The civil contract that Azoulay is concerned to develop is in certain respects (and in contrast to most modern and contemporary views) a redemptive reading of photography. For Azoulay, this contract is, moreover, a fait accompli, inaugurated with the invention of the medium itself. As such, the concept already implies a universal citizenry and universal rights.
Photography is an apparatus of power that cannot be reduced to any of its components: a camera, a photographer, a photographed environment, object, person, or spectator. “Photography” is a term that designates an ensemble of diverse actions that contain the production, distribution, exchange, and consumption of the photographic image. . . . As long as photographs exist, I will contend, we can see in them and through them the way in which such a contract also enables the injured parties to present their grievances, in person or through others, now or in the future.
Contra the contentions that photography is inescapably complicit with the society of the spectacle (Debord, Baudrillard), and that its depictions of pain and suffering are ultimately anesthetizing (Sontag), Azoulay affirms the medium’s potential to provoke not merely awareness but ethical responsibility. “A photograph,” she writes, “is an énoncé [utterance] within the pragmatics of obligation. It commands the restoration of the addresser’s position—as the governed and as a citizen under the civil contract of photography—whenever this position is endangered or harmed.”
These are bold claims, and by no means self-evident. To state the obvious, 150 years of freely available photographs of death, destruction, violence and human misery do not appear to have made individuals more ethically responsive, nor their sovereign states any less violent. In fact, Azoulay treats such photographic inducements to pity, or even empathy, as secondary to the more ambitious goal of fostering a shared transnational citizenship via the agency of ethical spectatorship. This quasi-utopianism, linked to the ubiquity of photography, underpins certain other questionable assertions. Even when encounters are extremely tense, Azoulay asserts, the camera, or the photographer, tends to mollify: “That is because a civil contract regulates these encounters, reducing and most of the time eliminating the possibility of direct violence.” But in reality, photojournalists are often victims in time of war and other conflicts, and news photography is most frequently employed by the media tendentiously, propagandistically. Furthermore, the lens sometimes elicits theatrics that may turn suddenly deadly.
Press photographs depicting routine violence suggest a reality that, like any other, can be ignored, filtered out, justified or effectively naturalized. Like many of her larger arguments, Azoulay’s case for the camera’s beneficent role in an acknowledged contract is based too specifically on the particular circumstances of the Israeli occupation (e.g., Palestinian men bearing a coffin and demanding that the photographer take their picture as proof of injustice). Other examples of the victim’s desire to have the camera bear witness (e.g., a Palestinian baring her legs so the marks of Israeli rubber bullets can be seen; a Palestinian exhibiting cigarette burns on his arms) are likewise tied to this specific conflict and its myriad injustices.
Indeed, one of the consistent tensions in Azoulay’s book lies in the discursive oscillation between the particular and the universal. The Israel/Palestine conflict (which so decisively marks her own ethical and political position) does not necessarily support her most ambitious claims regarding the use of the medium, the condition of women—even citizenship itself. Here again, and in contrast to much contemporary thought, Azoulay wants to rescue, indeed affirm, the category of “citizen,” and rarely, if ever, does she employ the more ambivalent category of “subject.”
The civil contract of photography assumes that, at least in principle, the governed possess a certain power to suspend the gesture of the sovereign power in seeking to totally dominate the relations between us, dividing us as governed into citizens and noncitizens, thus making disappear the violation of our citizenship. Given the circumstances that Israel is an occupying and colonizing power, speaking of “our” citizenship—that is, the citizenship of both Palestinians and Israelis—is based on the assumption that being governed along with and beside individuals who are not citizens also causes damage to the seemingly whole, unimpaired citizenship of the citizens who are recognized as such.
This stark opposition of Israeli citizen and noncitizen is less useful for understanding diverse forms of oppression elsewhere, such as those of race and class in the U.S., where the full citizenship of African-Americans and other minorities fails to protect them from discrimination and injustices of many kinds. And doesn’t Azoulay’s model flatten the distinction between, say, a citizen of France and one of North Korea? Is contract theory or citizenship truly the ultimate guarantor of social justice and individual freedom? How are Azoulay’s injunctions for an ethics of photographic viewing to be fostered in the first place, especially when mass media are increasingly corporatized and oppositional practices increasingly marginal?
These questions are not really addressed in the book, whose greatest strengths reside instead in Azoulay’s harrowing accounts of the everyday violence of the occupation. She gives detailed readings of conventional press and governmental photographs, as well as images by important photojournalists like Miki Kratsman, who has long worked within the occupied territories, and the work of Israeli artists such as Michal Heiman and Aïm Deüelle Lüski.