Unlearning Imperial Sovereignties

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This article first appeared on Still Searching, where Ariella Azoulay has been publishing a series of essays titled "Unlearning Decisive Moments of Photography". In her series of statements, Azoulay seeks to invert common assumptions about the moment of emergence of photography, and locates the origins of photography in the "New World" and in the early phases of the European colonial enterprise.The essays are based on the forthcoming book "Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism", which is out on Verso in Fall 2019. 

Cameras are a product of imperialism’s scopic regime. However, imperial rights are not fully inscribed in the device. The unifocality of the camera and what Aïm Deüelle Lüski calls its verticality partition the space where it is located into what or who is “in front of it” and what or who is “behind it.” 1

Aïm Deüelle Lüski, ball camera. An interview with Lüski, from The Angel of History (2000), a film by Ariella Azoulay

Photographs are, however, metonymical records of an encounter between those convened around the camera, figures whom the unifocal camera is designed to separate and differentiate while naturalizing that separation. Thus, the what, how, and who captured in the pictures are dissociated on different levels from the what, how and who engaged in taking the photos and circulating and holding the rights to them as if they were private property. This dissociation is predicated on one of the camera’s features, thus belittling the role of its other features. One of the most important of them is the opportunity that the camera creates for people to coincide with others in the same space and time and thus participate in generating something in common, something that could not be produced otherwise—that is, without the presence and participation of others. It is only through powerful institutions such as museums, archives, the press, or the police, as well as economic and political sanctions, that such other features and the participation of the many are devalued, prohibited, or outlawed in an attempt to deprive the participants in the photographic event of their rights and power, making photography subservient to the imperial project. This is what keeps the unilateral right on which photography was institutionalized—the right to roam around with a tool that penetrates people’s lives and to take their pictures without being invited to do so—ungrounded and reversible. To be recognized not as the exercise of violence but as a lawful right, this right needs to be materialized and redeemed in a common world, one which is irreducible to the sheer, ongoing attempt to accumulate ever more capital, profit, wealth, distinction, and power. Given that the right to take a photograph of others was imposed regardless of their will or consent, destruction creates the conditions under which such a right can be exercised. The imprint of the right to destroy—while not necessarily a “theme” of particular photographs—is encapsulated in almost every photograph taken where imperial agents stepped in, even if it is not immediately decodable as such. At the same time, when the depiction of destruction is understood as the expression and style of concerned photographers, one tends to ignore the fact that, together with the built environment that was destroyed, the rights inscribed in that environment were also destroyed, and that the very loss of those rights is, in the first place, what turned the photographed persons into what they have become.

Video stills from Episode III: Enjoy Poverty (2008), a film by Renzo Martens

Think, for example, of Enjoy Poverty, Renzo Martens’s film shot in Congo. Without layers and layers of the imperial destruction that expropriated the Congolese, taking away their place within the social, cultural, and political formations of which they were part, none of what we see would have been possible. At the heart of the film, Martens attempt to engage a group of young men who had been connected with a small photography store, schooling them in how to compete with Western photojournalists in taking photographs of the misery of people from their communities. The lesson focuses on the photojournalistic expectation of photographers who seek to get physically closer to the photographed persons, but the lesson that we as spectators are invited to learn concerns the distance required by photographers in order to point the camera at people, as if an imagined curtain separated them from each other, a prerequisite for the middleperson placed in between hypothetical agents of the free market of images with all its demands and those on whom the success of the photographic image actually depends.

Video stills from Episode III: Enjoy Poverty (2008), a film by Renzo Martens

Not surprisingly, as photographers were and continue to be only minor protagonists in the imperial economy of photography, they often suffer too from its regime of violence, as it destroys the social fabrics of communities of which they are or could be a part. It is in those more unusual cases—when the exercise of photography is not based on such an alienated distance and is rather exercised in concert and partnership with the photographers’ communities—that not only is their labor not commissioned by lucrative markets but, additionally, they risk losing their immunity and become the direct targets of imperial agents.

Yasser Murtaja, Palestinian photojournalist evacuated after being shot by Israeli troops, The Great March of Return, April 6, 2018. Photo: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian journalists, a protest against the killing of fellow journalist Yasser Murtaja, near the Gaza border, April 8, 2018. Photo: Said Khatib

It is not necessarily what they would capture in their cameras that becomes the threat that has to be suppressed; it is rather the type of proximity—symbolic, affective, and physical—between photographers and those supposed to be their raw material, a proximity that overrides imperial and capitalist divides, proximity to the kind of unionization of those whose interests these systems seek to keep apart, that becomes the target for law enforcers and snipers, the proxies of imperial agents. The Great March of Return by Palestinians contesting the law of the nation state erected in 1948 that made them intruders to and in their homeland, is not another episode within the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict”—another imperial invention. It is the persistence of a non-imperial struggle against the imperial-capitalist enterprise of which the state of Israel is part and should be understood on a global scale. It is a struggle against the many forms and structures of violence that imperial states seek to naturalize as laws by virtue of their very existence. Within this context, it becomes clear that the large number of Palestinian journalists and photojournalists shot by Israeli snipers week after week since the beginning of the Great March of Return is not unrelated to the fact that these photographers act as part of their community and are not delegates of an international media milieu, they pursue this profession out of affectionate proximity and commitment to their own community. Moreover, in these images of them carried on stretchers by other members of the community, there is much of what the imperial state—the ally of imperial markets—is mandated to disallow.

1 See Ariella Azoulay, Aïm Deüelle Lüski and Horizontal Photography (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2013).