The Civil Contract of Photography is about the relations between photography and citizenship in disaster contexts. The book proposes a historical and theoretical analysis of the relation between photography and citizenship, and in order to do that, I reread two moments in history: the French Revolution (1789) and the invention of photography (1839). The Civil Contract of Photography centers around the open-ended relations between photographers, photographed persons and spectators. The book analyzes the way in which, since the onset of photography in the mid-19th century, looking at photographs and making them speak have become a part of a civil practice.
The political theory laid out in this book is founded upon a new conceptualization of citizenship as a framework of partnership and solidarity among those who are governed. It is a framework that is neither constituted nor circumscribed by the sovereign. The theory of photography proposed in the book is founded on a new ontological-political understanding of photography. The book takes into account all the participants in photographic acts, approaching the photograph (and its meaning) as an unintentional effect of the encounter between camera, photographer, photographed subject, and spectator. None of these participants in the photographic act has the capacity to seal off this effect and determine the photograph’s sole meaning.
The civil contract of photography assumes that, at least in principle, the users of photography, possess a certain power to suspend the gesture of the sovereign power which seeks to totally dominate the relations between them as governed—governed into citizens and noncitizens, thus making disappear the violation of citizenship. This is an attempt to rethink the political space of governed populations and to reformulate the boundaries of citizenship as distinct from the nation and the market whose dual rationale constantly threatens to subjugate it.
The book seeks to arouse two dormant dimensions of thinking about citizenship and to recast them as points of departure for a new discussion of this concept. The first of these dimensions consists in the fact that citizens are, first and foremost, governed. The nation-state creates a bond of identification between citizens and the state through a variety of ideological mechanisms, causing this fact to be forgotten. This, then, allows the state to divide the governed—partitioning off non-citizens from citizens—and to mobilize the privileged citizens against other groups of ruled subjects. An emphasis on the dimension of being governed allows a rethinking of the political sphere as a space of relations between the governed, whose political duty is first and foremost or at least also a duty toward one another, rather than toward the ruling power.
“The assumption is that the photographs show or perform something that is already over and done, foreclosing the option of seeing photography as a space of political relations. In the political space that is reconstructed through the civil contract, photographed persons are participant citizens.”
I began work on this book at the beginning of the second intifada. In hindsight, I can say that observing the unbearable sights presented in photographs from the Occupied Territories formed the main motives for writing this book. When photographs or the work of particular photographers from there are characterized as “partisan,” “abusive”, “subversive,” or “critical,” the assumption is that the photographs show or perform something that is already over and done, foreclosing the option of seeing photography as a space of political relations. In the political space that is reconstructed through the civil contract, photographed persons are participant citizens, just the same as I am. I employ the term “contract” in order to shed terms such as “empathy,” “shame,” “pity,” or “compassion” as organizers of the spectator’s gaze in photographs. Within this political space, the point of departure for the mutual relations between the various “users” of photography, cannot be empathy or mercy. It must be a covenant for the rehabilitation of their citizenship in the political sphere within which we, spectators and photographed persons, are all ruled. When the photographed persons address the spectator, claiming their citizenship in what I call “the citizenry of photography,” they cease to appear as stateless or as enemies—they cease to appear how the sovereign regime strives to construct them.
The civil contract of photography is a social fiction or hypostatized construct in the same sense that Rousseau’s social contract was conceived of as something that has “perhaps never been formally set forth” previously, yet that is “everywhere the same and everywhere tacitly admitted and recognized.” Its theoretical recognition rests on the fact of its historical existence in every act of photography. It has been conceptualized here via its historical emergence as a convention that regulates the various uses of photography and its relations of exchange.
I could not have developed my discussion of watching as a civil act and a rehabilitation of the political without Hannah Arendt’s discussion of action and of the loss of common sense in modernity. The discussions of rehabilitating citizenship under contemporary conditions are greatly indebted to the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen written by Olympe de Gouges, to Étienne Balibar’s essays on citizenship and radical violence, and to Azmi Bishara political thought and praxis.
The first chapter of the book articulates the necessity to think the categories of citizenship and disaster together. What conditions prevent photos of horror of certain type of governed from becoming emergency claims? The association of citizenship with disaster and the characterization of certain populations as being more susceptible to disaster than others show that citizenship is not a stable status that one simply struggles to achieve, but an arena of conflict and negotiation. Discussing the question of what constitutes the exception assumes a new meaning and helps distinguish two different political conditions. On the one hand, disaster is declared an exception because it is a situation in which citizens suffer immensely and need special protection from the state (or from their sovereign). On the other hand, certain people or populations governed by the state are declared an exception, and this makes them more vulnerable to disaster, or it abandons them in ways that turn their living environment into a disaster zone. In both cases, and from both perspectives, the political administration of disaster becomes a major scene for the claiming of citizenship or for its differential construction.
Disasters articulate a line that roughly distinguishes two types of populations according to their relative exposure or protection. In a random list of disasters that take place every day around the world, tanks roll into city streets and trample everything they encounter, a pregnant woman’s detainment for hours at a checkpoint results in the birth of a stillborn baby, vacationers die beneath the wreckage of a hotel whose façade has been torn apart by a car bomb, a woman is raped in the stairwell of her home. Although in many respects these disasters differ from one another, the ways in which individuals belong to the injured population and their civil status are significant for determining how vulnerable they are to the experience of disasters.
The first way in which individuals may belong to an injured population can be described as contingent, given the fact that the gathering together of this population in a given territory takes place for a predetermined length of time, before and after which the homogeneity of the population dissolves, and it breaks up into numerous subgroups. So-called terror attacks, which take place in the heart of powerful, wealthy countries, are one example of this type of contingent disaster. The contingent gathering of individuals at the site of a disaster gives the disaster that has struck them the status of an exception to the rule and introduces a factor of urgency to the efforts to address it. This shift in status entails that everything possible must be done to limit the scale of the disaster by contributing to its neutralization, preventing its recurrence, providing compensation to the victims, and rebuilding the ruins. The force of urgency affects all the individuals who happen to have been at the site of the disaster, regardless of their civil status.
The second way in which individuals may belong to an injured population can be attributed to a differential system of citizenship—one that discriminates against certain sectors of the governed population on basis of differences of religion, gender, race, class, ethnicity, or language. Such a system constitutes certain groups of citizens as “flawed citizens” and designates other governed subjects as noncitizens. Both noncitizens and flawed citizens are more exposed than “proper” citizens to hazards and risks, and their vulnerability is systemic. Although the noncitizen or flawed citizen status is part of the rule, in times of disaster it is the noncitizens and flawed citizens who appear as exceptions to the rule, not the disastrous event itself. The disaster that strikes such groups is conceived as part of the routine, not as an exceptional event, and the situation is emptied of any dimension of urgency. The stricken population may be at the disaster site over a prolonged period of time, such as the inhabitants of chronically polluted area or of an occupied territory, but they may also be distributed over the face of the globe, as in the case of women. In any event, populations of flawed citizens and of noncitizens are constantly exposed to various kinds of injury. These populations, for which disaster is chronic and does not constitute an exception, are the focus of my book.
“In a random list of disasters that take place every day around the world, tanks roll into city streets and trample everything they encounter, a pregnant woman’s detainment for hours at a checkpoint results in the birth of a stillborn baby, vacationers die beneath the wreckage of a hotel whose facade has been torn apart by a car bomb, a woman is raped in the stairwell of her home. Although in many respects these disasters differ from one another, the ways in which individuals belong to the injured population and their civil status are significant for determining how vulnerable they are to the experience of disasters.”
The book analyzes the limitations of citizenship but also tries to invite the readers to imagine other possibilities that were embodied in the invention of modern citizenship. After all, to invent modern citizenship in the 18th century required a lot of imagination. There is no reason to assume that the work of the imagination must remain the possession of past thinkers and that we are condemned to live within the limits that their imagination drafted. The French Revolution created a political community. This could have developed and taken shape in various forms of partnership and solidarity relationships among the individuals who constitute it. But in a single instant, in a snatch, these possible relationships were all pushed aside in favor of one form of relations, centered on subjection and loyalty to the regime, which became the principal focus of citizenship. The women, who had struggled beside the men for the liquidation of the monarchy, did not receive citizenship, and continued being governed, without citizenship.
Since I was interested not only in a critical move that would show the shortcomings of citizenship, I looked for a space of political relations that are not mediated by a unitary sovereign regime. Over the years photography has been understood as existing in a framework of distinct dominance relations between a photographer, working as a sovereign subject, and a photographed person, who serves the former as an object. It’s true that in many cases this description is close to the power relations existing in a photography situation. But even then this is only a partial description, one that misses other dimensions of the situation, in particular photography’s civil space, which is wide-open, dynamic and fluid, and not subordinated to a pole of sovereignty. It’s true that imagination is needed for distinguishing this space, for enlarging the horizon of citizenship in a world where citizenship is constantly considered in relation to the state and sovereign power. But from the moment you distinguish it, I think it becomes impossible not to see its potential and to be tempted to actualize it.
Ariella Azoulay teaches visual culture and contemporary philosophy at the Program for Culture and Interpretation, Bar Ilan University. She is curator and director of documentary films. She is also the author of Atto di Stato (Act of State, 2008, Bruno Mondadori, in Italian), Once Upon a Time: Photography following Walter Benjamin (2006, Bar Ilan University Press, in Hebrew), and Death’s Showcase (2001, MIT Press), which won the Affinity Award, International Center of Photography. She is co-author, with Adi Ophir, of This Regime which Is Not One: Occupation and Democracy between the Sea and the River (from 1967 onwards, Resling, in Hebrew).