albanian protagonist, because I was haunted by her image, owing to the look her face, her stance before the microphone at her 1946 show trial, dressed in black and wearing a mourning veil I connect Musine Kokalari’s powerful image to Hilde Benjamin’s trademark Heidi braid worn throughout her career, to Mieczysław Siewierski’s prosecutorial speech before the Polish Supreme National Tribunal in 1946, interpreting a law that would later be used by the Polish authorities against him. Their photographs challenged me to think about what these images tell us or remain silent about. Significantly, I feel that we (re)live the moment captured by the camera lens. As a result I engaged with discourses in visual epistemology. My advice is not to be afraid of reaching out to new discipline(s) to inform and enrich your thinking and writing.

How did I go about doing the research?

For this book, research was carried out at the Central State Archive and the Albanian Telegraphic Agency in Tirana, Albania; the Federal Archives in Berlin and Koblenz and the Security Police Agency for East Germany (Stasi) Archives in Berlin, Germany; and the National Institute of Remembrance in Warsaw, Poland. I was fortunate to have institutional support as well as awards from the Socio-Legal Studies Association to complete the work. I cannot stress enough how vital financial support for these sorts of law and humanities projects needs to be maintained if we want our discipline to continue to produce important cross- and interdisciplinary work. 

I decided to adopt a cross- and interdisciplinary approach with a view to reach wide audiences but mainly to show that law does not work in a box. Law is very much around us, and it shapes our behaviour. This is a strong theme in my book. I believe that examining photographs of the enactment of the law shows us the fine lines between key concepts of law and justice. For example, the (in)justice through themes of hero/villain found in Kokalari ‘s story or reminding ourselves that judges are human beings and experiences will shape their views on humanity as seen in Benjamin’s example or the legal innovation to achieve accountability for war crimes and later reprieve as revealed in Siewierski’s account. Ultimately my book is about three incredible persons, law’s reach and resistance and transformation, and the relevance of legal photography/legal photojournalism. The use of qualitative methods, and examination of seemingly small stories, which can be referred to when trying to identify broader legal developments elsewhere, demonstrates the value of such work, not least because of the important findings. As Susan Sontag says, ‘It was not a question of knowledge … but of alertness, a fastidious transcription of what could be thought about something, once it swam into the stream of attention’ (Susan Sontag, ‘Remembering Barthes’, New York Review of Books, 15 May 1980).