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Ariella Azoulay

Civil Imagination,
Ariella Azoulay

Civil Imagination

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Azoulay is quoted in Part 5 of the course as follows,

I don’t pretend that I can describe the ‘other’. The camera for me is more a meter that measures the distance between myself and the other. It’s about the encounter between myself and the other; it’s not about the other.Ariella Azoulay in conversation with Rob Bloomfield, quoted in EyV p. 102

Azoulay's The Civil Imagination (2012) is referred to and it is my intention to investigate the author's views stated in this book and in general … without paying the £13 second hand price currently quoted on Amazon [5May19].

Photography and its Violations,
John Roberts

From what I have learned to date, the book might share some themes with John Roberts' Photography and its Violations (2014) (see below) which was on sale at the Tate McCullin exhibition and of which I am still seeking a reasonably-priced second-hand copy.

The full references for the two works are,

Azoulay, A (2012) Civil imagination: a political ontology of photography. London and New York: Verso Books

Roberts, J (2014) Photography and its violations. New York: Columbia University Press

According to the UCA library listing (the OCA online reseach facility) the book examines the "Arab-Israeli conflict ".

Let us first examine the term "ontology", with which I always struggle, it is the study of being or existance [Oxford dictionary, online, 5May19].

According to Colin Hay in the Oxford Handbook of Political Science (2011) [online extract 5May19] political ontology has two apects. Firstly, a direct appliction of the concept of ontology, that is, the "whether and why" of existence. Secondly, an examination of the assumptions made "about the nature, essence, and characteristics … of an object" under analysis.

The ontology, more specifically of photography, has been examined in Photography and Ontology: Unsettling Images (2018) edited by Donna West Brett and Natalya Lusty which is described by the publisher as an exploration of,

the complex ways in which photography is used and interpreted: as a record of evidence, as a form of communication, as a means of social and political provocation, as a mode of surveillance, as a narrative of the self, and as an art form. What makes photographic images unsettling and how do the re-uses and interpretations of photographic images unsettle the self-evident reality of the visual field? Taking up these themes, this book examines the role of photography as a revelatory medium underscored by its complex association with history, memory, experience and identity. Photography and Ontology: Unsettling Images, Routledge, publisher's description

The book includes sections on the use of photographs by the Stasi (the pre-unification East German secret police), in forensic science and in "early" police portraits and so is working in some of the same areas as Azoulay.

Peter Benson in a 2013 online article The Ontology of Photography: From Analogue To Digital in Philosophy Now [5May19] concentrates more on the theoretical than the practical. He contrasts pre-digital photography, where the photograph is usually an objective record, albeit subject to personal interpretation, with the digital world where the image no longer has "contact" with an original photographic negative and so is subject to much greater degrees of manipulation which can be interpreted on a spectrum that stretches from falsification to creativity.

An extensive review of Azoulay's book by Gil Pasternak in [link 5May19] suggests that some sections are tangential or even irrelevant to its central theme and that some important factors have not been considered, but it ends with a positive conclusion that it,

appears apt at a time when control over this medium and over individual transmissions of privately captured visual imagery has been seized and appropriated by authoritative institutions to promote their own supremacy and credibility. In this respect, Civil Imagination acts as a necessary yet cruel reminder that an uncritical relationship with the social idea of photography could easily determine whose life is not worthy of living.Gil Pasternak, review, 2013 [6May19]

Pasternak notes that the theme of Civil Imagination derives from Azoulay's earlier work, The Civil Contract of Photography (2008, reviewed here) which in turn draws on "Hannah Arendt’s compartmentalization of the vita activa (the life of action)". This gives rise to three observational modes: the orienting gaze (applied to labour); the deliberate gaze (to work); and the practical gaze which Pasternak describes as "less clearly define[d]", quoting Azoulay's description of "'the gaze that tarries over its object in order to transcend it and to reveal the truth behind the visible' (68)".

The practical gaze is enabled by photography which through the dissemination and ubiquity of images, allows those not present at an event or place to share in the experience (for example using social media to publicise a wrong), but can also entrench existing power structures (for example the authoritarian use of CCTV or control of the broadcast and printed media).

In conclusion, photographs can have a political aspect that can be used for good or ill.

Photography and its Violations,
John Roberts

Turning now to Roberts' Photography and its Violations, for which the publicity states,

Theorists critique photography for "objectifying" its subjects and manipulating appearances for the sake of art. In this bold counterargument, John Roberts recasts photography's violating powers of disclosure and aesthetic technique as part of a complex "social ontology" that exposes the hierarchies, divisions, and exclusions behind appearances. The photographer must "arrive unannounced" and "get in the way of the world," Roberts argues, committing photography to the truth-claims of the spectator over the self-interests and sensitivities of the subject. Yet even though the violating capacity of the photograph results from external power relations, the photographer is still faced with an ethical choice: whether to advance photography's truth-claims on the basis of these powers or to diminish or veil these powers to protect the integrity of the subject. Photography's acts of intrusion and destabilization, then, constantly test the photographer at the point of production, in the darkroom, and at the computer, especially in our 24-hour digital image culture. In this game-changing work, Roberts refunctions photography's place in the world, politically and theoretically restoring its reputation as a truth-producing medium. Photography and its Violations, publisher's note [6May19]

The book was reviewed in 2015 by Manila Castoro, who states that Roberts' earlier writings needed updating to take account of the digital revolution, the "decline of the meaning and function of documentary practice" including what has become known as fake news, and the increasing acceptance, now established, of photography as art. Violation, Castoro states,

does not simply refer to how certain social, political and ideological instances and contradictions are made explicit in a photograph. Violation, or the power to violate, is something intrinsic to photography; it is embedded into photography' s capacity to reproduce appearances and its ability to make manifest what is un-manifest or partly concealed Manila Castoro, review [6May19]

Roberts distinguishes between "figural (the staged, the digital altered) and non-figural (documentary) photography", but notes that both possess the power to violate. He sees one of the vital roles of photography as exposing truth and deception: violation occurs on both sides of the equation — as the misuse of power and in the ability of the photograph to expose that misuse and the photographer can be justified in undermining individual right in some circumstances if, on balance, a greater good is achieved.

Both Azoulay and Roberts note the power of photography both to undermine and to reinforce power structures: they differ on the ways in which these powers are explained and how they are seen to be used.


Azoulay, A (2012) Civil imagination: a political ontology of photography. London and New York: Verso Books.

Benson, P. (2013) The ontology of photography: from analogue to digital, online [accessed 5May19]

Castoro, M (2015): Photography and its violations, Visual Studies, online review [accessed 6May19 http:/ /]

Hay, C. (2011) Oxford handbook of political science (2011), online [accessed 5May19 ]

Pasternak, G (2013) Civil imagination: a political ontology of photography online review [accessed 5May19

Roberts, J (2014) Photography and its violations. New York: Columbia University Press.

West Brett, D. & Lusty, N. (ed.) (2018) Photography and ontology: unsettling images. Abingdon: Routledge.

Page created 05-May-2019 | Page updated 09-May-2019