The fact that I was reading Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography in April, as the news media reported the potential release of yet more photos of torture at Abu Ghraib prison (including, allegedly, pictures of rape), was a matter of chance. But the coincidence is a reminder that Azoulay’s central themes—state violence, violations of human rights, and the nature and potential of photographic witness—are as relevant to our own political circumstances as they are to hers.
Azoulay, who teaches visual culture and contemporary philosophy at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, has published widely in Hebrew, French and English, and has also worked as a curator and filmmaker. Her first book to be translated into English was Death’s Showcase: The Power of Image in Contemporary Democracy (2001), which received the Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in New York. But to say that Azoulay’s subject in either her current or previous work is “photography” is at once too broad and too narrow. With the exception of one chapter that deals with a small number of historical photographs (e.g., daguerreotypes of American slaves, one sequence from Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion), most of the images she discusses are from Israeli press coverage of the Palestinian situation or created by Israeli artists who use photography as their medium.
Azoulay’s examples are marshaled to demonstrate how the civil contract of her title can be mobilized for “emergency claims,” that is, the call of afflicted populations for social and political redress. This in turn underpins her formulation of an ethics of spectatorship, an injunction to the viewer to become an attentive “watcher,” rather than a passive consumer of such images, whether they are seen in the mass media or in galleries and museums. This shift to the position of watcher, she writes, prompts viewers to delve into the conditions of production as well as the political context that lies behind the image.
The civil contract of photography that Azoulay theorizes is predicated on her belief that, despite copyright laws and other proprietary systems, photography in the public sphere belongs effectively to no one, or—what amounts to the same thing—to everyone.
Photography thus has formed a citizenry, a citizenry without sovereignty, without place or borders, without language or unity, having a heterogeneous history, a common praxis, inclusive citizenship, and a unified interest. The citizenry of photography is a global form of relation that is not subject to national regimes, despite existing within their borders. . . . In the citizenry of photography, citizenship is rehabilitated and regains its essence.
Azoulay’s work overall is decisively shaped by her own circumstances as a citizen of a sovereign state that denies citizenship status to, but nevertheless governs, millions of residents who are deemed “stateless” and thus, as she emphasizes, perpetually on “the verge of catastrophe.” (Which is not to say that actual catastrophe does not periodically strike, as in the recent Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip.) In arguing for the medium’s agency in expressing “emergency claims,” Azoulay refers not only to such events as natural disasters that require immediate humanitarian address and compel ameliorative intervention by the state, but to ongoing political, military and civil catastrophes, such as the Israeli occupation, that are variously prevented from being perceived as emergencies.
Ruled by the state of Israel, but as the exception to Israeli law, [Palestinians] have been effectively abandoned by the sovereign, and in most cases injury inflicted on them not only escapes penalty, but is rarely considered to be something that deserves notice. If injury to the Palestinians is sanctioned, any statement [which is] an attempt to report this injury fails to appear as an emergency claim in the framework of the existing discourse.
Azoulay’s positions, however, are also shaped by feminist thought, and in formulating her overarching concept of a civil contract of photography she links the plight of dispossessed people with the position of women, whose nominal citizenship within modern states can be considered “flawed” or “impaired.” She argues that women’s subordination was institutionalized in the first “modern” definition of citizenship in the French Revolution, which excluded women from full status as citizens. This implicitly reaffirmed not only the defining structures of patriarchy (i.e., women as the property of men) but also women’s perpetual vulnerability to rape. Dual aspects of the same social order, these conditions are invoked to support her claim that women as such exist in a state of “abandonment” by the sovereign state.
Accordingly, in her chapter “Has Anyone Ever Seen a Photograph of a Rape?” Azoulay argues that the routine censorship of such photographs deprives them of their testimonial value, thereby continuing to obfuscate the act of rape itself as well as its frequency. While she acknowledges that “rape” is a staple of pornographic imagery, Azoulay claims that there also exists a substantial shadow archive documenting actual rape, from the forensic files of police to compilations showing evidence of rape by soldiers, as she documents with images from the Japanese assault on Nanking. She further argues that because women, like Palestinians under Israeli occupation, are effectively noncitizens of their respective nations, the censorship or outright prohibition of photographic testimony veils the injuries that condition the daily existence of both and prevents the acknowledgment of their emergency claims.
These assertions are problematic in a number of ways. Unlike the book’s other chapters, this one pivots on what is not visible or publicly represented. But by acknowledging no crucial distinctions in circumstance, either historical or cultural, Azoulay in effect essentializes both women and rape. Her generalizations do not distinguish between mass rape in wartime, conjugal rape and random rape by an individual criminal. Nor do they address what one would be given to see in a rape photograph. The actual act; if perpetrated by a lone individual, who would have photographed it? A raped body; what would it show? What would establish, visually, the act’s nonconsensual nature? Neither do Azoulay’s pronouncements address homosexual rape, nor the fact that different cultures have different incidences of rape and sexual violence. Finally, she does not adequately address the many instances in which rape victims—or victims of any kind—might want to avoid photographic exposure of their plight for compelling personal or societal reasons.