Ariella Azoulay: The Civil Contract of Photography


In this groundbreaking work, Ariella Azoulay provides a compelling rethinking of the political and ethical status of photography.
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In this groundbreaking work, Ariella Azoulay provides a compelling rethinking of the political and ethical status of photography. In her extraordinary account of the "civil contract" of photography, she thoroughly revises our understanding of the power relations that sustain and make possible photographic meanings. Photography, she insists, must be thought of and understood in its inseparability from the many catastrophes of recent history.

Azoulay argues that photography is a particular set of relations between individuals to the power that governs them, and, at the same time, a form of relations among equal individuals that constrains this power. Her book shows how anyone, even a stateless person, who addresses others through photographs or occupies the position of a photograph's addressee, is or can become a citizen in the citizenry of photography. The civil contract of photography enables him or her to share with others the claim made or addressed by the photograph.

But the crucial arguments of the book concern two groups whose vulnerability and flawed citizenship have been rendered invisible due to their state of exception: the Palestinian noncitizens of Israel and women in Western societies. What they share is an exposure to injuries of various kinds and the impossibility of photographic statements of their plight from ever becoming claims of emergency and calls for protection. Thus one of her leading questions is the following: Under what legal, political or cultural conditions does it become possible to see and to show disaster that befalls those flawed citizens in states of exception?

The book brilliantly examines key texts in the history of modern citizenship, such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, together with relevant works by Giorgio Agamben, Hannah Arendt, Olympe de Gouges, and Jean-François Lyotard; it rigorously analyzes Israeli photographs of violent episodes in the Occupied Territories—work by Miki Kratsman, Michal Heiman, and Aïm Deüelle Lüski—and it interpretively engages photographs of women from those of Muybridge to recent images from Abu Ghraib prison. At the same time Azoulay provides new critical perspectives on well-known texts such as Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others and Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida.

The Civil Contract of Photography is an essential work for anyone seeking to understand the disasters of recent history and the consequences of how these events and their victims have been represented. Azoulay charts new intellectual and political pathways in this unprecedented exploration of the visual field of catastrophe, injustice, and suffering in our time.

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