The Civil Contract of Photography

Steve Edwards finds positives and negatives in the claim that photos are a key part of political culture

December 18, 2008

Academics have long held a sceptical view of the documentary form, yet editing of film about the Queen for a BBC documentary can still cause a popular furore. The photograph of choice in specialist departments has for some time been the constructed image, and everything else is to be "deconstructed". There are now signs that this consensus is breaking open and Ariella Azoulay's The Civil Contract of Photography makes an important contribution to an emerging view that treats photojournalism as a vital component of political culture.

Azoulay focuses on two "injured" or "abandoned" groups: female citizens in Israel and Palestinians living in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967. Photography bears witness to these injuries and, in its uses by the state, gives rise to them. Azoulay views photography as a key component of public culture that demands ethical engagement.

Indeed, she argues that the "civil contract of photography", in which we all participate, has been inscribed in photography from 1839. This is a contract of "partnership and solidarity" that reaches across national boundaries to "universal spectators". We realise that photographs are conventional pictures, but the contract entails agreeing to treat them as witnesses for the people or events represented, thus anchoring spectators in "civic duty towards the photographed person". She argues that we must consider a triangulated vision between those photographed, the photographer and the viewer. None of these points of view singularly determines the meaning of the image: "Despite the fact that the photographer is the one holding the camera or the soldier is the one supervising the situation with his rifle, neither are necessarily able to conquer the situation or fully control it from their single viewpoint." For Azoulay, photographs can and must be made to speak.

The Civil Contract of Photography is not an easy read: it is dense with ruminations on citizenship, territory and violence, discussions of vision and the body, considerations of rape and its invisibility, and engagements with Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Jean-Francois Lyotard and many others. Azoulay's framework is principally drawn from Giorgio Agamben's recasting of Carl Schmitt's "decisionism".

She employs a tripartite distinction between a sovereign power, the citizen, and those subject to power. These subjects live in a "state of emergency" decreed by the sovereign. They are "abandoned" by the law and live on the edge of "disaster" or "catastrophe".

Palestinians are denied citizenship, but as "refugees" remain subject to perpetual emergency measures. Women are said to be partial citizens. The problem is that it is difficult to halt the logic of this line of argument. In these terms, who is not a partial citizen?

In addition, an ambiguity stems from this purview: the author suggests that Palestinians are injured and abandoned because the Israeli state has imposed on them a state of emergency, but she also argues that an emergency claim must be created (by photography) to offer protection from injury and abandonment.

The book really takes off in the last 200 pages where Azoulay has some important things to say. This is difficult reading of a different kind, because she brings the reader up starkly against the everyday humiliations and violence inflicted on Palestinians. Her term for the state of exception in the Occupied Territories is the "penal colony" - the allusion to Kafka is evident and fitting.

Forty per cent of Palestinian men have been imprisoned by the occupying power. Many, many more are routinely "dehydrated" - the military term for leaving them handcuffed and blindfolded for hours. Checkpoints and searches perpetually disrupt everyday life.

Azoulay makes photographs the evidential basis for an examination of the politics of visibility in the Territories. Efrat Shivili's photographs of "construction projects" guide her thinking about the politics of space on both sides of the Green Line. She examines standard representations, repetitive poses and elisions in the Israeli press. Azoulay finds an orientalist scrutiny of bodies in the many photographs of Palestinian men baring their midriffs at gunpoint to demonstrate that they are not carrying explosives. She reflects on the use of photographs by Shabak, the Israeli secret service, in framing and ensnaring collaborators and informants. The photographs of blindfolded prisoners open on to a consideration of a refusal of a Palestinian vision.

Importantly, The Civil Contract of Photography is not only an account of photography as an instrument of state power. In Azoulay's hands, photographs, even those designed to aid the ruling powers, always testify in other ways. When they enter the public realm, debate sparks from them. As she notes, staged photographs of torture positions shown in a human rights report serve to testify, since Shabak offered no rebuttal and applied for extension of the illustrated techniques. Compared with the one-dimensional accounts of photography that have for some time dominated discussion, Azoulay's attention to the dialogic condition of evidence is a step forward.

This book would have benefited from hard editing: it is long, meandering and repetitive, and contains some historical errors. The author's method drifts towards a politics of victimhood that encourages a position of benevolence in the viewer. Rather than agents determining their futures, Palestinians and women appear as "weak" or needing "protection". Who is to provide it? This strange feminisation of the victim (and the theme of rape is central here) is a conundrum with its roots in the legal-national perspective of Schmitt and Agamben; for how can the subjects of a state of exception break the grip of the nation-state upon them? Despite so-called institutions of global governance, legal citizenship is tied to states. This overly legal conception would require the state to be externally ruptured for citizenship to extend to those abandoned. If such an intervention was at all likely, it would be worrying. The author discusses her limitations as an Israeli citizen in accessing Palestinian images, but the inclusion would certainly have strengthened the book.

The book also leaves unreconciled its account of photography as part of the machinery of state power with her commitment to it as public witness. Nevertheless, this is a significant, deeply moral book that should undercut complacent thinking. Azoulay's renewal of cultural attention to the state and her view of photography that requires us to dispute prevailing interpretations of evidence must surely be welcomed as we are, once again, thrown headlong back to reality.

The Civil Contract of Photography

By Ariella Azoulay
Zone Books
500pp
£23.95
ISBN 9781890951887
Published 28 November 2008

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