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.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.Discussing, for example, photographs made of Palestinian detainees by Shabak (the Israeli General Security Service), Azoulay observes how “torture photographs” need not necessarily depict literal torture.
These photographs do not show torture, but serve, themselves, as a mode of torture. . . . The testimonies [collected by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel] indicate two types of photographs. In the first, relatives or someone who is dear to a detainee under interrogation are photographed in harsh conditions of detention or of severe abuse, and these photographs are placed in front of the detainee during his interrogation. In the second use of photography in the service of torture, the detainee himself is either photographed or threatened that he will be photographed in such a way as to be potentially incriminated within and by his social environment, based on his appearance in the photo.
Although this latter use has to do with threatening the detainee with a spurious identification as a collaborator, the more important point is that the oppressive instrumentalities of photography exist on a continuum and can be deployed in numerous ways. Press photographs of a Palestinian stripped to his underwear, like the enforced nudity photographed at Abu Ghraib prison, operate to produce humiliation and abjection, but the censorship of such imagery, Azoulay argues, is complicit with the acts themselves.
Meanwhile, we, as American citizens, have consented (or not) to wars that afflict citizens of other states far removed geographically and, as many have argued, of no immediate threat, militarily or otherwise. But for both the U.S. and Israeli citizen, as well as for the occupied Iraqi or Palestinian, the global culture of photography has itself become a stake in the conflicts. The publication in 2004 of the photographs made at Abu Ghraib established the evidence of torture (a.k.a. “abuse”) of detainees in U.S.-run prisons. Although we have not seen comparable photographs made at Guantánamo or other military installations, such images may well exist. The legal battles now taking place over the threatened release of the previously withheld images, and indeed, the related question of what is accomplished by making them visible, intersect constantly with Azoulay’s impassioned arguments about the ability of photography to spur ethical response, and the corollary necessity of fully disclosing what photography gives us to see (regardless, it seems, of the cost to some of the individuals depicted).
Given the relevance of so much of Azoulay’s book and its devastating indictment of the Israeli occupation, it is regrettable that she did not make it more accessible to a larger audience. Her discussion of the medium, and of individual photographs, is embedded within a broad intellectual context. Citations include works in philosophy (Giorgio Agamben, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard), political theory (Carl Schmitt), critical and social theory (Etienne Balibar, Adi Ophir), feminist theory (Judith Butler, Julia Kristeva, Carole Pateman), and photography history and theory (Roland Barthes, Geoffrey Batchen, Susan Sontag). Certain of the authors, such as Agamben and Ophir, are major influences on the book, while others figure more tangentially.
The extensive sources are not in themselves a problem; one arises, however, through the mode of presentation. Although I cannot pronounce on the quality of its English translation from the Hebrew, this is an extremely taxing book to read—exceedingly dense, often repetitive, excessively footnoted and daunting in its often cursory use of theoretical reference. It would have profited from greater editorial attention and more accommodation of the nonspecialist reader.
That (regretfully) said, the book makes an important contribution. Given the modest production of serious critical work on photography, the continued U.S. support of Israeli policies condemned by most of the world, and, needless to say, American involvement with military occupation, torture and their photographic representation, Azoulay’s ethical and political interrogation of her circumstances as an Israeli citizen should be taken as a challenge to produce our own accounting.
Photo captions: Oded Yedaya: diversion demonstration, Harbata, 2004.
Musa Al Shaer: arrest campaign, refugee camp, Daheisha, Mar. 11, 2002.
Alex Levac: Hebron, 2000.