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Paperback | $24.95 Trade | £17.95 | ISBN: 9781890951894 | 585 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 10 color illus., 100 b&w illus.| November 2012

The Civil Contract of Photography


In this groundbreaking work, Ariella Azoulay provides a compelling rethinking of the political and ethical status of photography. In her extraordinary account of the "civil contract" of photography, she thoroughly revises our understanding of the power relations that sustain and make possible photographic meanings. Photography, she insists, must be thought of and understood in its inseparability from the many catastrophes of recent history.

Azoulay argues that photography is a particular set of relations between individuals to the power that governs them, and, at the same time, a form of relations among equal individuals that constrains this power. Her book shows how anyone, even a stateless person, who addresses others through photographs or occupies the position of a photograph's addressee, is or can become a citizen in the citizenry of photography. The civil contract of photography enables him or her to share with others the claim made or addressed by the photograph.

But the crucial arguments of the book concern two groups whose vulnerability and flawed citizenship have been rendered invisible due to their state of exception: the Palestinian noncitizens of Israel and women in Western societies. What they share is an exposure to injuries of various kinds and the impossibility of photographic statements of their plight from ever becoming claims of emergency and calls for protection. Thus one of her leading questions is the following: Under what legal, political or cultural conditions does it become possible to see and to show disaster that befalls those flawed citizens in states of exception?

The book brilliantly examines key texts in the history of modern citizenship, such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, together with relevant works by Giorgio Agamben, Hannah Arendt, Olympe de Gouges, and Jean-François Lyotard; it rigorously analyzes Israeli photographs of violent episodes in the Occupied Territories—work by Miki Kratsman, Michal Heiman, and Aïm Deüelle Lüski—and it interpretively engages photographs of women from those of Muybridge to recent images from Abu Ghraib prison. At the same time Azoulay provides new critical perspectives on well-known texts such as Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others and Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida.

The Civil Contract of Photography is an essential work for anyone seeking to understand the disasters of recent history and the consequences of how these events and their victims have been represented. Azoulay charts new intellectual and political pathways in this unprecedented exploration of the visual field of catastrophe, injustice, and suffering in our time.

About the Author

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).


"... 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.", Abigail Solomon-Godeau, 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


"The Civil Contract of Photography considers the crucial role of photographs in the making and unmaking of citizens. Azoulay situates photography within the context of political theory, challenging Susan Sontag's important work on photography and war. For Azoulay, the photograph of politically induced suffering makes an appeal to rights and constitutes an emergency demand. The text works with an array of photographs that make urgent appeals, marshalling autobiographical, political, and theoretical perspectives to establish the role of the photograph in creating the visual space for politics. This is a moving, urgent, and thoughtful work."
Judith Butler, author of Precarious Life: Powers of Violence and Mourning

"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