Beyond Pity and Empathy? Photography as a Civil Space

Within this lecture we spoke about social dynamics and how photography has been used as a repressive tool.
We looked at the work of Francis Galton, Lewis Hine, Sebastião Salgado and Nan Goldin, how they perhaps stereotype people and the problems of power and privilege- both artistic and documentary, even when their intention is to help the people they photograph.

Ariella Azoulay’s discussion of social and political relations:

  • Tries to hinge new theory on philosophical contradictions.
  • Thomas Hobbs is the philosophical basis.
  • Civil contract – how she wants to think about photography.
  • Find new way of thinking about photography.

Chapter one

  • Discussing citizenship and definitions.

How citizenship is defined:

  • Permanent status in a state
  • -Right to political participation (voting in elections)
  • -Allegiance to a sovereign (governing power, protection, entitled to protection)

See sovereignty (have power), the right to rule an exemption. Overruled and different rules apply. Marshall law (power means ability to bring about exceptional affairs. Situation where usual doesn’t work anymore).


  • Noncitizens (people living – even permanently – in a territory, but without citizen’s rights)
  • Flawed citizens (citizens with some but not all citizen’s rights)

People can be coerced into national service, all citizens, no clear cut between different citizens.

Political relations between the sovereign and the governed are ultimately open ended

  • Disasters: Natural: states of exception not declared by the sovereign
  • Disasters: Social: states of exception brought about by the governed
  • Global political situation diminishes the importance of the nation state

Rethinking what citizenship should mean:

  • Equality of all governed
  • Nationality and citizenship are separate.

“The electoral register, enclosed in restricted offices, could be replaced by a huge computerized screen placed in the city square, constantly updated in real time with data about the inhabitants of a given territory at a given moment.” (Azoylay, The Civil Contract of Photography, 2008, p.82)

This begins her thoughts on photography in chapter two.

Chapter two

Since the beginnings of photography women have been participating in the medium despite being discouraged to do so. Within Azoulay’s thesis people not formally recognized as full citizens belonging to a nation state are nonetheless members of

“the citizenry of photography. The civil space of photography is open to her as well.”

In this Azoulay uses ‘her’ very intentionally.

Azoulay’s work is,

“an effort to think of [her own] relationship and attitude toward these photographed individuals beyond guilt and compassion – outside the merely psychological framework of empathy, of ‘regarding the pain of others’ – on the basis of civic duty and the mutual trust of those who are governed.”


“was invented at precisely the moment when the individual inventor lost the authority to determine the meaning of his invention.”

  • The thought that the photograph is owned by the photographer is traditional and is pro-structuralist and should perhaps be reprocessed. It’s not the author but the reader.
  • Susan Sontag – the subject is important. There should be respect. It can be problematic, patronizing, pity, sympathy but no action is taken.

“new situation in which different people in different places can simultaneously use a black box to manufacture an image of their encounters… when a space of plurality was initiated, at the moment when a large number of people… took hold of a camera and began using it as a means of producing images.“

Photography was invented when there was a social need for it, when everyone started creating images.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936

Lange believed that the photograph that she took of Florence Owens belonged to her, but the government owned did.

Philip Lorca diCorcia, Head nr. 13, 2000. (Erno Nussenzweig)

There was a lawsuit of Lorca diCorcia’s work for this project but because it was filed too late nothing could be done about it. The US constitution freedom of speech means artist can basically do what they want to express themselves creatively.
The subjects in the pictures never have rights to the image, some people have more rights than others.

Philosophical theory- Thomas Hobbs

  • How politics came to be and why? Does it make sense to have them?

State of nature:

  • Everyone governs himself
  • Everyone has “the right to all things”
  • Human life is, “solitary, poor, nasty,brutish and short.” (living in fear, war. All against all)

Social contract:

  • People enter into a tacit agreement where everyone voluntarily gives up

some of his “natural rights to all things” to a sovereign.

  • The sovereign takes the right to defend the citizens, thus allowing more peaceful and productive life.

“complex field of relations that […] stem from the fact that photography made available to the individual possibilities of seeing more than his or her eye alone could see, in terms of scope, distance, time, speed, quantity, clarity, and so on.”

Think of photography as everyone’s right.

Ethics of spectator:

  • Duty, we are equal to everyone involved.
  • Photography, subject, newspaper, in civil contract with them.
  • Spectator- so what? Duty to resist denigration of people.
  • Actively resist? Cannot resist everything: newspapers.
  • Can help photographer to help others, balance, can’t extend to viewers and spectators.

Essential reading: Ariella Azoulay: The Civil Contract of Photography (chapter 2 in the book with the same title)


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