the civil contract of photography. apuntes

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Resúmenes y apuntes de lectura

La fotografía dio lugar a una nueva forma de encuentro, uno que vincula a personas que toman, observan y aparecen en fotos. En The Civil Contract of Photography (2008), Ariella Azoulay (Israel, 1962) explora la relación que existe entre quienes ejercen estas tres funciones en el marco de situaciones de emergencia o catástrofe, cuestionando prácticas y supuestos ritualizados. | Aquí, comparto mis subrayados con imágenes de Susan Meiselas, Miki Kratsman y Gideon Mendel. | Arriba, de Meiselas, Photographs of 20-year-old Kamaran Abdullah Saber are held by his family at Saiwan Hill cemetery. He was killed in July 1991 during a student demonstration against Saddam Hussein, Kurdistan, Northern Iraq.

Dos fotografías de Susan Meiselas. * Izquierda: Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991. * Derecha: Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991. 

When the assumption is that not only were the photographed people there, but that, in addition, they are still present there at the time I’m watching them, my viewing of these photographs is freed from the risk of becoming immoral […]. The Civil Contract of Photography is an attempt to anchor spectatorship in civic duty toward the photographed persons who haven’t stopped being “there”. [16].

I employ the term “contract” in order to shed terms such as “empathy,” “shame,” “pity,” or “compassion” as organizers of this gaze… 

Within this space, the point of departure for our mutual relations cannot be empathy or mercy. It must be a covenant for the rehabilitation of their citizenship in the political sphere within which we are all ruled […]. When the photographed persons address me, claiming their citizenship in photography, they cease to appear as stateless or as enemies, the manners in which the sovereign regime strives to construct them. They call on me to restore their citizenship through my viewing. [17].

Why are these men, women, children, and families looking at me? Why have they agreed to be photographed so as to look at me? At whom, precisely, did they seek to look –was it truly at me? And why? Does their use of photography express a civic skill that they possess? What am I supposed to do with their look? What is the foundation of the gaze I might turn back to toward them? Is it my gaze alone, or is their demand directed toward the civil position I occupy? What happens to my citizenship in its encounter with this look? What happens to it in this encounter with their catastrophe, knowing that they are more vulnerable than I to catastrophe?

The question “Why are they looking at me?” has enabled me to rethink the civic space of the gaze and our interrelations within it. [17, 18].

The consent of most photographed subjects to have their picture taken, or indeed their own initiation of a photographic act, even when suffering in extremely difficult circumstances, presumes the existence of a civil space in which photographers, photographed subjects, and spectators share a recognition that what they are witnessing is insufferable. [18].

In their act of photography, the photographers and the photographed person assumed the existence of a hypothetical spectator who would take an interest in the image and be aroused by it to show responsibility. [20].

The civil contract of photography assumes that, at least in principle, the governed possess a certain power to suspend the gesture of the sovereign power seeking to totally dominate the relations between us… [21].

The nation-state (re)territorializes citizenship […]. Photography, on the other hand, deteritorializes citizenship, for reaching beyond its conventional boundaries… [23].


* Captura de pantalla de la página de Facebook Miki Kratsman: People I Met, proyecto para ubicar a personas que han aparecido en la cobertura del conflicto entre Israel y Palestina del fotógrafo Miki Kratsman (Argentina-Israel, 1961).

[In Little History of Photography, Benjamin proposed] a new perspective of photography’s beginnings. The origin, he suggested, was the appearance of a professional community. [86].

Batchen’s thesis develops further Benjamin’s intuitively written claim that photography was “sensed by more than one –by men who strove independently for the same objective”. [86].

Not only is the invention of photography the invention of a new encounter between people, but the invention of an encounter between people and the camera. Photography was invented at the moment when a space of plurality was initiated… [87].

Photography was invented at that moment, by those people. They cannot be identified; they do not belong to any milieu of professionals, but are ordinary people who, simply by using a camera, both promoted photography and initiated what I am calling the civil contract of photography. [88, 89].

Even when this encounter occurs under the difficult conditions of distress or disaster, when a threat looms over or has already caused harm to the political space, as a space of plurality and action, the act of photography and the photographs it produces might, at least potentially, restore. [89, 90].


* Captura de pantalla de la página de Facebook Miki Kratsman: People I Met, proyecto para ubicar a personas que han aparecido en la cobertura del conflicto entre Israel y Palestina del fotógrafo Miki Kratsman (Argentina-Israel, 1961).

It is commonly accepted and legally established that the photographer owns the images that he or she makes –that the photographer’s ownership of the image is his or her “right” under the doctrine of property rights […]. My questioning of the concept of “right” in this instance is meant to challenge the assumption that the photographed individual has no right over the image made of him or her and that this right is “naturally” given to the person holding the photograph’s means of production. Most importantly, I would like to challenge the transformation of the photograph into an object of private property. [94].

In rare instances, typically involving well-known people, photographed individuals have been given certain rights in regard to their photographs taken in public, at least to the extent that they have been able to influence their mode of distribution. At all other times, whether during moments of happiness or disaster, the photographed persons renounce in advance –or, more accurately, have been treated as if they have renounced in advance– any legal right to their own image, entrusting it to the hands of others. [95].

The question of who is the proper owner of a photograph did not emerge until the twentieth century. [95].

Any final determination of the ownership of the photographed image, whether it is given to the photographer or the photographed person, negates the possibility that others can lay claim to it. It is not simply members of future generations who are entitled to reject these decisions. Not only are they entitled to reject them, as I will soon propose, but it is their moral duty to do so when the latter stand in contradiction to the civil contract of photography [97].

“I wish she [Dorothea Lange] hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did”. —Florence Owens Thompson. 

On occasions in which photographed individuals have brought a claim in regard to their photographs, it was not an issue of the ownership of the image that was at the center of the debate, but the right to protect the character of the image that was made of them. In addition to the right to ownership of the image, other juridical concepts, such as “the right to privacy,” “defamation,” or “malicious use” have thus been introduced into the discourse on photography. [97].

A photographic image, then, can at most be entrusted to someone for a certain time. It is a deposit, temporarily given over to whomever has it for safekeeping, but such persons are never its owner. [98].

It is here that the oscillation between the position of the photographer and the position of the spectator becomes most apparent and most definitively subverts the notion that photographs are the real property of those who take them. Ever since photography’s emergence, there have been efforts to take photographs of areas in distress or those struck by disaster, to collect, distribute and interpret photographs from these places. The assumptions underlying these efforts have been, first of all, that what happens “there” is of interest not only to those concerned with it –those who’ve been struck by disaster– but to onlookers the world over, and, second, that photographs produced out of what happens “there” participate in constructing the event and the responses to it. [99].


Dos fotografías de la serie Submerged Portraits de Gideon Mendel (Sudáfrica, 1959). * Izquierda: João Gonzanga de Sousa, Taquari District, Rio Branco, Brazil, March 2015. * Derecha: JB Singh, Jawahar Nagar, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, 24 September 2014.

In other words, photography is one of the distinctive practices by means of which individuals can establish a distance between themselves and power in order to observe its actions and to do so not as its subjects. Injury to this right, which is simultaneously injury to both the photographer and the photographed, as two citizens of photography –but fundamentally against all of the citizenry of photography– establishes a duty to protect it. [100].

As we have seen, in the classical photographic situation, the camera mediates an encounter between the photographer and the photographed, and an image is produced. In the legal institutionalization of this encounter, the photographed individual has not been recognized as its owner, whereas the photographer who produces the image has been given legal rights. However, this appropriation of the photographed person’s rights, in which there is always a measure of violence, which was taken for granted by both sides from the start, and which has remained unaltered, cannot be understood without assuming that a certain pact or agreement lies at its foundation. Such an agreement is what makes the photographic encounter between the photographer and the photographed possible. [100, 101].

Everyone is supposed to know how to act and what to expect at the photographic encounter. From the fact that in the photographic encounter itself there is no need for the formulation or signing of a concrete pact, we can assume there has been some kind of tacit prior pact or agreement between the sides that ensures the present encounter: not merely a contractual agreement or ad hoc understanding, but a civil contract. [101].

If one reflects on the agreement between the parties to the civil contract of photography as it is usually enacted, it is clearly an unequal exchange […]. If they grant the photographer the right to turn them into a photographic image, in most cases, they receive no material reward, except for being turned into an image. 

… The photographer makes a living, and in some cases may even become wealthy; the photographer wins fame and prizes, is a member of organizations that defend his or her interests, is protected by publication contracts and agreements. The photographed individual, on the other hand, is abandoned. He or she has no control over the image; in most cases, the individual is unable to determine its composition and the modes of its distribution. [102].


Dos fotografías de la serie Submerged Portraits de Gideon Mendel (Sudáfrica, 1959). * Izquierda: Florence Abraham. Igbogene, Bayelsa Stte, Nigeria, November 2012. * Derecha: Ahmed, Khairpur Nathan Shah, Sindha, Pakistan Septembre 2010.

In other words, the technology of photography created the relatively simple mobility between the positions of photographer and the photographed. This essential mobility finds no expression in the configuration of their established relationship, which has fixed the asymmetry I have described as the defining model of their relations…

The essential exploitation in the agreement between the photographer –or those for whom he is the agent– and the photographed is even more striking in light of this elimination of any possible reversal of roles. [102]. 

To see more than they could alone, individuals had to align themselves with other individuals who would agree to share their visual field with one another. Photography reorganized what was accessible to the gaze, in the course of which everyone gained the opportunity to see through the gaze of another. In order to create this economy of gazes, each and every one had to renounce his or her right to preserve his or her own, autonomous visual field from external forces, but also acquired an obligation to defend the gaze in order to make it available for others to enter and intermingle. This was primarily the individual’s renunciation of ownership of “his” or “her” image or point of view, just as he or she was prepared to give away that image or to become one. Photography, then, broadened the limits of the gaze to encompass a mixed economy of gazes that continually flood the visual field with new data. [107].

It is the terms and conditions of the civil contract that explain people’s compliance, again and again, in being made the objects of a violent act –photography– without necessarily receiving any immediate reward. […]. The photographed individual’s consent has been given in advance –nobody, including the photographed individual himself, expects it to be given again. […]. This consent was given in the past, under specific historical conditions, and the continual disregard and forgetting of this consent perpetuates the problematic separation between the photograph as an image with exchange value and photography as the specific political condition in which this image is made. [108, 109].

I contend that the civil contract of photography was imposed on the users of photography at the same time photography was imposed upon them, perpetuating the inequitable division of goods, which blended nicely with the overall logic of the capitalist order. […]. Photography, in most of its public appearances, nonetheless perpetuated the exploitative relations already existing in society. [109].

The initial deployment of photography on the part of the modern state contributed to the perpetuation of the social relations of power, turning weak, disadvantaged, and marginal populations such as ethnic minorities, criminals, and the insane into utterly exposed objects of photography. [109, 110].

To this day, however, weak populations remain more exposed to photography, especially of the journalistic kind, which coerces and confines them to a passive, unprotected position. In most cases, they are deprived of the ownership of their own images. [110].

Dos fotografías de la serie Displaced (2010) de Miki Kratsman.

“I’m tired of being a symbol of human misery, moreover my living conditions have improved”. —Florence Owens Thompson. 

Here photography traps one in its paradox. To give expression to the fact that a photographed person’s citizen status is flawed, or even nonexistent (as in the case of refugees, the poor, migrant workers, etc.), or temporarily suspended (citizens struck by disaster, exposed for a limited period of time), whoever seeks to use photography must exploit the photographed individual’s vulnerability. In such situations, photography entails a particular kind of violence: the photograph is liable to exploit the photographed individual, aggravate his or her injury, publicly expose it, and rob the individual of intimacy. This threat of violation always hangs over the photographic act, and this is the precise moment in which the contract between photographer, photographed, and spectator is put to the test. [111, 112].

The Author

autor, investigador y docente de temas vinculados con la fotografía y el pensamiento contemporáneo. buenos aires, argentina.

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