Book: Ariella Azoulay’s “The Civil Contract of Photography”

The Civil Contract of Photography by Areilla Azioulay is discussed in The New Yorker by Sarah Sentilles, and having read the article I know I must buy the book. It contradicts so much that I’ve been learning here and elsewhere about photographing people in awful situations, and the arguments reported seem deeply compelling and convincing. I am reminded of something I learned a little while ago and had forgotten perhaps;  the motivations/intentions of the photographer are integral to the meaning of an image, and often those may only be revealed as potential viewers’ perceptions have evolved, or more simply as time passes.

We are told that we as citizens do not yet know how to read photographs and the article ends by giving us an analogy to further explain this. It’s an uncompromising position to take but perhaps a necessary one. “I thought of a friend whose son was diagnosed with a fatal disease. When he was dying, people would say to her, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” She would respond, “Yes, you can imagine it. You just don’t want to.” (I suppose the problem comes about in trusting people to learn to be more responsible viewers and that may well be an overambitious goal.)

One of the most striking examples in support of the arguments reported is how photographs of slaves intended to prove their sub-humanity instead “document the inhumanity of the owners”.

The article also explores the indexality of images and introduced an essay by Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson (also worth reading), saying, “Yes, photographs show what was there, Pinney argues, but what was there can be much more than what the photographer wanted the viewer to see”, and “”Margin of excess,” Pinney calls it. “Subversive code”. As a result, he argues, rather than being guarantees of certainty or proof, photographs are volatile, fertile, open, and available to uses that the photographer may not have intended.””

When I first started looking at Self & Other, I watched a talk given by John Tagg at Yale titled, Knocking around between money, sex, and boredom”: Walker Evans in Havana and New York. Evan’s sense of entitlement is discussed at length but we must not forget that intention is everything and it is likely to be revealed in time. 

I have long been worried that when I visit Northern France with Just Shelter I am so eager to avoid documenting in an exploitative way, that I am simply abstracting what I see to such a point that is becomes meaningless and pointless, except to a handful of people. Maybe I should stop worrying so much. I like the sound of this book very much. It appears to cut through dogma and is definitely one to get. I’ll report back once I’ve read it.


6 thoughts on “Book: Ariella Azoulay’s “The Civil Contract of Photography”

  1. Thanks for sharing this article – lots here that is interesting me at the minute. The subject I am considering for my critical review is the ethics of aestheticisation in documentary photography. The argument seems compelling, as is the notion of the ‘social contract’, but I cannot ​help think there is an inherent paradox in the idea that we need to learn to read images in the ‘right’ way – the slave photograph example is important, but, the article does not acknowledge that some will read the images in the racist way they were intended rather than the way Azoulay does, as an affirmation of equality rather than proof of inequality.

  2. I agree with your concerns and comments but I think she raises important issues. Some of us modern humans are in denial about what and who we are – animals that hunt and destroy other animals. We are not airy fairy, perfectly ethical, academic objects made with hundreds of revisions. We have a lizard brain which motivates much of what we do. Consequently, there is constant opposition within us and we need to learn, and keep learning collectively, how to deal with that aspect of ourselves. We should not aim for the lowest common denominator, nor should we construct all our ethics in relation to the lowest. The nazi fuckwits you see on Facebook yelling nonsense about colour or whatever are always going to be there. They are a morass of angry, seething, unformed humanity and to think they will ever not exist seems a fantasy to me. Photographs that document vile horror need to be considered with a cost/benefit analysis. And sometimes the benefits of showing future generations just how vile we are capable of being is worth the cost. Look at history and see the developments which often take hundred of years to be realised. If we roll out the current trend of ‘safe spaces’ across all our culture, always afraid of offending someone, we risk living in a complete fantasy land about ourselves. And we might lose all our fortitude and resilience which is often borne of pain and discomfort. It’s true we must be aware but we risk castrating ourselves too. In the Hand full of Dust exhibition which I will write about soon a woman with a burnt face in Hiroshima says to a photographer, “you came here to take photographs of me, get on with it”. It’s a powerful document and the moment deserves to be in existence. Had a photography student of today gone along to that same spot, it might never have came about; the woman would have grown impatient with the young student as she fumbled about in her bag of college educated dogma for her ethical release form

  3. I appreciate your review Sarah Jane. I’ve ordered a copy from amazon in response to what you have written.
    I agree that the motivations of the photographer are important, and I think that some authors assume that those “suffering” who are photographed are uneducated and unable to express themselves and are therefor exploited by photographers.
    This is a patronising assumption in my belief. It may be the case some of the time, but I’m also aware from my project on homelessness that this is not true for many people. Hardship affects people from all walks of life.
    I look forward to reading a different perspective. Thankyou.

    • I’m glad you found it helpful. I’ve ordered it too and will do my best to read it analytically. Perhaps we simply need to avoid overly complicating it all, and understand each situation we are presented with will be different and it’s important for us photographers to remain open to the possibilities rather than approaching everything with a pre-ordained idea.

      • I believe your right. I think it’s great to have motivation and ideas that I want to explore with photography. I see photography as a process to express myself and to develop as an individual. To have my ideas and beliefs about the world challenged. It’s a symbiotic interaction.

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