The civil contract of photography

Renty, a man taken from the Congo, in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1850. Photograph by J. T. Zealy / Wikimedia Commons via The New Yorker

Last month or so, I came across this thought-provoking review of a book called The Civil Contract of Photography by Ariella Azoulay, a curator, filmmaker, and professor at Brown, on viewing suffering in photographs, and it’s not only empathy we should be after, it’s action.

Azoulay, a curator, filmmaker, and professor at Brown, is not interested in viewers’ emotional responses to images of suffering. It’s not empathy she’s after; she wants action. Images can transform the world, she argues, and the only reason they haven’t yet is because we don’t know how to look at them. The problem isn’t images; it’s us.

How to do this? Through ‘civil skill’, an ability described by Azoulay:

Viewers, through careful observation of images of horror, become witnesses who “can occasionally foresee or predict the future,” she writes. As a result, they can warn others of “dangers that lie ahead” and take action to prevent them.

Worth reading, especially the part where a biologist tried to justify enslavement through photography:

To make humans appear to be marketable, sellable, disposable property—to create the illusion of bodies without kin—slavers separated parents from children, wives from husbands, sisters from brothers. Owners’ records largely used matriarchal attribution to trace the lineage of children born into slavery, noting a child’s mother and not her father, because the biological fathers were often the owners themselves, who raped enslaved women. Agassiz’s daguerreotypes inadvertently re-inscribed the very father-daughter relationship that slavery tried to erase, though that was likely not his intention. Azoulay argues that Agassiz chose to photograph fathers and not mothers so the picture-taking might become a “performative event” in which white men could act out their superiority on the bodies of black men.

… but then backfired:

Yet even as they stood within this violence, Azoulay writes, the subjects of Agassiz’s images could see there was a small opening: the photographs could capture not their inferiority but their equality, their humanity. “Photography subverted Agassiz’s presumption,” Azoulay writes. Rather than documenting the sub-humanity of the enslaved, the images document the inhumanity of the owners.

Repeatedly, Azoulay asks her readers to project themselves into the scenes of photographs, to notice the power dynamics at play, to identify the participants, and to view the outcomes not as inevitable but as one possibility among many.

“The photograph is out there, an object in the world,” she writes, “and anyone, always (at least in principle), can pull at one of its threads and trace it in such a way as to reopen the image and renegotiate what it shows, possibly even completely overturning what was seen in it before.”

The reviewer ended up with a note which could send your brain pulsing:

I thought of a friend whose son was diagnosed with a fatal disease. When he was dying, people would say to her, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” She would respond, “Yes, you can imagine it. You just don’t want to.”

I am still thinking of the weight of this my inner argument “hm true” vs. “can we afford to feel how other people feel if we are not in their shoes?”  aka empathy and the question of privilege (I can afford to not feel the suffering of others as I have the privilege of not experiencing it).

See. Brain pulsing.

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