Monday, February 8, 2021

Ariella Azoulay

I've been aware of Azoulay for some time now, but all her books are really expensive and anyways I thought I'd start with some material that's cited from time to time which is available on the internets. So I went and read, carefully, thoroughly, this material: Unlearning Decisive Moments of Photography.

This series is pretty broadly cited, generally, and serves as a kind of intellectual basis for a whole school of thought on photography, namely the "photography is literally, no, literally, violence" school. Mostly by, I suspect, people who have not actually read it. Anyways, let's take a look at it.

It is overwritten, deliberately obscure, and has a few too many bits of rhetorical sleight of hand for me to really approve. Azoulay is rather fond of intruducing a thing as a question, and later assuming it as if she'd proved while doing no such thing. Sometimes the transition from proposal to fact takes places in a single sentence.

Azoulay's idea is not a complicated one. She's interested in Imperial Power as expressed through European colonialism and its sequels (most importantly American Hegemony). Let's call this, broadly speaking, the Western Imperium, at least in part because I like saying "Imperium."

She correctly remarks that the Western Imperium arrogates to itself certain rights and powers, the rights to go, do, destroy, take, see, record whatever, wherever, and whenever it wills. It is not clear that she realizes that these are basic to conquest of all stripes, from the Roman Empire to contemporary playground bullies. She is certainly interested exclusively in Western power, which she seems to visualize as a monolith, to the detriment of her argument.

Among the powers arrogated to the Western Imperium is the right to record, and to carry home recordings, of anything and everything. This she identifies as a "photography" construed politically, which is a pretty good take, to be honest. Men laboriously drawing artifacts in colonized countries is arguably an antecedent for photographing the same things. The Western Imperium, perhaps informed by Enlightenment thinking, justifies its looting both physical and visual on the grounds of knowledge, of learning. This is not unique to the current empire, but neither it it universal, so that's interesting.

John Berger covered much the same material, from the point of view of visual representations as a kind of possession, in the 1970s. These ideas have been around a while, the only serious post-Berger addition is the emphasis on the notional rights of the subject and, to a lesser extent, the viewer.

Azoulay now spends quite a bit of time, essentially, trashing what she calls photography but which is actually photojournalism, or perhaps slightly more broadly a category of documentary photography. Azoulay does not care about, indeed seems not to be aware of, your pictures of your kids. I will follow her usage, not because it's good, but because I am lazy.

Her effort to characterize photography as destructive don't really work, because all she can do here is juxtapose photography with the destruction of conquest. Placing two things next to one another does not make them the same, no matter how often you do it.

She does a bit better when she remarks that photography (in her broad characterization as "reproduction") renders, by definition, everything it records as "seeable" in a public kind of way, especially in the Western Imperium which likes to stick stuff in museums. These things, in some cases, were not meant to be universally seeable. Colonized cultures often had stuff that was secret, private, that existed in hierarchies of seeability, and that is all torn away by the colonizers.

I will have more to say on this revelation of secret things toward the end, below.

Again, this is universal to conquest. Temples are routinely torn open, the gods dragged through the streets. On the playground, pants are pulled down and genitals are revealed for the amusement of almost everyone. We in the West may stick our loot in museums rather than dragging it down the street, but this effect is the same: the private is made public.

Azoulay again hits the mark when she points out that the right to photograph everything, to render everything seeable, is a right constructed by the Imperial power, and as such is not a universal but a theoretically reversible construct. This is merely a refinement of "the conquerer tends to make the rules" but it is at least on-point. This conquerer has made some rules about photography.

She wraps up with some ideas for making things better, which boil down to "collaborate with your subjects and don't be a tool of Empire" which, um, ok. Cool, cool.

So, there's some good stuff in there. It's not all wrong, and it's mostly not gibberish, and there's some solid points made.

The ideas, though, are basically pretty simple and the writing is deliberately obscure; one assumes it is obscure to make the ideas seem bigger and more complicated than they are. Certainly if you poke around you will find very little evidence that anybody's actually made it through, and when they have they didn't understand it.

The obvious fact that she has a very clear political axe to grind really mucks things up. She's anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian, which is a position I have a lot of sympathy for. This leads her astray, however. This singular axe, this singular world-view, leads her to characterize the Western Imperium's photographic project in very simplistic ways. She accomplishes this by ruthlessly leaving stuff out when it complicates.

In one place she talks about some photos of Palestinians from 1958, prisoners of the newly formed state of Israel. These pictures reiterate the Imperial narrative, etc and so forth. She leaves out the photographs taken a few years before in which the roles are reversed. Before the state of Israel was declared, the Jews were the bad guys, and there is plenty of photojournalism around that.

From there she could have pointed out that the Western Imperium is a multi-armed beast, and where the machinery of photojournalism once repeated narratives supportive of British Hegemony, it has in a decade or so mutated to support the new arm, that of Israeli Hegemony. That would have been nuanced, though, and suggested that maybe things are not as simple as she'd like them to be.

In the same way, she proposes that certain photojournalists working within the Palestinian faction today are "good" photographers, because they are collaborating with their subjects and not being tools of Empire, and this is why the Israeli snipers are shooting them.

If you're not a child you recognize that if Azoulay's arguments are to be taken seriously, these photographers are in fact likely in thrall to a nascent Palestinian Hegemony which is struggling to be born, just as the pro-Israeli photographers are in thrall to the pro-Israeli power that informs the Western Imperium.

This is where her political position regarding Israel and her view of the Western Imperium as monolithic really show. Because the Imperium is monolithic, one can divide photographers simply into good guys and bad guys, depending on whether they're working for, or against, the Imperium. Because she starts from the position that Israel is the bad guys, she gets to "Palestinian photographers are the good guys" with no effort whatever.

One begins to get the impression that Azoulay's argument is just a really really dense recapitulation of the woke tenet: "punching UP good, punching DOWN bad." I am myself not sure if what we're seeing here is a more nuanced and complex position that has been boiled down to the point where it resembles this, or if in fact this is all there is and all the lengthy books are just even more elaborate decorations of the same facile meme.

I suppose I'm going to have to do some more reading.

Anyways, it's true that photojournalism is, to a degree, in thrall to various forces. There are forces that shape messages. We do have unexamined assumptions that inform the way we take pictures and, just as importantly, the way we look at pictures (Azoulay has nothing to say on that, here.) Some of these forces are associated with one or another of the arms of Imperial power, some are not.

The point is that it's complicated. The Western Imperium is not a monolith, and photographers are not mindless thralls. Various arms of the Imperium struggle against one another, as they struggle to dominate the world. Insofar as photojournalists are in thrall to this and other sources of power, the messages they receive are mixed.

Further, photojournalists are fully functioning humans, and can, and do, to varying degrees, transcend their assumptions, break the control the Imperium and its cultural hegemony exert on their work, and provide in glimmers and bits and pieces something else, something outside the simple Imperial narrative.

That said, I think it does us some real good to consider the sources, always, to examine the ways in which larger forces, larger cultural assumptions, shape the stories we see in pictures. To reduce photojournalism purely to mindless recapitulation of Imperial narratives is maybe a bit too far, though.

Let's take another step back now, from the idea that photographers are just robots, to the larger idea that all activities of the Imperium are bad.

It is true that Napoleon looted Egypt for his museum. It is true that Europeans recorded the hieroglyphics of Egypt without asking anyone in Egypt if this was OK. These are facts recited by Azoulay. She leaves out other facts, though such as: it is also true that Europeans, as a result of these Imperialist Adventures, these undeniably destructive conquests, also recovered the knowledge of how to read hieroglyphics.

I don't want to get in to some game of ends and means, and weighing one against the other. The destruction of conquest is real. But also, the rediscovery of knowledge is real, and has real value.

In the same way the Western Imperium is something of a mixed bag. Let us not downplay the bad parts, but let us also not forget that, sometimes, these guys were doing just what it said on the tin. Mixed in with the evil, the looting, the destruction, is some of the good that the Imperium keeps advertising as its raison d'ĂȘtre.

On that theme, sometimes cultures are keeping things secret, unseen, private which are odious and are better revealed to the public. To imply, as Azoulay does, that they only things revealed through conquest are the beautiful and innocent artifacts of happy cultures is wrong. Sometimes what it revealed by western conquest is atrocity, horror, murder, slavery, oppression. Things which we, as Westerners, abhor.

We have a whole system of NGOs whose actual, literal, job is to crush, to destroy, certain cultural practices we find odious, and replace them with good Western/Enlightenment values and practices.

Are we wrong to impose our Western will on the practices of these remote cultures? Well, to do so is unquestionably an exercise of the power of conquest and empire. It is straight-up colonialism. But you don't find a whole lot of people in Western universities arguing that we ought to stand aside and reserve our power, in the interest of letting other cultures flourish.

It's complicated. The answers are not obvious, no matter how much we want them to be. The solutions are not simple, nor one-size-fits-all. It's all situational, it's all complicated, and it seems likely that in a lot of cases there is no truly satisfactory answer. There is no rule that says there has to be a pat answer, sometimes it's just effed up and all you can do is select the least-bad option.

Kinda how the world works, at least outside the Academy.


  1. I have a lot of sympathy for Azoulay's title, because it could just as well be a subtitle for my own, current book project, coming soon to a hyperlink near you.

    It could also be Exhibit A for 'visual and literal knowledge are two separate species that cross paths with bad intent.'

    The prosecution rests, M'lord.

    One of the great mysteries of our age is how the intersection of photography and some academics' impotent rage has spawned a burgeoning cottage industry of wannabe Molly Hatchets vying to smash their golden goose.

    1. The academic version of photography seems to attract, or generate, remarkably dim people. They don't read, they have no idea what constitutes original thought or an argument, so they stir the same set of phrases around and around and call it research.

      It is at least in part because the discipline, as an academic thing, is so small and irrelevant. Nobody cares, so it's where the dumb ones go to hide.

      Tellingly, it includes a lot of interstitial people. The media-studies/anthropologist and so on. This has long been the domain of the mediocre, because the both sides can be persuaded that your real work leans mainly the other way.

    2. Kids, what did you unlearn in school today?