Understanding photography is more than a matter of assessing photographs, writes Ariella Azoulay. The photograph is merely one event in a sequence that constitutes photography and which always involves an actual or potential spectator in the relationship between the photographer and the individual portrayed. The shift in focus from product to practice, outlined in Civil Imagination, brings to light the way images can both reinforce and resist the oppressive reality foisted upon the people depicted.
Through photography, Civil Imagination seeks out relations of partnership, solidarity, and sharing that come into being at the expense of sovereign powers that threaten to destroy them. Azoulay argues that the “civil” must be distinguished from the “political” as the interest that citizens have in themselves, in others, in their shared forms of coexistence, as well as in the world they create and transform. Azoulay’s book sketches out a new horizon of civil living for citizens as well as subjects denied citizenship—inevitable partners in a reality they are invited to imagine anew and to reconstruct.
Beautifully produced with many illustrations, Civil Imagination is a provocative argument for photography as a civic practice capable of reclaiming civil power.
Since then, when sometimes against all chances / Opportunity appears on the horizon / Citizens have not given up / The possibility of imagining another life / Once in a while they re-emerge and declare: / Without us there is no body politic; only an idea on paper.
The sovereign language usually manages to subdue the inner syntax of civil language so that it is interpreted mainly as a series of goal-oriented actions whose meaning is construed to lie within the hegemonic political language. By restricting our understanding of revolution to national contexts, by associating it directly with well-defined goals and particular results, history, and political discourse since the end of the 18th century has delayed the emergence of a civil language according to which revolutionary history could appear as a single, albeit interrupted, campaign.
Jerusalem, Mamila Street, November 1947
The UN's newly unveiled partition plan is contrary to the wishes of most of the country's inhabitants. Palestinians took to the streets in protest. This was the last time Palestinian protest was perceived as a civil movement. Since then they have been doomed to expulsion and have been viewed as mere assailants from without. Unknown photographer, Central Zionist Archive.
The time has come for Palestinians to return to Palestine. It is time for Israeli Jews to cease the reproduction of violence, maintaining the consequences of the constitutive violence of 1948 that made Israeli Jews citizens, and Palestinians - non-citizens of their homeland. The time has come for Israeli Jews to recognize the constitutive disaster – the Nakba – not only as a Palestinian catastrophe but as a catastrophe in the production of which they are implicated on a daily basis.
The time has come for the second generation of perpetrators – descendants of those who expelled Palestinians from their homeland – to claim our right, our fundamental and inalienable human right: the right not to be perpetrators. Without this fundamental right one can never be a citizen governed equally with others.