Ambiguities of Seeing: Unattended Luggage in Public Space

Photo essay – Ambiguities of Seeing: Unattended Luggage in Public Space

José-Manuel Heinze, Meike Vedder

The circulation, of anthropologically threatening images of violence, terror, covert infection and social suffering has intensified in our public culture. This iconography of threat has been stabilized and positioned to serve various political agendas and pedagogies that speak to global risk perception. (Feldman, 2005, p. 203)

Since 9/11, the Madrid and London bombings, and more recently the Paris attacks, media and politicians have evoked the imagination of terrorists as an ubiquitous enemy, who is able to attack anywhere, at any time and could just be amongst us (Crandall & Armitage, 2005).  This has, amongst others, given way to both the securitisation of public spaces and a widespread societal climate of fear. Our way of seeing public spaces has become heavily influenced by visual and rhetorical representations of terrorism that are made available to us. This becomes especially apparent when considering that we remember past events2 visually or pictorially, rather than verbally or rhetorically (Sontag, 2003, p. 89). Accordingly, visual practices of representing past terrorist attacks play a crucial and powerful role in forming collective memories of these events. These memories are in turn “being stipulated as important for the present, and still being referred to so as to give legitimacy to current policies” (Möller, 2007, p. 184). Thus not only rhetorical references to past terrorist attacks, but also visual references to these are crucial in creating a collective memory of these and thereby enabling present securitisation. Importantly, in this process some visual and rhetorical representations are more influential than others, constituting themselves as the hegemonic discourse or dominant interpretation on a particular topic, making us believe rather one official view than another alternative one.

Public spaces have, in this sense and through the constant and almost inevitable exposure to visual and political discourses of recent or past terrorist attacks mediated through all forms of visual culture, become securitised spaces of insecurity, anxiety and vulnerability. In airports, train stations and other public buildings we are permanently alerted and highly recommended to detect and immediately report any suspicious subject and/or odd-looking object.  In particular, the link between unattended items of luggage and potential terrorist attacks has frequently been suggested by official security discourses and media coverage referring back to bombings in Madrid, London or Boston, thereby providing an interpretation of how to see abandoned luggage in public spaces (unattended luggage equals potential bomb). This view has been widely dispersed through visual culture and become so dominant, that unattended luggage in public spaces is only to be interpreted in light of a potential terrorist threat. In other words, via perpetual visual and discursive suggestions of what unattended luggage in public is supposed to be (a potential terrorist threat), we automatically attach this dominant interpretation to it (excluding the obvious nowadays seemingly naïve interpretation of it being a forgotten suitcase whose owner should be found). As a consequence, present visual and rhetorical discourses of past events are not only interconnected, but are in their interconnectivity crucial in shaping the way we are currently made to see and interpret unattended luggage in public spaces.

Having these considerations in mind, we attempt to visually understand how we are made to see and interpret unattended items of luggage in public spaces. In order to make better sense of this question we chose the medium of the photograph and depict it in a photographic essay of abandoned luggage in public spaces. What is being critiqued here is not necessarily the fact that media outlets cover terror attacks, but rather the sensationalist way this is done in as well as the fear-mongering and securitisation of public life this results in.

In this regard photography is particularly interesting, because it is widely assumed to be an objective medium that reflects reality as it is, even though the decision to take a photograph of something at a certain time and place, from a certain perspective, is always a subjective choice of the photographer behind the lens. Likewise, the choice to show a specific photograph and not another one to an audience is a subjective choice too. Moreover, photographs have the ability to shock and haunt us lastingly (Laustsen, 2008). Thus, the perpetual showing of shocking images of terror attacks in the media over time, perpetuates the dominant discourse on terror threat, which influences how we see public spaces. In this sense, emphasising the role of photographs in forming collective memories, the subjectivity, and the lasting shock and awe effect of the medium, our photographic essay has a double function:

Firstly, we seek to reflect on how we are made to see luggage in public spaces, influenced by the dominant visual and verbal discourse in society on terror threats. For this we took photographs of an unattended suitcase at the airport and train station of Groningen, and subsequently linked these indirectly with global headlines of alleged terror attacks resulting from suspicious suitcases.[1] These headlines, indeed, only represent a very small part of the dominant discourse on terrorism.[2]

Secondly, our objective is to use the photograph itself to tell this story. This should not be misinterpreted, however, as we do not think that images do actually speak for themselves. They rather interact with the discourses surrounding them and the audiences’ subjective interpretation. When we state that we want the photograph to tell the story itself we mean that we have used techniques such as perspective, composition, colour, temperature, saturation or zoom to emphasise the suspiciousness and paranoia around unattended suitcases. This post processing of the photographs served as the visualisation of the dominant discourse on terrorist suitcase bombings, which this way becomes activated on a subconscious emotional level when confronted with unattended suitcases in public spaces.

In this vein, the questions on the front page, intentionally depicted in the style of online news headlines, and the question on the last page, are meant to encourage the viewer to criticise, question and reflect upon the viewed. Another function of the questions’ particular depiction on the front page is to challenge the dominant discourse on suitcase terrorist bombings dispersed by the media, which is attempted to be depicted on the second last page of the photographic essay. In this light, the questions on the front page can also be conceived of as a toolkit to question the dominant rhetorical and visual depictions of terrorist threats.

Additionally, the use of a selected zoom in some of the photographs, blurring and turning the surrounding of the suitcase in some photographs almost invisible, works in a sense like a frame, on the one hand, excluding other objects and subjects from the viewer’s visibility (Shim, 2014, p. 48), and, on the other hand, steering the viewer’s attention to a particular object or subject. Thus, setting the zoom in a photograph this way becomes a powerful tool just as framing as well. This can be illustrated by thinking of the anonymity of a terrorist. The invisibility of the owner of the suitcase in mainstream media representations of terrorist suitcase cases creates feelings of insecurity and suggests that the perpetrator could be anybody and still among us.

Lastly, it is important to stress that we are not trying to relativize the threat of terrorism present in today’s society. The terror attacks in Madrid, London and Boston have in fact shown that luggage is used to carry bombs. Fear of unattended suitcases is therefore not unfounded. Yet, we have to be vigilant to not fall prey to securitising, synecdochic and dichotomising narratives and visuals of terrorism that too often have resulted in militarisation of public spaces, widespread use of new technologies of surveillance and xenophobia toward the ‘other’, thereby turning invisible more nuanced and alternative views of the problem.

[1] The photographs were taken with a Canon 400D 50 mm 1.8 lens.

[2] It should be noted that in all the events, the headlines are referring to, the bomb alert turned out to be no more than a forgotten suitcases.



Literature used in the outline accompanying the photo essay

Crandall, J. & Armitage, J. (2005). Envisioning the homefront: Militarization, tracking and security culture. Journal of Visual Culture 4(1), 17–38.

Doward, J. (2015, August 1). Media coverage of terrorism ‘Leads to further violence’. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Feldman, A. (2005). On the actuarial gaze. Cultural Studies, 19 (2), 203-226. Retrieved from DOI:10.1080/09502380500077763.

Laustsen, C. B. (2008). The camera as a weapon: On Abu Ghraib and related matters. Journal for Cultural Research, 12 (2), 123–142.

Möller, F. (2007). Photographic interventions in post-9/11 security policy. Security Dialogue, 38 (2), 179–196.

Shim, D. (2014). Visual politics and North Korea – Seeing is believing. London: Routledge.

Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the pain of others. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Headlines used in photo essay

(2009, July 7). Q: What happens when a suitcase is left in an airport toilet? A: Total chaos. The Scotsman. Retrieved from

Heinrich, M. (2011, July 27). Oslo’s central Station evacuated due to suspicious suitcase. The World Post. Retrieved from

Holland, K. (2015, March 16). Update: Forgotten bag sparks airport evacuation. Rotorua Daily Post. Retrieved from

Raven, D. (2015, November 18). Copenhagen airport evacuated after ‘suspicious bag’ sparks bomb squad terror alert. Daily Mirror. Retrieved from

Tziperman Lotan, G. (2015, September 30). Nothing hazardous found inside suspicious-looking briefcase in downtown Orlando LYNX station. Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved from

Zehawi, D. and Dazio, S. (2015, May 16). Unattended bag prompts evacuation of Newark airport terminal. North Jersey. Retrieved from