Ariella Azoulay


On her book The Civil Contract of Photography

Cover Interview of January 22, 2009

A close-up

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.