Last week we held a launch event for our Visualising Security project. The aim of the project is, over the next 4 months, to build a collection of images and stories that challenge the conventional narrative of ‘security’ and provide evidence for our Alternative Security Review. Joanna Frew shares some reflections on the event

What does (in)security look like to people in the UK? How can that reality be conveyed not just in words, but through creative engagement? What symbols and images will people use to convey their understanding of (in)security? These are the exciting unknowns as we embark on the Visualising Security project.

What we already know, and why we have undertaken the Alternative Security Review, is that UK security policy is made by a small group of elite insiders whose starting point for national ‘security’ is to identify threats to the status quo and then find ways to contain or eliminate those threats by exerting coercive power. It rarely defines ‘security’ beyond the existing order, let alone examining whether that order is just, equitable or sustainable. Never yet has it sought to ask ordinary people how they would define security and what priorities they would set.

We asked three outstanding people who think, work, write about and take action on (in)security to share their reflections by using an image that helped them define (in)security. As Zsófia Hacsek, researcher with the ASR team and Coventry University, said, “images use symbols and emotions to shape a narrative.”

To see the images and hear what the speakers had to say, you can still watch the discussion, but the panel elicited some reflections for me that highlight the way in which asking people to share images does indeed illustrate thoughts and feelings in a unique and powerful way.

Financial institutions, the military-industrial complex and policy were all identified as part of this system of dominance that is supposed to create security but often causes harm and insecurity for people across the world, as well as for communities in the UK, especially those that are marginalised and minoritised.

Answering this insecurity, I felt the images created a narrative around solidarity, community and agency. They showed protest – an act that brings people together in solidarity, even when they face violence from those supposed to protect us. As Aditi Gupta (co-founder Minorities in Peace and Security) said, it is also about taking back agency over our own security when it is under threat, especially when the interests vested in the current political, economic and security establishment, over which most of us feel we have little power, perpetuate systemic injustices such as racism. 

For Ameen Nemer (Arabian rights activists, collaborating with the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights) remembering the victims of Saudi Arabia’s seven-year bombing of Yemen, that act of solidarity in defiance of the global military-industrial complex is about pointing out the absurdity of conventional understandings of security. The cyclical insecurity caused by war – when money is spent on weapons, instead of hospitals and schools, that are then used to destroy hospitals and schools – could be stopped if there was political will.

Sarah Lasoye’s (Medact Campaigns Officer) photo depicted several layers, illustrating where Sarah finds security – in communities that act in solidarity – and where she sees the origin of some insecurities, particularly for the minoritised and activist groups she is part of.

The symbols used in these deeply personal images were underpinned by a demonstrable emotional commitment to building a different kind of security. The images, in different ways, bore witness to the human bodies that bear the scars, or have succumbed, to national ‘security’ and for whom the speakers are passionate about building a better security. The picture of security formed during the event was about security as something that is built from the ground up, that protects those who are minoritised, and that says “no” to a security that is based on coercive power. From all of the speakers a commitment to protecting and upholding human dignity and rights was visible. 

We hope this project will open up more meaningful discussion about security across the country. As Aditi said, we need to take our agency back when it comes to security discussions. Ameen quoted insiders who said that if the UK ended weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, overnight that would end their war in Yemen. But it’s not just in foreign and defence policy that human security is being eroded. Sarah spoke of the hard security policies that have made their way into healthcare in the UK and the impact that more draconian policy and policing has on minoritised communities especially. As well as the campaigns that many of us are involved in, we need to shape a new narrative on what security means, to challenge and change the thinking at a national level. We can make a difference and need to use the agency or power that we have.

Working with an existing group you are part of, or by gathering a group together, Visualising Security is a great way of opening up conversations on how people define (in)security and what’s important to them to feel safe. Sharing images and stories with Rethinking Security will add evidence and authenticity to our Alternative Security Review but, who knows, it might help to build a new narrative where you are too. Check out the information on how to go about this or get in touch.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Visualising Security logo, designed by Leonie Mills-Woanya