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  • The Ghost of the Universal Spectator
  • Nina Sosna (bio)
The Civil Contract of Photography by Ariella Azoulay. New York: Zone Books, (2008) 2012. Pp. 585; 8 color, 100 black-and-white photographs. $36.95 cloth, $22.95 paper.

This book is not really about photography as a certain type of visual image. Rather, it proposes to consider photography politically, with both words stressed, consider and politically (although the move towards the political sometimes takes the form of poetic expression). This does not mean, however, that Ariella Azoulay sees the political in the content of the photograph or that the political (in the photograph) can be analyzed from a visual perspective: the black-and-white photographs collected in the book are quite restrained and even visually modest while still containing something ambiguous and troublesome. For example, in one photo a woman is led by the hand—whether she is being helped and supported or compelled to move is unclear (301). In another, a dozen men sit on the ground with their eyes bandaged (360). What do they expect to happen? Are these photos taken in a war zone? No, these photographs do not illustrate the “state of exception.” The problem that arises in relation to these photos concerns what happens when the armies have gone, together with the nongovernmental peacemaking organizations, the situation in which subjects (persons living in the governed territories in general and women in particular) are left to make their own decisions, when there is nobody to help and almost no resources available to improve their situation. [End Page 119]

Women (in general—African servants, photographed by owners of the grounds; Eadweard Muybridge’s wife; a white American; Vietnamese women photographed by American soldiers; average women in “developing” countries who have been exposed to violence) and residents of occupied territories: these are the two groups, which, for Azoulay, show how photographs can restore violated rights. In Azoulay’s view, if these photographs are displayed in a proper setting (a newspaper or gallery) and presented along with discursive evidence of the misery of a given situation, the claims that they make can effectively be transformed from a cry for help into an enunciation—a call to action that cannot be ignored.

The women and noncitizens of occupied territories do not have rights as human beings or as citizens, in general: even if women have gained ground in the realm of civil rights, this doesn’t seem to be as true about the field of representation: “It doesn’t matter what she does, what work she’s employed in, where she lives, where she goes, what she wears, or what she says— ultimately, her presence there is for man” (265). Azoulay asks whether the “bare life” they are left with is worth living. The question is how to exist on the edge, in a constant state of anxiety and precariousness, when formally nothing is happening in the occupied territories, but every moment an act of violence might take place—any woman can be forced to do things she hasn’t agreed upon, any inhabitant of the occupied territory can be injured—by a mistake or in the name of “prevention.” In this situation, horror is not a horrible Horror, but silent, unseen, almost unrepresentable, almost omnipresent.

The book has an accusatory tone. Azoulay accuses us, passive readers and spectators, who sometimes say we have seen enough photographs from war zones and know what they look like and do not want to see more and, thus, do not want to help others in their desperate situations. Giorgio Agamben, too, is called to account for ignoring the extent to which citizenship is not something taken for granted—that it is dynamic because it has to be regained again and again through action. (This is to say nothing about Agamben’s blindness to the fact that women are excepted in a double manner—from the community of human beings and from the community of citizens.) Susan Sontag, too, is accused for regarding the pain of others and claiming together with Donald Rumsfeld that torture is more serious than what is clearly sexual abuse (271). Roland Barthes is criticized for his insensitivity to the...


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pp. 119-127
Launched on MUSE
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