To ‘Give Voice’? To ‘Speak For’? Representing Testimony and Protest at UK Immigration Detention Centres


  • Ewen MacArthur


media, immigration detention, voice, auto-ethnography, emancipatory politics, activism, allyship, representation


A tendency in contemporary efforts at emancipatory politics and media production can be characterised by a critical attitude to the very notion of representation, in political terms (e.g. in certain calls for “real democracy” issued by members of movements such as Occupy) and in artistic terms (e.g. the performative rather than indexical emphasis of some video art, such as Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) or Reassemblage (1982) by Trinh Mi Ha). Agency is often linked to ‘voice’, and emancipation to one’s ability to ‘speak for’ oneself (Lorde 1984; Foucault and Deleuze 1972). But if we insist that people ‘speak for’ themselves, what does this mean for allyship? Activist filmmakers, journalists, scholars and media-producers often justify what they do as ‘giving voice’. Yet, this seemingly simple goal, ‘to give voice’, is rarely elaborated, and the mediating role of the ‘giver’ of voice is often obscured. In this essay, I explore abstract conceptions of ‘giving voice’ and ‘speaking for’ others by reflecting on my own experience making short testimonial videos about protests in UK immigration detention centres with Standoff Films ( The significance of people’s ‘speech’, I maintain, should be assessed with reference to intention, as well as form. ‘Voice’ is powerful not in isolation, but when activated in a living social context. I suggest the primary truth-value of representations resides in the quality of their constitutive social relationships, characterised by honest attempts to listen, interpret and faithfully communicate, rather than in the technical accuracy of mimesis. Silencing, of some extent, is a necessary part of this process. As media-makers, I believe we should reflect on the silences in our representations when possible, and acknowledge when silences are primarily the result of issues in the world, rather than our own failures to ‘give voice’. Rather than forsake representation and proclaim “everyone should speak for themselves!’, self-reflection may cause us to strategically (re)orientate our representations, in dialogue with those we represent in a spirit of solidarity.

Author Biography

Ewen MacArthur

Ewen MacArthur is a documentary filmmaker and founder at Standoff Films ( He is currently studying for a master’s in anthropology at the University of British Columbia. His research interests concern migration, class, citizenship, anthropology of the state, art history, museum studies, political economy, and media anthropology.