Unlearning Expertise Knowledge and Unsettling Expertise Positions
It is often assumed that photographers act as neutral observers, documenting the wrongs of oppressive regimes in the name of the common good. In the third part of the series Unlearning Decisive Moments of Photography, Ariella Azoulay critiques the idea of "engaged photography" and shows that photographers have always played a crucial role in the constitution and perpetuation of imperial regimes.
This article first appeared on Still Searching, where Ariella Azoulay will be 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.
Through this combined activity of destroying and manufacturing “new” worlds, people were deprived of an active life and their different activities reduced and mobilized to fit larger schemes of production and world engineering. Through these schemes, different groups of governed peoples were crafted and assigned access to certain occupations, mainly non-skilled labor that in turn enabled the creation of a distinct strata of professions with the vocational purpose of architecting “new” worlds and furnishing them with new technologies. Such professions housed experts in distinct domains—economics, law, politics, culture, art, health, scholarship, and so on—which were differentiated and kept separate in racialized worlds engendered by imperialism. Experts in each domain enjoy the right to shape societies according to their vision or will, to study them, and to craft visionary templates in order to provide solutions to problems generated by other experts.
Photography was shaped into such a model, with its own strata of experts. This class of expert professionals denied their implication in the constitution and perpetuation of the imperial regime and quickly convinced themselves that they were not exercising imperial rights but rather documenting and reporting the wrongs of that regime, acting for the common good. This is epitomized in the notion of the “concerned photographer,” which is also the title of an influential exhibition, one among others in which the figure of the photographer is construed as a hero apart.
“Concerned Photographers,” selection of book covers.
However, in exchange for some of its exclusive rights, not necessarily those that were financially rewarding, photographers have been mobilized to represent those imperial rights as if they were disconnected from the regime of violence. It is out of this structural denial that the tradition of engaged photography could invent the protocol of the documentary as a means of accounting for objects that were violently fabricated by imperial actors, a mode of being morally concerned among one’s peers.
Pages from the Concerned Photographer catalogue.
Thus, for example, Magnum/ICP photographers such as David Seymour or Robert Capa could depict the plunder of Palestine as the creation of a new state or world in which Jewish sovereignty could triumph, conflating the plight of the Palestinians with the difficulties encountered by the migrant Jews, who at that point were made guardians of the new sovereignty. Misled by the documentary protocols that they were using, and thus becoming implicated in what was misleading about them, acting as if lived worlds are reducible to their real-estate components and nation-building campaigns, these photographers dismiss the plight of the indigenous population as well as the destruction of the common. 1 Differences between situations were blurred in such a way that perpetrators could be depicted as victims or law enforcers even though they were responsible for the destruction of the existing world and the plight of others.
Burt Glinn, photos taken in 1956 of Palestinians persecuted by the State of Israel.
These three photos taken by Burt Glinn in 1956 in the same place—destroyed Palestine, the newly declared state of Israel—and shown last year in Paris were displayed only with their minimalist original caption “Palestinian Prisoners.” Both the display and the captions take the imperial narrative for granted and assume that there is no harm in reiterating it nor any need to question the authority of those who acquired their imperial rights and sovereignty against the Palestinians, whom they expelled from their homes. These Palestinians are not “prisoners.” In the photos taken in 1956 in Gaza, they are rather brutalized, either as they attempt to return to their homes or when the Israeli occupying forces invade their homes. Either way, they were expelled from their homeland, Palestine, six years earlier, and when they insisted on their right to return to their homes, they were forced to embody imperial categories such as “refugee” or “infiltrator,” which endow modern citizenship with a set of imperial rights to keep them in this role. They were made into the unacknowledged participants in such photographs: those whose spaces have been invaded through the exercise of imperial rights so that their images can continue to circulate, tagged with imperial categories that photographers often use as if they were spokespersons of imperial regimes. Contrary to certain rights that people enjoy within their communities, imperial rights do not emanate from the community in which people are members, on behalf of their membership, or for the sake of a shared world. On the contrary, such rights are derived from the invasion of others’ communities and the destruction of the worlds in which those others enjoy certain rights. Not surprisingly, these imperially unrecognized subjects reject the meaning of photographs as private property subject to copyright.
Palestine Remembered, http://www.palestineremembered.com/OldNewPictures.html.
Thus, on the website Palestine Remembered, for example, Palestinians insist on the rights they have in these photographs, on their being part of the common, and by using them without permission, they challenge the idea of photographs as objects reducible to private property and owned exclusively. The photographer is not the one who expelled them, but as long as his permission to photograph is conditioned by those who did expel them and by the regime they established, his right is not universal but imperial.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]