Fotograf Magazine

Despite the photography speaks falsely, it also speaks the truth

Although The Civil Contract of Photography was first published already several years ago, its new paperback edition represents a good opportunity for it to reach a broader audience. Its author, the Israeli theorist, curator and documentary filmmaker Ariella Azoulay addresses the theme of documentary and reportage photography not only through the theory of the medium, but above all from the perspective of political philosophy. She studies photographs from conflict zones to re-assess perceived political notions and to understand the relationship between citizenship and photography in a broader context, informed by issues of feminism or post-colonial theories. According to Azoulay it is possible to rewrite history by refusing to participate in and be party to the evil that state power perpetrates in the form of violence transformed into law, and if we reconstruct the possibilities that have been suppressed by the ruling powers.

Azoulay explains that the theory of photography which she lays out in her book is based on a new onthological and political understanding of photography, which she approaches as the result of an interaction of all the participants of the photographic act: the person being photographed, the photographer, and the viewer: “None of these have the capacity to seal off this effect and determine its sole meaning.” The concept of a civil contract of photography, based on the shared expectations of its participants, is articulated in Chapter Two of an almost six-hundred page book. We learn here that although photography of conflict zones is, similar to nationality, a relationship between the controller and the controlled, yet the civic photographic space, in contrast to physical space, is not limited by any imposed borders. “Against the political order of the nation-state, photography – together with other media that created the conditions for globalization – paved the way for a universal citizenship: not a state, but a citizenry, in potential, with the civil contract of photography as its organizing framework.” (134)

In order to elucidate the background to her ideas, in Chapter One Azoulay discusses the beginnings of civic law issues, analyzing – among other things – the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. In the following chapters she reconstructs the mutual compact constituting the act of photography, focusing on the role of the viewer, or the universal viewer. In analyzing the photographs of the Second Intifada she demonstrates why these images of horror compel the viewer to take immediate action. She goes on to describe the living conditions of the Palestinians as portrayed in photography, not as a temporary but as a chronic situation on the verge of imminent catastrophe. Azoulay also points out the ways in which photography can be exploited in order to repress the population under control. The final chapter deals with the figure of the female collaborator. Azoulay describes the peculiar paradox which lies in the fact that as in the case of the rape of women (an issue discussed in a separate chapter) there are virtually no photographs capturing these realities, but she is not satisfied that this is due simply to the lack of witnesses. “These photographs are never published, but they exist and are accessible to the gaze of those allowed or authorized to see them. In truth, such photographs represent only a tiny proportion of all rape cases, but even so, they teach us that rape is not in principle devoid of an image – the public gaze on images of rape is what’s missing.” (251)

The photographic representation of suffering is the subject of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, (London: Hamish Hamilton 2003); the connection of photography and power has been discussed in a number of works by the English theorist John Tagg (most recently in The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2009). Ariella Azoulay goes another step further, articulating these relationships anew, as she terms them a civil contract, in reference to Rousseau’s social contract. She approaches photography through a profound reflection of issues of civil law and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, thus significantly expanding the genre, which has traditionally been connected with the Euro-American traditions of photography as artistic documentary, pointing out new ways that thinking on photography may take if we wish to go beyond the mere discussion of the nature of the photographic representation and its indexicality. Azoulay writes: “Critical discussion seeking to challenge the truth of photography […] remains anecdotal and marginal to the institutionalized practices of exhibiting and publishing photographs. Only a glance at a newspaper kiosk is needed to realize the enduring power of the news photo. Photography’s critics tend to forget, that despite the fact that photography speaks falsely, it also speaks the truth.” (126) With due respect I have for the author, I shall merely point out that theoretical discussion of the nature of photographic representation still remains essential for the understanding of the uses of photography in art. And this remains a fact even though in proportion to the total sum of photographs produced, art constitutes only a marginal fraction.


Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, New York: Zone Books 2008

Hana Buddeus