Ariella Azoulay


On her book The Civil Contract of Photography

Cover Interview of January 22, 2009

The wide angle

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.