Engaging Minds, Transforming Lives

Communication Studies

Dr. Bob Bednar to Publish Book on Roadside Shrines

Dr. Bednar discussed his successful sabbatical, upcoming summer courses, his long-term research on roadside car crash shrines, and the process of publishing his new book Moving Pictures: the Lives of Photographs of the Dead at Roadside Crash Shrines. 

  • Dr. Bednar in his office
    Dr. Bednar in his office
    Cole Whitely

How does the inherent rhetorical power of photography interpellate us to empathize with a stranger’s trauma? In Dr. Bednar’s upcoming book, he examines this question and analyzes the images of victims on roadside car crash shrines as “road scars” of trauma, memory, and automobility. Shrines demand we consciously look beyond the photographs they feature and, according to Bednar, “imagine a relationship with other people in a certain place and time.” “Road trauma signs” describe this poignant encountering of the roadside crash image and explain the visual, spatial, and material dimensions that add up to the cultural and public traumas they represent. Road shrines interpellate their viewer, justify the life of the person in the photographs, and uncomfortably draw attention to the everyday, and therefore often overlooked, dangers of road travel. 

Bednar emphasizes it is up to the viewer to interpret road trauma for themselves and interrogate the intimate connections we feel when trying to cope with the road shrine’s eerie everyday warnings. The “road side trauma” images “reflect and refract, but do not interpret trauma” for the viewer. Instead, photographs target a mobile audience facing oncoming traffic and certifies presence in their subject’s absence. Their absence ultimately compels the viewer to experience the trauma. Bednar emphasizes, “someone died doing exactly what you’re doing– driving” and it is this fact which interpellates us in position to someone else’s tragedy. In order to say and be exactly what they are the “road trauma signs” boldly occupy a “territory not their own, they seize their space and say it’s theirs and make it work.” 

The “last alive” site of the road trauma shrine interrupt how that place existed in the first place and make it sacred. The family or friends of the victim who make and maintain the crash site demands a response when they state, “my person died here, do you want this to happen to you?” The rhetorical power of the images they use activates feelings about their loss and the world of trauma associated with automobility. One of the images Bednar captured features a photo of someone’s son in red jersey, smiling, making eye contact, and thus demanding a virtual relationship with the viewer. The mother’s letter next to the photograph reads “your Dad and I miss you having to enjoy.” A road shrine shows what and how people manage trauma, augment the site, and affect the public with a virtual memorial map of witnesses. It is through the act of witnessing we can understand how we manage public displays of grief and mourning. 

Bednar has conducted his field research of car crash shrines for fourteen years, “I want to be on a ride when I do research. ” He conducted the main part of his fieldwork over the course of a seven week road trip in 2012 travelling with his family in the American Southwest. “It was always important that my family was with me” and since he has re-visited these sites and observed the ways in which these photographs have changed, disintegrated, and reacted to their landscape. His ambition to provide depth and understanding for the understudied roadside shrine will finally give justice to the roadside shrine as a cultural phenomena through which a broad scholarly audience can finally explore different kinds of affect and public and cultural trauma.

Dr. Bednar is offering two summer 2017 courses, “Road Movies” which explores automobility and the road movie as a film genre and contemporary cultural form. He is also offering “Journalism” which will allow students to learn journalistic, nonfiction narrative writing with a “special emphasis on the production of magazine, newspaper, and online feature stories that use reporting and narrative techniques also prevalent in ethnography and documentary film.”