Photography at the healing edge

by Mario Mattei on August 24, 2010

I'm excited to introduce our first guest blog post from co-writer of IGVP's Ethical Code, Dr. Howard Zehr. More biographical info is below. Whenever Zehr writes on photography and/or justice, sit down and be prepared to think deeply--because he has been for the past 25+ years. Here it is:

“Artists are supposed to be on the cutting edge.  I want to be at the healing edge.” – unknown artist.

I am honored to have been invited to participate in this blog.  In this first entry I will say a bit about my own involvements and introduce several themes that I will develop further in later entries.  Hopefully they will be of interest as we begin this journey together in the IGVP. 

Two important passions in my life are sometimes in tension but also intersect in important ways. 

One part of me is a photographer. I’ve worked internationally as an NGO photojournalist. I’ve done marketing and magazine stories.  I love landscapes and portraiture (see ).  But what I like most is doing documentary work.  In my experience, documentary photography can help bridge the chasms that separate people.  If done respectfully and collaboratively, it can also provide a way for people to share of themselves.   My vision, like that of the IGVP, is to use photography as a way to work on the healing edge.

The other passion, and much of my career, has been in the criminal justice field, and specifically a field that I helped found called restorative justice.  Unlike criminal justice that tends to divide, restorative justice is essentially a peacemaking approach to justice. Restorative justice is justice on the healing edge.

One way in which these two passions come together is that both of them – like the IGVP – aim to reduce “social distance.”  The distance we feel from other people affects how we perceive and treat others as well as what we expect of them.  Social distance allows us to turn other people into objects, and then we can do all kinds of awful things to them.  They become the “other.”  Researcher Michelle Fine argues that much research and journalism – and we might add, photojournalism - has been “a colonizing discourse of the other.”

image: Mario Mattei

Social distance is what makes it possible for the US to have the world’s highest incarceration rate. As Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie has pointed out, it is harder to be punitive when you know people well, in all the complexities and nuances of their real human lives. 

Social distance is also what makes it possible to neglect crime victims so profoundly.  We turn them into abstractions and stereotypes and symbols instead of real people. 

Interestingly, it’s through social distance that offenders do what they do as well.  They can victimize others because they do not empathize with them.

This effort to reduce social distance has guided a number of my photo book projects. Doing Life:  Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences encourages us to see and listen to life-sentenced prisoners as real people rather than stereotypes.  Transcending:  Reflections of Crime Victims does the same for victims of severe crime.  To be released shortly, What is Going to Happen to Me? shares the perspectives of some of the 2.4 million children in the U.S. who have a parent in prison.

The goal in much of my photography and in restorative justice is to find a way to reduce social distance.  This is also IGVP’s goal and that is why I am encouraged by their commitment.

Another intersection between “healing photography” and peace/justice work is the cluster of values that underlie both.  I often identify a number that are central:  respect, responsibility, relationships, humility, wonder.  These values also underlie IGVP’s Charter and Ethical Code.

Albert Renger-Patzsch, an early 20th century photographer, said that “photography seems to me to be better suited for doing justice to an object than for expressing artistic individuality.”   That’s my goal:  to “do justice” to my subject, and to do so on the healing edge.


Howard Zehr is Professor of Restorative Justice at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University (, Virginia.  His other blog, on restorative justice, photography and art-based research, may be found at