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Bar Ilan University spokesperson confirms end of contract with Ariella Azoulay. Included below her latest anti-Israel publications
The decision not to promote Ariella Azoulay was taken at the Appointment Committee for professional reasons alone. Her political views were not discussed as those are not in the interest of the committee.

Haim Zisowitz, Spokesman.Office@mail.biu.ac.il

ההחלטה שהתקבלה בוועדת המינויים היתה שלא לקדמה בדרגה מטעמים מקצועיים בלבד.השקפותיה הפוליטיות לא נדונו ואינן מענינה של הוועדה.

תודה חיים זיסוביץ




Current Events

DCAPS Workshop - Witnessing Dehumanisation: Acts of State and the Civil Contract of Photography

Wednesday 11 February, 2.15-5.15, Elvet Riverside 206

DCAPS is pleased to announce a workshop led by Ariella Azoulay, co-hosted with the IAS as part of its 'Being Human' theme. The workshop will focus on the curatorial and critical work of Professor Azoulay, who will provide a theoretical introduction to and present  images from the photographic exhibition ‘Acts of State: 1967-2007', held at the Minshar Art Gallery in Tel Aviv in June 2007. This exhibition raises questions about the relationship between photography, spectatorship, and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, providing new understandings of how photography can contribute to the development of a broader opposition to the occupation within Israeli society. The general aim of the workshop is to take the visual materials and introduction as a prompt for commentary and discussion in relation to what Professor Azoulay has recently termed the ‘civil contract' of photography, which she argues, must be thought of and understood in its inseparability from the many catastrophes of recent history.

Ariella Azoulay teaches visual culture and contemporary philosophy at the Program for Culture and Interpretation, Bar Ilan University. She is the author of Once Upon A Time: Photography Following Walter Benjamin and Death's Showcase: The Power of Image in Contemporary Democracy, winner of the 2002 Infinity Award for Writing presented by the International Center for Photography for excellence in the field of photography (MIT Press, 2001).




MA Guest Lecture Series: Ariella Azoulay

Who Needs the Truth (in Photography)?
"In the first part of the lecture I will address this question through reading a series of photographs from the history of the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Territories. My attention would move from the photographed persons and their claim to and through the camera to the figure of the spectator and her position as a citizen in "the citizenry of photography." In the second part of the lecture I will analyze the specific nature of the civil gaze. Drawing on some of Hannah Arendt's insights on "vita active" I will introduce the gaze – lacking in from her account – into the realm of practice and use it to deconstruct the opposition between the aesthetic and the political."

location tba

All-day session with Ariella Azoulay


Discussion of her recent book, The Civil Contract of Photography, (Zone Books, 2008)

"In my The Civil Contract of Photography I developed a concept of citizenship through the study of photographic practices and proposed to study photography within the framework of citizenship as a status, an institution, and a set of practices. In my lecture I will present 3 curatorial projects on which I have been working during the last few years (“Act of state – 1967-2007”, “Architecture of Destruction” and “Constituting Violence 1947-1950”) in which the theoretical perspective on the relations between photography and citizenship frames the curatorial work and guides various curatorial practices.


How to get rid of the distinction between the aesthetic and the political?

This distinction continues to frame the discussion on art in general, and photography – in which I have a special interest – in particular. In the first part of my talk I shall analyze the distinction itself. In the second part I shall draw on some of Arendt's insights in order to reformulate her concept of the political and offer it as a new theoretical perspective for the study of the visual.







Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Sleep in a Sterile Zone

Ariella Azoulay
[This military campaign, too, is a part of the same regime]

The familiar sight of a Palestinian room - colorful blankets wrap those sleeping on the floor, crowded against each other. A khaki sleeve caught my eye. A ray of light crossing the frame from the right led to it. Then it became easier to notice a pair of army boots peeking under another blanket, a flexed knee in uniform and an upside-down helmet. These are Israeli soldiers. They are sleeping in a Palestinian home in Gaza. There is no trace of the inhabitants. They must have “fled” once more as refugees.

This photograph landed in my e-mailbox ten days ago with about another twenty. The accompanying letter iterated: "We should all be proud of the IDF… these brave kids defend our country" and, following, provided a recommendation which is also an authorization to distribute these images. This e-mail was signed by the CEO of the Israeli branch of a large European firm. His full personal data were prominently noted at the bottom of the letter. This is the most abstract photograph of a very harsh series, the last two of which come with a warning: these are not to be viewed by children. According to the sender, the rest may apparently be shared with them as a part of this war's booty.

Images similar to the one of soldiers asleep in a Palestinian home were disseminated to date only by soldiers who are members in Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence) as a part of their sobering-up process from the missions the army had required them to carry out for the sake of 'state security'. Their photographs are not made public in the press but are exhibited in alternative venues. In Israel, at least, the occupation of a Palestinian home to provide soldiers with a place to sleep is not a media item. Were a press-photographer to shoot such a frame, the editor would not print it for 'lack of public interest'. But now the press has been kept away from Gaza, and it has a very meager supply of images of the ongoing horror there. Israel allows press-photographers to set themselves up on a hill adjacent to the Gaza Strip and shoot – long distance - the smoke billowing over the horizon, thus screening the inferno within. The hill overlooking Gaza is open to local tourist-visitors. For their convenience, someone has placed benches there as well as site-scape information booths. In the last few weeks, people have been arriving with children and binoculars to show their kids and watch Gaza being bombarded, and to take pleasure in Israel’s might. When the man standing with his back to the camera returns home, he will download the photographs he took and distribute them to family and friends. He will show them that he, too, was there, holding his fingers in a victory sign for the camera, while Gaza goes up in flames in the background. From time to time, this screen that insulates us from Gaza is ruptured by photographs transmitted via e-mail by Gazan photographers – unbearable images of severe harm to civilians and their immediate environment. Very few of these are printed in Israeli daily press. Those that are published are provided by Reuters (whose Gaza office was bombed yesterday) or AP. Some probably reach these news agencies by the Gazan agency Ramatan that currently employs 150 journalists and photographers in Gaza and has become a major supplier of news photographs worldwide (except to Israel). The person who proudly forwarded the photograph at hand did not see in it that which the soldiers of Breaking the Silence saw in the images they published in the past. They, or others like them, have refused to go to war this time around. Those who refused have been tried and incarcerated. The Israeli press has not reported this at all. The media's silencing their refusal joins the similar silencing of demonstrations by Jewish Israelis against the war, or the arrest and incarceration of dozens of demonstrators. No one will prosecute the soldiers in this picture or the one who photographed them, all having invaded a home and removed its inhabitants in order to have a place to sleep. Theirs is an 'act of state'.

The photograph I have chosen is a not particularly harsh sight. It shows soldiers asleep in Gaza. Even in the midst of battle soldiers need their sleep. The difficulty arises when one recalls that these colorful blankets in which the soldiers are curled up are not their own, that the dwellers of this home where they now sleep have been made homeless. One of the soldiers, wakened by a first ray of morning light before his mates, is taking pictures - for them, for their families, a souvenir – an image of a night's sleep in Gaza.

But, after all, this is Gaza. How can Israeli soldiers who participated in the destruction of Gaza – the devastation of entire neighborhoods, public buildings, fatal ruin of vital infrastructure, wounding thousands, bombing hospitals, civilian shelters, schools, killing of over one-thousand human beings – how can these soldiers who are "not exactly welcome guests" in Gaza, how can they possibly afford to sleep so peacefully in the midst of the inferno they have produced without sensing any immediate danger to their own lives? The answer lies in one of the Occupation's practices, most common since its inception – creating a 'sterile zone'. What is a sterile zone? An area emptied of Arabs so that the military can carry out its missions. In this image we are most likely witnessing the heart of the sterile zone. We have no knowledge of its range, its perimeter, but for these soldiers to sleep so serenely, so safely, not only the dwellers of this house had to be removed from the sterile zone, but the residents of the entire area.

For the Israeli soldier, a Palestinian home is a violable space. This point has not been born in the recent Gaza campaign. The history of this violability goes back slightly over sixty years-old. At that time, the voices opposing the expulsion of Palestinians were hushed by another that overtook the military and political leadership of the Jewish public, making expulsion a fait-accompli. This leading voice stammered in its official declarations but was none the less determined in its practical aspects and managed to expel 750,000 Arabs from the areas of British Mandate Palestine. For a whole year Jewish soldiers went from village to village and, when called upon, from home to home, tearing the Arabs away from their dwellings and lands. At times they used indirect means - rumors and truck convoys – and at others, violence and direct threat. Ever since, the Palestinian home has not ceased to be threatened by the very thinking and operating pattern that to the Israeli public (as well as to world public opinion) presents that very home as an existential threat.

The residents of the Arab towns of Ramle, Bir Al-Saba, Majdal and Isdud, occupied by Israeli forces in the 1948 war, either escaped or were forcibly expelled and most of them were removed to Gaza and tripled its population at once. At the end of the war the Egyptians controlled Gaza and instated their own military administration. Israel did not manage that last "military victory" – the conquest of Gaza – before signing the ceasefire agreements with Egypt in 1949, thus giving birth to the narrow, troublesome 'strip' at the edge of the State of Israel. A 'strip' is a military-political term that expresses temporariness and designates a region that must be dealt with as undetermined, its situation to be solved. 'The Gaza Strip' was born as a problem. Since this birth, Israel has never ceased proposing 'solutions to the problem'. In 1949 Israel proposed a 'political' solution, aiming to annex the strip along with some of the refugees it harbored. But this political 'solution' with its military scent was rejected by the parties involved. In the 1956 Sinai campaign, the Strip was occupied along with the entire peninsula and Israel imposed its military administration. This did not last long for under American-Russian pressure Israel was forced to retreat from the territory it conquered. In 1967 Israel managed to re-conquer the Strip and take control of the 1948 refugees yet once again. Since then, for over forty years Israel has controlled the Palestinian population in Gaza. At least ever since the general closure Israel imposed upon the Gaza Strip in 1991 during the first Gulf War, such control entails cutting off the Strip from the West Bank as well as strict control over any entry and exit from it. By means of administering the crossings, Israel regulates life in Gaza. Since the Second Intifada, and ever more tightly since its 'disengagement', Israel has been managing a measured, chronic disaster, ever-watchful not to cross the fine line of a 'humanitarian catastrophe', enabling or preventing the flow of goods, people and means.

Since 1948, the Palestinian home is never the private domicile that shelters its dwellers from invaders and strangers. Israelis do not conceive of themselves as invaders or strangers, and the Palestinians are not regarded as home-owners in the simplest sense of the term. Their homes are vulnerable to nightly incursions, bulldozer activity, bombs dropped upon them from the skies, missile barrages or simply shootings that make them uninhabitable, expropriate them to create army outposts, positions and headquarters, all given to changing circumstances and the increasing 'security necessities'. The explanation given for these ritual actions is that they are crucial in order to 'flush out the terrorists from their nests', 'suppress resistance' or 'destroy insurgent infrastructure'. Thus the Palestinian home is presented as a military outpost of the enemy, calling for military intervention. The Palestinian home constitutes a problem, and military intervention its solution or at least a means to 'solving the problem'. More precisely, the home becomes penetrable and violable because it has been perceived by some local Israeli commander as a 'security problem' or its solution, but it tends to be regarded again and again as a problem because it is always seen as penetrable.

Israel usually manages to carry out its destruction with a public silencer, without reverberating in Israeli or international public discourse, maintaining the status quo. Whenever its operations were intensified and expanded and the Palestinians persistently resisted Israeli military might with the meager means at their disposal, Israel has turned to 'the world' for help, to halt the self-same campaign it initiated and bring about a 'ceasefire' agreement. Usually, while conducting these negotiations, it manages to grab the chance for some more destructive actions and invades more homes. Any such military campaign renews the state of emergency, re-justifying its permanent validity since 1948, mobilizing one and all and helping to forget the preceding emergency. Most importantly – it prevents citizens from identifying the source of this state of emergency: the regime itself. This regime needs the state of emergency. It cannot survive without it. To this end it has been mobilizing its citizens for the past forty years and more to continue fighting its non-citizens subjects. The source of the real state of emergency is the existence of a regime that denies all of its subjects - both citizens and non-citizens – the viable possibility to build for themselves joint frames of living in their area; it does not let them exorcise themselves of the language of occupation in which any Arab is a potential member of the 'killer gangs' as they were termed in the 1940s, 'infiltrators' in the 1950s, 'militants' in the 1960s and 1970s, and 'terrorist organizations' ever since the 1980s.

"A ceasefire is enough for us", Ben Gurion wrote in 1949. "If we chase peace – the Arabs will expect us to pay a price – either borders or refugees, or both. Let us wait a few years." Ben Gurion wrote this in the very year the State of Israel was accepted as a member nation in the UN. In spite of its mass expulsion of Palestinians and the devastation of their habitat, Israel was recognized as a 'peace-seeking' state.

Within this pattern of suspending the final solution – be it peace, war or mass expulsion – the current campaign, too – constitutes colonial expansion and violent suppression of resistant people who have been made refugees. This recognition, namely the alliance of sovereign nation-states that back each other up in the wars they conduct against civilians who have been made refugees in their own land or outside, continues to condone Israel's countless military campaigns in the territories it has occupied.


We are all Palestinians / By Ariella Azoulay

An appeal

To any and all who – in South Africa – would have

joined the blacks in their struggle


Had we been whites in South Africa,

we would be outraged by the massive killing of black citizens,

the brutal devastation of their habitat.

Many Jewish citizens would probably have denounced the regime

and called to overthrow it,

some would have joined the blacks to create a united front against the ruling power.


We would have said 'We are all blacks'

Now is the time to say 'We are all Palestinians'.


Had we been whites in South Africa,

we would probably have opposed the apartheid regime

that divides the country and constructs separations and ghettos for other ethnicities.

We would probably have come out, called for boycott,

risked our lives to prevent the killing of whoever's blood

was free to be shed on grounds of ethnic origin.

We would have joined the struggle

against a regime that abandons

its subjects..


Why does this not happen here?

Because a campaign is being fought against us citizens, too

It is called propaganda.

It sounds like an old fashioned cliché,

 remnants of old movies,

of other times, of wicked regimes.

In our age of internet and multi-media channels

the idea of 'propaganda' is hardly taken seriously.


Anachronistic as it might sound

we are living under a regime

that invests huge resources in propaganda,

in recruiting us daily to collaborate with acts of state

that, had we heard of their likes elsewhere, else-when,

we would wonder, shocked: 'How could this possibly be?"


This regime operates simultaneously,

targeting Arabs with its sophisticated, state-of-the-art weaponry

and targeting us, its privileged citizens, with an ancient weapon, no less sophisticated.

This weapon – so embarrassing – is propaganda.

Most of us  know it

Others know it too.

Nevertheless, time and again we make the same mistake to assume

that this very knowledge might protect us from propaganda,

keep it external.

But propaganda is everywhere.

Everyone lends a hand, sending long-Johns to soldiers,

offering discounts to pilots.

To constantly brace oneself against such propaganda is just not enough.

It is not enough to engage in endless deconstruction of information,

for which we don't always have the time.


 Distance is needed from the places where such information is produced.

Nowhere around us is there such distance.

That is the nature of propaganda,

we have nowhere to hide:

Across the street lives the pilot who dropped a bomb,

down the street lives the journalist who did not publish

the horror stories and the voices of protest,

the neighbor's son is editing the army invasion of Gaza,

around the corner lives the girl-soldier who

operates the latest model of detect-and-shoot

To resist propaganda, more than steady effort is needed.


We citizens of the State of Israel have willingly become the hostages of propaganda.

In normal times, and especially in times called "war" by the Israeli government,

a mere few of us bother to surf non-Israeli news websites or check foreign television channels, find different images – not in abundance, either, for the army prevents

direct reporting from within Gaza,

and only Ramatan news agency,

from the heart of this darkness, transmits images

to other media worldwide.

But a chance meeting on the street

is a flash reminder that only few have seen these images or read that information

(beside the handful of friends to whom we email-forwarded our booty

and anyway we saw them at yesterday's demo

and will see them again at the rally tomorrow).


All the others, people across the political spectrum,

are reading and saying other things.

They denounce the "murderous Hamas",

muttering an occasional comment on Israel's exaggerated use of force.

The pilot, too, whose hands are now stained with civilian blood,

(on other days he is a law student at the university),

said to a Haaretz reporter: "Look, first of all it's bad that people are hurt."

and even added:

"The way I see it, Hamas is using the civilian population".

Criticism is voiced even inside the army,

but the pilot, the army spokesperson, the girl-soldier from detect-and-shoot

and all the hostages of the information they produce

speak of a 'no choice' campaign.



now that the war is over

they are trying to mobilize us once again

to keep silent,

not mention names,

not incriminate "our commanders" who fought for us at the front.

Attorney General Mazuz,

Army Attorney General Mandelblit

and Chief of Staff Ashkenazi

are protecting their subordinates.

The censor will implement,

the press will obey,

and we will forget

that we agreed to conceal information

which even our leaders openly described

as incriminating for those whom they sent to war.


Even if we did not voice our consent,

the regime acts as if we have,

and thus we, too, are condoning

the regime's actions against our Palestinian neighbors, co-governed,

and this has become self-evident.


For sixty years

expulsion, devastation, killing have been allowed

and all around us people parrot the regime,

blaming the Palestinians for their own suffering –

"They brought this upon themselves,

they elected the Hamas, they shoot, they are murderous".

The weapons-tunnels,

the ammunition boats

making their way to the "Strip",

all are cited as justification and proof.


Justification, and proof that there is no one to talk to

and claim yet again that Israel turned every stone on the road to peace

as if it is not Israel that forfeited every single peace proposal,

as if it is not Israel that uselessly and resolutely adheres to the Occupation

and offer no solution

except to suspend all solutions

and hold the Palestinians subject to its grip,

subjects whose any attempt to resist

forces us to show them who's the real bully around here.


The dispute between those who pursue information

and those nourished solely by Israeli television and press,

accepting the regime's dictate that Israeli and foreign reporters

cover only the suffering of the people of Sderot and the south -

this dispute is a lost one.

They do not read the same information,

nor see the same images,

nor interpret them the same way.


Whoever does not make the effort to overcome this propaganda campaign

carried out by Israel's political, media and military leadership,

(a huge success, let it be said),

whoever does not refuse to serve patriotism unconditionally

and enlist in the propaganda campaign that markets evil disguised as victory,

whoever does not insist on seeking alternative information channels -

might think that Gaza is inhabited only by terrorists

or a people blindly following its leaders.


When we go on pretending to be generals

and speaking their language,

that very language that – since our infancy –

the regime encourages us to acquire,

there is no need for any information other than

the information provided by the regime

about strategic solutions to security problems.

But even if it is the dominant language, it is not the only one.

Reality is not just objectives and targets

so why, when we speak of Arabs

does language contract into a few contradictory concepts

and all the warring, intricate details

coagulate into a coherent picture

that turns them into a problem

and us into the possessors of the means

to solve it?

Without assuming that reading shared information will produce unanimity

against the offensive in Gaza,

how, in the 21st century,

can citizens

possibly perceive their state as democratic

while they possess no credible, accessible and reliable information

on the killing of 1300 human beings and the wounding of thousands more in Gaza?

Why, elsewhere,

when citizens' contract with their state

became one-sided and they were forced to blindly condone

horrors perpetrated in their name,

why was it obvious to many of them, and to the world at large,

that theirs was an evil regime,

whereas here

all the horrors perpetrated by the regime since 1948 to this day

are perceived as local events?

Is this regime not dark,

the source of all evil,

from which we citizens should liberate ourselves?


We cringe to admit it,

but we have no precise information about deeds done in our name,

nor of that which has been done in our name in the past,

nor do we demand such information now.

If we saw the whole picture we may not have ventured out the door

for sheer shame.


One might insist that this is not the whole picture,

that Israel maintains freedom of speech,

 "freedom of opinion" can be found in the press - after all, Amira Hass and Gideon Levy are still writing publicly.

But what is freedom of opinion

without freedom of information?

Some will insist and mention that

Ynet did write about some refuser,

another site posted a horror story of the unjustified targeting of children,

the media aren't all that monolithic,

everything is out there.

Yes, perhaps. But not the basic  things -

What channel,

what newspaper

featured Palestinians whose lives have been devastated?

Who heard their voices?

Who heard the refugees whose lives

have been devastated once and then again and again?

Who heard them telling how this time,

unlike 1948, they have nowhere to run to when bombs

are dropped on them with inconceivable force?


If the newspaper itself cannot obtain information

and is required to censure its material

and report only from the restricted spot the army allots journalists

and is prevented from publicizing images coming in

from the Palestinian news agency Ramatan,

prevented from opening an investigation

of that which is beyond reasonable doubt a war crime -

why does the newspaper not call it quits?

Why does it not issue a blacked-out first page

featuring only a statement that it can no longer do its duty?

Perhaps it would thus help remind its readers

in almost every line they do read

what sources of information the writers can access,

and what that place is, hollowly christened "press hill",

where nothing but smoke can be seen billowing,

and to which (Israeli) families travel to show the kids

Gaza being bombed.


In South Africa apartheid was at least exposed, overt,

whereas here it happens in detention camps

not only beyond our field of vision

but also outside the central body of the law

(just as slavery regulations, the "Black Code",

were kept outside the law of states that nurtured slavery).

The Palestinians who are ruled alongside ourselves

are exposed to various evil regulations

imposed in the Occupied Territories ad hoc

by senior officers and subordinates, soldiers.

They are inaccessible – neither to those ruled according to them

nor, certainly, to ourselves, democracy's citizens,

so that we remain unfamiliar with their injustice

and especially, so that it would not desecrate

the hallowed body of "our" law,

us – citizens of a democracy.


Slowly the Palestinians disappear from our lives

(walls, closures, workers from Thailand, silent transfer out of the mixed-cities).

The exploitation, brutality and oppression they suffer

are becoming less and less visible to us.


At the end of a workday,

when citizens still wish to know something about life in Gaza

they can get their VOD items carefully selected by the army spokesperson,

or check out the army channel on youtube:

"Paratroopers charge a mosque", "a medley of sea, air and ground missions", a missile deflected so as not to hit the "uninvolved".

These citizens do not see the destruction of Gaza

as a habitat of living people just like them.

They see the "elimination of terrorist infrastructure",

courtesy of the army spokesperson.


The press does not feature objectors who refused to join this offensive on Gaza

The media silence the arrest of Jewish participants in non-violent demonstrations.

It does report the arrest of Arab demonstrators, thus

reframing the Arab as a maker of "troubles" or "law-breaker"

and re-emphasizing yet again the insoluble, national nature of "the conflict".

The media impose total veto on joint demonstrations of Jews and Arabs,

for fear of cracking the fortified separation between Jews and Arabs which they promote,

for fear of suggesting that the rivalry of populations is not "fated".


Cracks in the separation

will suddenly reveal a different picture.

Subjects would step up together against the regime

that has made their lives impossible.


That is the only threat we hold over this regime:

Jews who would refuse to position themselves against Arabs

(both inside the 'green line' and outside it).

Jews who will perceive Arabs

(both inside the 'green line' and outside it)

as fellow citizens..


If we were in South Africa, some would join the blacks.

But here, how can we join the Arabs when the regime acts to separate us

with its concrete wall, its divisive television and VOD,

withdrawn information and massive mobilization

of the mass-media?


This separation regime is commonly seen

as concerned only with Arabs,

a regime that sets Arabs apart.

How can a separation regime set only Arabs apart?

Any separation has two sides

A separation regime separates these from those

and thus, our separation regime sets us apart as well.

It remains only to ask – apart from what?


It separates us from the possibility

granted even the worst of peoples or nations,

to turn a page in our own history,

to change our ethos, language, horizon,

to stop persecuting the Arabs,

to stop thinking we deserve what they do not,

and to choose to share a feasible life

with the people with whom our parents brought us here to live.


This regime forces us to collaborate

with deeds of which we are not a part and do not want to be done in our name.

It forces us to be separated from those with whom we were fated to live.


Until we manage to gather enough working hands and axes to smash the wall,

and protest together with the Arabs against this regime,

we can merge – bodily.

We can wear keffiyehs around our necks,

thus declaring that we are not representatives of this regime,

that we cannot be relied upon,

that if we happen upon incriminating information

about the army's actions in Gaza

we will not hesitate to hand it over to whoever asks for it,

that we shall seek ways to make this regime understand

that it cannot rely on us

to be its collaborators.


We shall not agree to be its (mis)guided missiles

and the bearers of its lies.


In order to act in our name,

the ruling power should have our consent,

the consent of Jews who mix with Arabs, Arabs who mix with Jews.

Until then we wish to be set apart

from the deeds of this rule.


Until then, facing Gaza, remembering Gaza,

we are all Palestinians.


          English translation: tal haran


The Civil Contract of Photography

18 December 2008

Steve Edwards finds positives and negatives in the claim that photos are a key part of political culture

Academics have long held a sceptical view of the documentary form, yet editing of film about the Queen for a BBC documentary can still cause a popular furore. The photograph of choice in specialist departments has for some time been the constructed image, and everything else is to be "deconstructed". There are now signs that this consensus is breaking open and Ariella Azoulay's The Civil Contract of Photography makes an important contribution to an emerging view that treats photojournalism as a vital component of political culture.

Azoulay focuses on two "injured" or "abandoned" groups: female citizens in Israel and Palestinians living in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967. Photography bears witness to these injuries and, in its uses by the state, gives rise to them. Azoulay views photography as a key component of public culture that demands ethical engagement.

Indeed, she argues that the "civil contract of photography", in which we all participate, has been inscribed in photography from 1839. This is a contract of "partnership and solidarity" that reaches across national boundaries to "universal spectators". We realise that photographs are conventional pictures, but the contract entails agreeing to treat them as witnesses for the people or events represented, thus anchoring spectators in "civic duty towards the photographed person". She argues that we must consider a triangulated vision between those photographed, the photographer and the viewer. None of these points of view singularly determines the meaning of the image: "Despite the fact that the photographer is the one holding the camera or the soldier is the one supervising the situation with his rifle, neither are necessarily able to conquer the situation or fully control it from their single viewpoint." For Azoulay, photographs can and must be made to speak.

The Civil Contract of Photography is not an easy read: it is dense with ruminations on citizenship, territory and violence, discussions of vision and the body, considerations of rape and its invisibility, and engagements with Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Jean-Francois Lyotard and many others. Azoulay's framework is principally drawn from Giorgio Agamben's recasting of Carl Schmitt's "decisionism".

She employs a tripartite distinction between a sovereign power, the citizen, and those subject to power. These subjects live in a "state of emergency" decreed by the sovereign. They are "abandoned" by the law and live on the edge of "disaster" or "catastrophe".

Palestinians are denied citizenship, but as "refugees" remain subject to perpetual emergency measures. Women are said to be partial citizens. The problem is that it is difficult to halt the logic of this line of argument. In these terms, who is not a partial citizen?

In addition, an ambiguity stems from this purview: the author suggests that Palestinians are injured and abandoned because the Israeli state has imposed on them a state of emergency, but she also argues that an emergency claim must be created (by photography) to offer protection from injury and abandonment.

The book really takes off in the last 200 pages where Azoulay has some important things to say. This is difficult reading of a different kind, because she brings the reader up starkly against the everyday humiliations and violence inflicted on Palestinians. Her term for the state of exception in the Occupied Territories is the "penal colony" - the allusion to Kafka is evident and fitting.

Forty per cent of Palestinian men have been imprisoned by the occupying power. Many, many more are routinely "dehydrated" - the military term for leaving them handcuffed and blindfolded for hours. Checkpoints and searches perpetually disrupt everyday life.

Azoulay makes photographs the evidential basis for an examination of the politics of visibility in the Territories. Efrat Shivili's photographs of "construction projects" guide her thinking about the politics of space on both sides of the Green Line. She examines standard representations, repetitive poses and elisions in the Israeli press. Azoulay finds an orientalist scrutiny of bodies in the many photographs of Palestinian men baring their midriffs at gunpoint to demonstrate that they are not carrying explosives. She reflects on the use of photographs by Shabak, the Israeli secret service, in framing and ensnaring collaborators and informants. The photographs of blindfolded prisoners open on to a consideration of a refusal of a Palestinian vision.

Importantly, The Civil Contract of Photography is not only an account of photography as an instrument of state power. In Azoulay's hands, photographs, even those designed to aid the ruling powers, always testify in other ways. When they enter the public realm, debate sparks from them. As she notes, staged photographs of torture positions shown in a human rights report serve to testify, since Shabak offered no rebuttal and applied for extension of the illustrated techniques. Compared with the one-dimensional accounts of photography that have for some time dominated discussion, Azoulay's attention to the dialogic condition of evidence is a step forward.

This book would have benefited from hard editing: it is long, meandering and repetitive, and contains some historical errors. The author's method drifts towards a politics of victimhood that encourages a position of benevolence in the viewer. Rather than agents determining their futures, Palestinians and women appear as "weak" or needing "protection". Who is to provide it? This strange feminisation of the victim (and the theme of rape is central here) is a conundrum with its roots in the legal-national perspective of Schmitt and Agamben; for how can the subjects of a state of exception break the grip of the nation-state upon them? Despite so-called institutions of global governance, legal citizenship is tied to states. This overly legal conception would require the state to be externally ruptured for citizenship to extend to those abandoned. If such an intervention was at all likely, it would be worrying. The author discusses her limitations as an Israeli citizen in accessing Palestinian images, but the inclusion would certainly have strengthened the book.

The book also leaves unreconciled its account of photography as part of the machinery of state power with her commitment to it as public witness. Nevertheless, this is a significant, deeply moral book that should undercut complacent thinking. Azoulay's renewal of cultural attention to the state and her view of photography that requires us to dispute prevailing interpretations of evidence must surely be welcomed as we are, once again, thrown headlong back to reality.


The Civil Contract of Photography


By Ariella Azoulay
Zone Books
ISBN 9781890951887
Published 28 November 2008

Reviewer :

Steve Edwards is senior lecturer in art history at The Open University. His books include The Making of English Photography and Photography: A Very Short Introduction (both 2006).



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