The Civil Contract of Photography

The Civil Contract of Photography

By Ariella Azoulay

An argument that anyone can pursue political agency and resistance through photography, even those with flawed or nonexistent citizenship.

Distributed for Zone Books





An argument that anyone can pursue political agency and resistance through photography, even those with flawed or nonexistent citizenship.

In this compelling work, Ariella Azoulay reconsiders the political and ethical status of photography. Describing the power relations that sustain and make possible photographic meanings, Azoulay argues that anyone—even a stateless person—who addresses others through photographs or is addressed by photographs can become a member of the citizenry of photography. The civil contract of photography enables anyone to pursue political agency and resistance through photography.

Photography, Azoulay insists, cannot be understood separately from the many catastrophes of recent history. The crucial arguments of her book concern two groups with flawed or nonexistent citizenship: the Palestinian noncitizens of Israel and women in Western societies. Azoulay analyzes Israeli press photographs of violent episodes in the Occupied Territories, and interprets various photographs of women—from famous images by stop-motion photographer Eadweard Muybridge to photographs from Abu Ghraib prison. Azoulay asks this question: under what legal, political, or cultural conditions does it become possible to see and to show disaster that befalls those who can claim only incomplete or nonexistent citizenship?

Drawing on such key texts in the history of modern citizenship as the Declaration of the Rights of Man together with relevant work by Giorgio Agamben, Jean-François Lyotard, Susan Sontag, and Roland Barthes, Azoulay explores the visual field of catastrophe, injustice, and suffering in our time. Her book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the disasters of recent history—and the consequences of how these events and their victims have been represented.


Out of Print ISBN: 9781890951887 592 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 10 color illus., 100 b&w illus.


$24.95 T | £20.00 ISBN: 9781890951894 592 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 10 color illus., 100 b&w illus.


  • ...nothing less than a wholesale restatement of the contemporary political stakes of the image...

    Art Review

  • The Civil Contract of Photography does not simply delineate how meaning is contained in or created through photograph; it demonstrates precisely how meaning avoids being cheated. If there is one lesson to take from Azoulay's writing, it is that photography is a profoundly political act—an act that is also, in the strictest sense, public.


  • The Civil Contract of Photography will likely be one of the most influential books to shape the contemporary inquiry of photography and public culture.

    Argumentation and Advocacy

  • ... Azoulay's central themes—state violence, violations of human rights, and the nature and potential of photographic witness—are as relevant to our own political circumstances as they are to hers.

    Art in America

  • ... 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.

    Steve Edwards

    Times Higher Education


  • Ariella Azoulay makes a simple and profound claim. Every photograph bears the traces of the encounter between the photographer and the photographed, and neither party can ultimately control that inscription nor determine what happens to those traces. The photograph, she tells us, fixes nothing and belongs to no one. This untethering of photography from responsibility, at least in its traditional sense, allows her to approach the ethics and politics specific to photography in a completely new way. Even or especially when it is a photograph of a crime or an injustice, a photograph is more than evidence. It imposes another sort of obligation on us, to address and readdress it in a way that challenges what it shows of our life together. Azoulay's breathtaking book finally demands nothing less of us than to reimagine how, in the age of the photograph, we might become citizens again.

    Thomas Keenan

    Human Rights Program, Bard College