In my last post on the Theater of Operations exhibition at MoMA PS1, I referred to Ariella Azoulay as an important theorist of war photography. Since she is perhaps not well-known to most Time Now readers, below I’ve posted the paper I presented on Azoulay at the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference in 2015.
At the Northeast Modern Language Association (NEMLA) 2014 conference I participated in a roundtable discussion of visual representation of conflict and war that had much the same intent and methodology as this one here at ACLA. At NEMLA, I spoke of a vibrant strain of recent scholarship on the subject that began with Susan Sontag’s seminal books On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others and then was joined by heavyweight thinkers such as Judith Butler and Jacques Ranciere, as well as exciting new voices such as Dora Apel and Maggie Nelson (I might also say that the line-of-debate is also deeply indebted to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”). While scholarship and theorizing about contemporary war literature remains nascent, the inquiry begun by Sontag has proven robust, generative, and contentious. At NEMLA, I learned of Ariella Azoulay, an Israeli scholar and curator who now teaches at Brown University. Azoulay, as I understood the conversation, was doing the most exciting theoretical work on photography and, moreover, had married her academic investments with political advocacy on behalf of Palestinians denied full citizenship by the state of Israel. Since the link between aesthetic contemplation and real-world action, especially as it involved photography, is one of the touchstone issues debated by Sontag, Butler, Ranciere, and the others, I made it a point to find out more about Azoulay. Now, thanks to this panel, I have a chance to share my findings with you.
I don’t know how familiar everyone in the room is with Azoulay—for all I know I am the last to discover her. If so I apologize, ask your indulgence, and hope my comments at least help generate a fresh round of debate.
The phrase most often associated with Azoulay is “the photographic situation.” I think the phrase might already have become dis-associated from her, as I’ve seen it bandied in places (websites, newspapers and magazines, advertisements) with no clear linkage to Azoulay herself and little awareness of how she uses it. But the phrase has the tang of an up-to-the-minute formulation of insider knowingness about photography, which says something, maybe just a little, about its usefulness and suggestiveness. Azoulay herself doesn’t use the phrase in the first of three works that I will discuss today, Death’s Showcase: The Power of Image in Contemporary Democracy (2001), which by title and cover alone would seem to have the most bearing on our panel’s discussion. In this, her first book, Azoulay examines photographs that portray dead bodies and acts of murder, mostly of Palestinians but also the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin by a Jewish right-wing zealot. The work is densely theoretical, with Azoulay building on a variety of literary theorists—primarily Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault—to construct a wide-ranging argument that claims public representations of death shape not just our ideas about mortality, but other subjects (as if mortality wasn’t enough) such as aesthetics, modernity, social justice, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Azoulay closes Death’s Showcase by discussing a report from Bosnia about a photographer who documented a sniper who killed innocent civilians as they crossed a street. The sniper is eventually brought to trial, but Azoulay’s interest is with the photographer. She writes, “For the photographer to be only a photographer—that neutral position that merely documents—the murderer-sniper must be only a murderer-sniper. From the moment at which the photographer is not only a photographer, he becomes a murderer or at least an accomplice to murder. And, at that very moment, the murderer becomes an accomplice to the photographic act” (287). The passage is enigmatic (especially given the way I’ve presented it), but its interest in “the photographic act” hints at directions Azoulay will travel in subsequent books. Death’s Showcase is not totally devoid of hints, or even explanations, of her expansive sense of what photography entails. Regarding the “basic questions” of judgment, responsibility, and interpretation, a photograph’s content or message resides within the “conditions of production, with the means of production, with the positions of production, with the means of distribution, with the conditions of distribution, with the conditions of visibility, and with the means of visibility” (282). Piling Deleuzean terms on top of Marxist ones, Azoulay writes of the new “scopic” discursive regime she is trying to call into being: “it takes place in networks of presences in which neither the subject nor the object has a privileged position, depth is unfolded as another surface, repetition takes the place of singularity and uniqueness, and the demarcated location for the appearance of the image becomes the network’s terminals and links” (284-85).
What is unclear and jargon-ish in Death’s Showcase becomes more lucid and compelling in The Civil Contract of Photography (2008), as Azoulay finds confidence in her own voice and ability to name her ideas more precisely. Here for the first time is a reference to “the photographic situation”:
Photography is much more than what is printed on photographic paper. The photograph bears the seal of the photographic event, and reconstructing this event requires more than just identifying what is shown in the photograph. One needs to stop looking at the photograph and instead start watching it. The verb ‘to watch’ is usually used for regarding phenomena or moving pictures. It entails dimensions of time and movement that need to be reinscribed in the interpretation of the still photographic image. When and where the subject of the photograph is a person who has suffered some form of injury, a viewing of the photograph that reconstructs the photographic situation and allows a reading of the injury on others becomes a civic skill, not an exercise in aesthetic appreciation (14).
Within this space, the point of departure … cannot be empathy or mercy. It must be a covenant for the rehabilitation of … citizenship in the political sphere (17).
The theory of photography proposed in this book is founded on a new ontological-political understanding of photography. It takes into account all the participants in photographic acts—camera, photographer, photographed subject, and spectator—approaching the photograph (and its meaning) as an unintentional effect of the encounter between all of these (23).
Emphasized in Azoulay’s theory of photography is that photography must serve as a means of critique of existing power relations and rehabilitation of social injustice, but not in narrow ways predicated on the authority and artistry of the photographer or the ability of the spectator to “feel right” about his or her act of observation. If only it were as easy as Azoulay suggests in a chapter titled “Emergency Claims” that focuses specifically on photographs that explicitly generate horror through violent and even sensational subject matter. The problem Azoulay analyzes in detail is the way that the relationships of photographer, subject, photograph, and viewer are not stable; every variable in the process of transmission is apt to be contingent and thus subject to the forces of interpretation, counterinterpretation, selection, manipulation, suppression, and repurposing. “This is the ontology of photography—it always includes more than what one wants it to contain. The photographer is responsible for photography, and his act is a necessary, though small link in the chain of acts responsible for fulfilling the injunction ‘to watch’ or ‘to show’” (355). Photography, almost ideally so, both instantiates reigning paradigms and constituted authority, and creates space for critique and transformation.
Azoulay’s most recent work, Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography refines the arguments made in The Civil Contract of Photography by parsing the deep structural lineaments of photography itself. Key to the work’s importance is its assertion that understanding how photographs, endlessly retransmittable and easily divorced from the intentions of its creator, ceaselessly place demands on viewers to shuttle between aesthetic and political interpretive nodes to make sense of a picture. Such shuttling, in Azoulay’s account, is primarily one of imagination, but a particular kind of imaginative gaze that Azoulay calls “civil.” The “civil gaze,” as opposed to the “orienteering” (basic comprehension) and “professional” (judging technical and artistic merit) gaze, requires “interpretive effort” because “nothing is given in advance of the photograph” (121). “The civil gaze,” Azoulay writes, “enables the spectator to use the reconstruction of the situation photographed in order to become aware that the photographer does not stand opposite the figure photographed on his own, nor does the spectator herself confront the photographed figure alone. The spectator also comes to realize that she does not stand outside the regime within whose framework the photographic encounter becomes possible. Civil intention allows the spectator to recognize the presence of those absent from the frame, extending awareness to all those who took part in the production of the visible, and allowing all participants populating the civil space the photograph to meet on the same plane, even if only momentarily, and to ratify their inclusion within its space” (121). The intent, if the above quotation does not make it clear, is to understand how any photograph both instantiates realms of unequal status and serves as the means of critiquing, undermining, and transforming them—never all at once one way or the other, but instead fleetingly, as if too much emphasis on one interpretive possibility will not make it stronger, but engender its dissolution.
Azoulay’s argument, as I have stated it, does not seem especially difficult to understand or execute. The detail lies in her grounding of her claim in Western theoretical discussions of aesthetics and citizenship and her conceptualizing of photography’s place vis-à-vis other artistic and documentary postmodern realms. She also offers several examples of how civil interpretations of specific photographs might occur. One or two of these would be worth looking at in detail, but in the time I have remaining I’m more interested in applying what we can of the concept of the civil gaze to the photographic situation of two pictures taken by the same photographer of conflict in Iraq. The examples I use I first encountered in Michael Kamber’s superb 2013 compilation of journalistic photography taken by some of the war’s best-known photographers called Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq. Kamber asks the photographers, heretofore generally silent and unqueried, to explain the circumstances by which their pictures were taken and offer their thoughts about the variables we might loosely call, after Azoulay, their “situation.” Azoulay would absolutely not want to privilege the intentions and authority of the photographer-creator, we all understand, but the photographer is probably best able to at least begin construction of Azoulay’s ideal of civil interpretation.
The first picture I want to examine was taken by American photographer Lucien Read while embedded with Marines in Fallujah in 2004. Its subject is First Sergeant Bradley Kasal, who has just been injured by grenade fragments while clearing a house occupied by insurgents. Now, in the picture, even as he is being evacuated by fellow Marines, his fighting spirit is reflected by the look on his face and the weapon he retains in his hand.
[The picture can be found at many places online, but is protected by serious rights warnings, so I’m not reproducing it without permission (irony). Here is a link to one place it can be viewed.]
The second picture was taken by Read in the city of Haditha in 2005. It shows bodies of civilians, to include women and children, killed by Marines, wrapped in tunics prior to burial. The bodies are among 24 Iraqi civilians allegedly murdered by Marines in retaliation for the death of one of their own by a roadside bomb.
[This picture is not easily viewable online anymore, but can be found in this article by Lucian Read himself.]
The first features bright primary colors, the second is shrouded in shadows and slants of light. The first is in daylight and outdoors, or coming out of doors. The second is inside, and dimly lighted.
The first picture features no Iraqis. The second features no Americans.
The Americans in the first are bloody, but still alive. The Iraqis in the second are cleansed and prepared for burial after death.
The first features faces, in the second none are visible.
In the first, physical bodies are upright, in the second they are prone.
One might view the first and salute the Marine’s bravery, determination, and camaraderie. One might pity them. One might be repulsed by them. One might view the second and be saddened. Or outraged. Or one might want to know who they are and how, or better, why they were killed.
The first picture was subsequently used by Marines as recruiting tool and to inspire bravery and commitment in other Marines. The second picture was used as evidence of Marine brutality in charges filed against eight Marines. Seven Marines were exonerated before trial, while one was court-martialed in 2012 and found guilty of a single count of negligent duty. The case and verdict received extensive media coverage and generated outrage in both Iraq and America. Some felt that an atrocity on the order of Vietnam’s My Lai murder had been swept under the carpet, while others felt that Marines with good reputations had been slandered for actions taken in the heat of the moment under unclear circumstances.
As we look at the pictures and think about them in ways that transcend the “orienteering” or “professional,” we participate in a process of which Azoulay states, “With the invention of photography, a new relation toward the visible came into being—one which may, admittedly, have existed partially in the past but not in precisely the same fashion or with the same frequency” (68). She continues, “The fairly simple possibility arose of sharing a certain space with other people and objects without having to be physically present beside them in the same place.”
Photography, Azoulay asserts, unlike text, painting, sculpture, drama, or other forms of representation, is particularly able to bind us in shared meaning-making with other humans and, she feels, generate meaningful obligation toward one another. This new civil gaze, properly understood, places us in relation thanks to photography to “objects, situations, customs, figures, images or places” (68) that formerly were inaccessible to all of us at the same time and which were in effect previously deemed unworthy of us to view, or consider at all. If in fact we are all together in the same room at the same time, as we are here, a very salient fact is that as we observe the pictures I am presenting, our individual gazes interact not just with the subjects of the photographs but with all the other acts of observation taking place; concurrently we gaze and are gazed upon and our gazes together constitute an interpretive domain larger and different than any one perspective or the sum of them all. The dynamic, in Azoullay’s account, creates interpretive possibilities and an array of responses and obligations that transcend the aesthetic and political to become civil. Thus we see the infinite power and potential of the photographic situation: an always expanding, and never predictable optic force field engendered by the structural uniqueness of photography.
I only had 15-20 minutes at ACLA, so had to keep things short. There’s much more to say about Azoulay’s concepts of the “photographic situation” and “the civil gaze,” as well as ways we might “complicate,” “trouble,” “interrogate,” or “problematize” them. I’m not going to do much of that here, but I am sympathetic to the concepts. One of Azoulay’s points is that journalistic photography foregrounding violence exemplarily creates opportunities for the interpretive dynamic she describes. I think, however, that the critical stance works for artistic photography and art generally. When thinking about war novels, for example, I think everything counts–the words on the page, the author’s intentions, the context, my reactions, other people’s reactions, the reactions of the people on whom the characters might be based–and all interpretations are necessarily contingent and malleable. Meaning doesn’t reside in any one place, nor does one locus of meaning dominate the others. Instead, the book, like Azoulay’s photographs, acts as an agent for shared complex interpretive experiences.
Ariella Azoulay, Death’s Showcase: The Power of Images in Contemporary Democracy. MIT, 2001.
Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography. MIT, 2008.
Ariella Azoulay, Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography. Verso, 2015.
Michael Kamber. Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq. University of Texas, 2013.